At an early June event in Duluth, Kat Mandeville walked out of a screening of Crispin Glover’s latest film, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! Outraged as much by the fact of the film’s screening as she was its provocative content, she wrote a letter in response and sent it around to me at mnartists.org, the daily newspaper, a Duluth-area arts website.
The movie was part of a headline event at the Duluth/Superior Film Festival, an exercise in masturbatory weirdness that included “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow,” featuring a one-hour dramatic narration-plus-slideshow projection conducted by the man himself, showcasing eight different re-purposed books he’s painstakingly annotated and illustrated with various flights of grotesque fantasy. By all accounts, Glover waxed on (cryptically, often incomprehensibly) for a while about the project and projected some pictures. Then they screened his new movie, a semi-autobiographical flick written by and starring Steven C. Stewart (a screenwriter who has severe cerebral palsy), directed by Glover in 2007. (This is the second in Glover’s “It” trilogy, which began with the twisted and surreal 2005 film, What Is It?)
It is Fine… is billed as a “psycho-sexual tale about a man with severe cerebral palsy and a fetish for girls with long hair. Part horror film, part exploitation picture, and part documentary of a man who cannot express his sexuality in the way he desires (due to his physical condition), this fantastical and often humorous tale is told completely from Stewart’s actual point of view – that of someone who has lived for years watching people do things he will never be able to do.” The character at the film’s center may be seriously disabled, but he’s by no means incapacitated. Indeed, he is a ladykiller in every sense of the word: the film follows episodes of his seduction and subsequent savaging of the various (silver screen–ready) women he encounters.
Violation, subjugation, torture – the film revels in sexual violence, degradation, and pain. Its subject matter is gleefully indecent, expressly made to transgress the bounds of appropriateness, intended as an assault on both viewers’ sensibilities and the Hollywood establishment. In interviews about his films, Glover presents himself as a fearless truth-teller, showing us what the corporate studio process wouldn’t dare. He says he’s putting taboo content front and center, thereby forcing us to contend with the full measure of our shared ugliness and hypocrisy; that he’s just showing us real human experience, unvarnished by wishful thinking or pretty dissembling, as seen through the lens of those typically invisible to popular culture (e.g. people with developmental and physical disabilities). The screenwriter/lead actor died shortly after making the film, but Glover’s quoted as saying he was similarly motivated, that Stewart “wanted to show that handicapped people are human, sexual and can be horrible.”
“Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow” is currently touring the country. In addition to the Duluth film festival, this month Glover stopped in Minneapolis’ Heights Theatre; he’s soon making stops in Museum of Arts and Design and IFC in New York City; Littleton, Colorado; Kansas, City, Missouri.
Engage or Boycott?
Back to our letter-writer: So, Kat Mandeville, not quite sure what she was in for, turned out to see Glover’s event in Duluth’s Zinema. She gleaned from the prefatory remarks what was in store and walked out before the screening began. In emails we’ve exchanged since then, Mandeville has indicated she felt she’d be colluding in the exploitation, part of the problem, if she’d stayed to attend the movie and talk-back that followed — even if she watched in protest and spoke up to challenge the film and audience afterward. Finding entertainment in work that exalts “rape culture” in this way, she says, including public screenings in institutionally upright venues and treating those works as merely provocative, amounts to a kind of “cannibalism.” We’re feeding off pain and hate and violence perpetrated against our sisters, wives, daughters and mothers, she argues. The problem’s a pervasive one, harmful even when it’s dressed up as “art” and presented as a provocative amusement – and when we stay to watch, we’re not just voyeurs on real pain, we’re dishonest about our part in perpetuating it.
Her published response to the Duluth iteration of “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow” and screening, in full:
In the wake of the screening of Crispin Glover’s film, It is Fine! Everything is Fine, as part of the Duluth/Superior Film Festival last weekend — a film that romanticizes a man’s explicit sexual fantasies of the rape and torture of women — I have questions for progressive Duluthians who were there and for our community as a whole.
Does one man’s pain with cerebral palsy and his being trapped in the prison of his own body eclipse the pain of female identity trapped in the misogynist-sadist fantasy of a romanticized snuff film? Is this an implicit argument the film is making? In the end, isn’t the handicapped man’s subjective experience of sexuality not so different from the increasing demand for glamorized rape and torture of women shown in social media: that of women as soulless mannequins used for sexual exploitation and the destruction of women for pleasure?
Men who were in the audience: how often can you watch rape and torture of women before it alters the way you think about women? The way you look at them? The way you fantasize about them? The way you touch them?
Women in the audience: who among you has experienced sexualized hate crimes or know a woman who has? And did you think of yourself and of these women during the film?
Fathers of daughters in the audience: how do you justify to your daughter supporting a film that fantasizes the same kind of rape and exploitation she has a one-in-three chance of experiencing herself?
And why was none of this discussed at the talk-back after the film? Yes, Glover only screens the film where he can answer questions in person, but how effective is that if the audience is too star-struck and approval-seeking to ask controversial questions?
If Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King were female, what would they think of Glover’s film and the progressive members of Duluth who lined up to support it? Or of the connection between films like Glover’s and the Steubenville high school rape case, in which boys dragged around an intoxicated, unconscious peer, stripped her and sexually assaulted her for the viewing pleasure of social media? Is our nation so desensitized to rape and torture that half of us are unclear how we should react? Would Malcolm X and Dr. King see Duluth celebrating a film like Glover’s as a community engaged in cannibalism? Would they be outraged?
Then why aren’t we?
In the talk-back, Glover remarked that films using propaganda upset him. Why was it not pointed out that 70 minutes of torture and rape romanticized in his film was, indeed, propaganda? Was it so obvious it could be dismissed with the commonly used sentiment of, “Yes, exploiting women is wrong; now move over a little, you’re blocking my view of it”? Or was it because propaganda works and our esteem for women has sunk so low that when it’s depicted on the big screen we don’t see women oppressed by hatred; we see a singular man oppressed by pain?
Do we realize how similar this is to the unconscious hate-propaganda used throughout history to perpetuate hatred of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals? That oppression and exploitation of women is among the most epic struggles, and that progress is sabotaged when a community that should know better takes part in the entertainment of rape and torture? Do we realize how normalized rape and torture has become that we can watch 70 minutes of it being romanticized without impulse to object or critique?
And where was I, you ask? Upon hearing the film’s description, I walked out before it started. Later I listened to an account of the talk-back. And as it turns out, one doesn’t have to wallow through an entire film to discern what it’s about and critique what it’s doing. Looking over the audience as we took our seats in the theater before Glover’s film, I had a feeling of dread I would be the only one to speak-up about the dehumanizing of women, and if I left, I knew no one would start that dialogue. To be sitting in a theater of artists and musicians (among others) who consider themselves elevated; feminist; radical; speakers of the oppressed, and realize none of them are going to challenge the pseudo-celebrity was a sick feeling indeed. To find out later I was entirely right, was even worse.
But despite leaving, I’m still guilty, like those who attended and didn’t speak up. I’m guilty of tolerating what shouldn’t be tolerated. I should’ve said something in the theater before I left, something like, “What are we celebrating by watching a film like this? What does this mean about the culture we’re willing to become?” Instead I simply left. And for that I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of Duluth and the naïveté that filled the Zinema seats last Saturday night. And I’m ashamed of the hypocrisy that applauded afterward.
What will it take for the average person (let alone the well-educated person) to realize it isn’t enough to like women or to love them? We must fight against the hatred directly, or change will not be possible. And to do this, we all must learn to recognize our culture’s unconscious hatred of women. Glover’s film was an opportunity to do so — an opportunity that was squandered.
My commentary and your responses can give us another chance to have the conversation. Duluth, how do you answer?
Kat Mandeville of Duluth graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with an undergraduate degree in theater. She has worked in television and film in Los Angeles, where she witnessed the exploitation of women firsthand. In the summers she studies philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.
This commentary was first published in the Opinion section of the Duluth News Tribune, 6/8/13 and reprinted on Perfect Duluth Day, 6/9/13. It is reproduced here with permission. Incidentally, there is a lively ongoing conversation in the comments section of PDD — worth a read if you’re interested.
So, What Do You Think?
When does work cross the line from provocation to obscenity? What’s your reaction to this and other “offensive” art, and organizations which house and promote it? If work offends you, what’s the best course of action: engagement or boycott? If you’d choose the former, what sort of community conversation can/should come out of displays of work that consciously offends the audience? At what point does titillation become outright exploitation? Is it okay to find such entertaining? What about other “offensive” art: Mapplethorpe, Piss Christ, John Ahearn’s South Bronx sculptures, misogynistic hip hop? At what point does outrage-in-action have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and meaningful public discourse about thorny issues and controversial themes?
Have any of you seen Glover’s films? What did you think of them – and the response of the audience around you?