Film & TV

5 Films: Crispin Glover Searches for the Surreal in His Out There Oeuvre

Film & TV

5 Films: Crispin Glover Searches for the Surreal in His Out There Oeuvre


First, a note from Crispin Glover on Surrealism: “Surrealism is something that’s really important to me. When I say ‘Surrealism’ or the ‘Surrealists,’ I mean Surrealism with a capital ‘S,’ the artistic movement that was happening in Paris in the 1920s. The most important thing the Surrealists contributed to art was their use of Freud’s understanding of free association. The Freudian analyst would take notes and not say anything until the end of the session. Slowly, the analyst would then help the patient figure out, through free association, what was genuinely on their mind. Well, the Surrealists took out the ‘patient’ element, but kept the rest, using free association as an artistic form of expression to get into the inner subconscious. I think that Surrealism with a capital ‘S’ is done—it’s gone.”

Glover wrote, directed, funded, and starred in WHAT IS IT? (2005), an experimental film that tackles issues of race and prejudice. Its cast is primarily comprised of nonactors—nude porn stars in animal masks and people with Down syndrome—and a talking snail. To recoup the cost of its production, Glover has spent the past eight years screening the film around the world, accompanied by a question-and-answer session and a one-hour dramatic narration of his eight illustrated books. According to Glover, he’s “nowhere near finished.”

“My movies were made to be theatrical experiences, particularly What Is It?, which deals with taboo. If somebody watches it on a computer, it doesn’t have the same effect. You really can’t have taboo if there’s only one individual in the world—you need culture and people with different points of view. You have to have one person sitting at one end of the aisle laughing, and another person at the other end of the aisle looking down on them, thinking, ‘What is wrong with them?’ You need audience members to sit back in their chairs and think to themselves, ‘Is this right what I’m watching? Is it wrong? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have done this? What is it?’”

Screen shot 2013-01-08 at 12.16.16 PM
While Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage) flee from Lula’s vindictive mother in David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART (1990), Lula tells the story of her cousin Dell (Glover), a strange man who put cockroaches in his underwear.

“When I got my driver’s license, I drove to the theater and saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead [1977]. And then I went back again and again. I must have seen it theatrically at least 12 times, so it meant a lot to work on Wild at Heart. Lynch is the most specific director I’ve ever worked with, and I mean that in a very good way. I just have one line in the film—I say, ‘I’m making my lunch!’—but it was very specifically directed, down to the millisecond. He has an understanding of the inner psyche, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him talk about Surrealism. If you see him interviewed, he doesn’t give out a lot of information. The audience experience is spoiled if the director says, after the fact, ‘This meant this and that meant that.’ I don’t know if Lynch would call it Surrealist. Werner Herzog calls it the ‘ecstatic truth.’”

Glover’s inept bellhop gets his arm cut off by a snowplow in HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010), a comedy about, yes, a malfunctioning hot tub that facilitates time travel.

“You can have a completely corporate, standardly acceptable film that still allows for the mind to go into a territory of questioning and thoughtfulness, and into the inner psyche, which is positive. Populist films can have elements that the Surrealists defined as Surrealism. That kind of thought has been around since the beginning of thought itself. It’s very good that the word ‘Surrealism’ has come to be a part of the common vernacular because it means that it’s truly had deep influence on the culture. But maybe the Surrealists would think it’s a failure that this is all that’s happened—that there isn’t a country somewhere called the Surrealist State of Whatever.”

In WILLARD (2003), Glover plays the outcast title character who befriends a rat named Socrates. When Socrates is murdered, Willard sets out to avenge his death with the help of a warlord rat named Ben.

Willard is a psychological terror film with an interesting objective correlative where rats represent different elements of the subconscious. I, of course, do not know what the classical Surrealists would have made of it. In his autobiography [My Last Sigh, 1982], Luis Buñuel wrote about a screenplay that centered on a living, disembodied hand, which may have influenced Robert Florey’s The Beast with Five Fingers or other later films that involved living, disembodied hands.”


As the Knave of Hearts in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010), a riotous 3-D take on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 fantasy novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Glover delivers delicious gobbledygook like, “Alice has escaped. On the Bandersnatch. With the Vorpal Sword.”

“Although it predates Surrealism by a long time, Carroll’s book certainly went into the realm of an unusual, dreamlike subconscious. I’m not aware of what the Surrealists thought about the book, but the realm of the subconscious was certainly an integral part of their work. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There have been adapted so many times in film. They’re certainly worth reading.”


Descend into the Surreal. The Surreal Issue, now in The Bullett Shop!