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Crispin Hellion Glover at the Burton by DC-in-Detroit

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Crispin Glover
The Burton Theatre, Detroit
Sunday, 12 December, 2010

This is a show that's almost impossible to recap. "How was that Crispin Glover performance?" "It was... weird." That's the retelling right there. And then the person who asked about it will usually say, "Oh, yeah, that's what I thought."

Glover did a full three-day weekend at the Burton Theatre last week, to present two different slide shows and two different movies. The first slide show is one he's been doing since the 90s, and the first movie – What Is It? – was completed several years ago. I saw neither of those. Instead, I trekked down Sunday night for Slide Show Part 2 and part 2 of the It Trilogy, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

Sunday, you may remember, we got some snow. Freeways were closing, trees were toppling, The Metrodome collapsed, for crissake. Chaos reigned. But oh, this is Detroit. Wake me up when there's another earthquake (even then, if it's less than a 4, don't bother). I double-checked anyway, mostly because I had a friend driving over from the east side, and I'd have felt like a dick if she got all the way to my house and I told her we were just going to stay in and watch "Desperate Housewives." But the show was to go on. This also gave me a good chance to test out the almost-certainly over-anticipated AWD on the tank I just bought. Spoiler alert! We survived the trip downtown.

This was my first time at the Burton, although I've been intending to go for a while. (They have a lot of interesting programming.) I was very happy to find that they have on-site guarded parking, yay! I don't know if I'd have been able to deal with not only trying to street park, but trying to walk anywhere on a 10°F Sunday (still weakened from the Amino Acids show the night before). Because of the shitstorm, we were running a little close to the 8pm showtime, so after we'd scurried around the back way, we went straight for the auditorium – no time to explore. There's some deeply-ingrained naughtiness about wandering around a school building at night, even as an adult, that is irresistible. So, next time, for sure.

The 100ish-seat auditorium was warm and comfortable, and nearly full by the time we got there, which was a relief; although the idea of a 10:1 audience:Crispin ratio was appealing, I really did hope everyone would be able to make it out. By 8.20, everyone was settled in, and the man himself took to the front of the room. Maybe it was the lighting, maybe it was the deal with the devil, but Crispin Glover looks very much the same to me today as he has for the past 2+ decades. And if you think about him outside of the (sometimes painfully) quirky characters he tends to, uh, "play," he's quite strikingly handsome. His personal style underlines his very fine features, in a natty black 3-piece, white shirt and skinny black tie. And that hair... just the floppy hair that you expect.

The first part of what turned out to be a rather long evening, was what Glover refers to as "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show Part 2." "Slide show" sells it short. What it is is Glover doing dramatic readings from art books he's created. It's performance art, and was really quite fascinating. The books are not narratives; they aren't stories so much as freeform poetry. Presenting the readings with images and illustrations from the book on the movie screen behind him is the only way this could have made any sense – to the extent it ever did – as the words without the visuals would be nonsense, and vice versa.

This is an example of another performance Glover gave of one of the books he read for us that night, but what I find interesting here is that he delivered to us in a completely different way. Accordingly, our audience reacted quite differently. In this video, Glover reads laughingly. Sunday, he was all intensity. All of those little physical quirks and the extremes of enunciation that you're accustomed to seeing in him were in full bloom, as he sometimes stomped across the stage or grandly gestured toward some image on the screen, never breaking from his recitation. In the video, the audience reacts with him, laughing at images of children with apparent birth defects. In our room, his grand earnestness mostly held us motionless and transfixed.

It was genuinely something to behold.

My friend and I had parked it in the last two seats at audience left, in the second row. We wound up with two of the only empty seats in the house directly in front of us, which turned out to be perfection, as Glover stood at the left-hand corner of the stage for his entire reading. Within minutes, I found myself with my head cocked slightly to the right, which is apparently the signal that I'm really into whatever is going on in front of me. And although I was undoubtably baffled at times – and more than once had to stifle confused/uncomfortable laughter – he never once lost me. Or, I'd wager, anyone else in the room.

After the hour-long performance, we shifted gears for the movie. And oh, was it ever a change. This is where the recap gets more... difficult.

It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. is a fantasy story. It's difficult to describe much more about it, beyond the synopsis.

A few minutes into the movie, struggling valiantly to understand the speech of wheelchair-bound writer/leading man Steven C. Stewart, my friend said, "This seems... exploitive." And that's exactly the natural response of any thinking/feeling person in the first several minutes of the movie. Once into the pacing of the story, though, it feels more natural and – somehow – starts to make more sense. Once the viewer realizes that the story was written by that man himself, a man with severe cerebral palsy but of normal intelligence, one is almost forced to look at it differently. Stewart wasn't telling his story, but he was telling his own story.

It's an undeniably weird movie, with a weird backstory, made by gloriously weird people, but the next day, once the story distills itself, you may feel differently about it. Doubly-true if you have the advantage of hearing Glover himself talking about making the film, and working with Stewart. It was never so much about breaking taboos and parading the physically different. It was more about putting those same situations and people so fully in your line of sight, you forget that's what you're looking at.

That said, the 74-minute long movie was exhausting to watch. I don't know about anyone else, but I could not stop straining to understand what Stewart was saying. It was very much like listening to someone speak an unfamiliar language, where you still recognize a few scattered words, your brain desperately trying to fill in the gaps. There were also some... adult sequences that made the crowd a bit squirmy. Which, again, I think was a great thing. It's far too easy to think of sex and sexuality as the exclusive province of the young and able-bodied. Those who are otherwise – the differently-abled, the elderly, mutants of all stripes – are still doin' it, thank dog. And it's belittling and insulting for us to pretend they aren't.

At the film's end, Glover came into the room with "any questions?" which made us all laugh because... oh so many questions! Like, for instance, what the hell? What followed, though, was not so much "what the hell?" as a 90-minute advanced film theory seminar in the form of a Q&A. Or a Q&Ramble. Or maybe a Q&A-B-and-C. Glover, eccentric as he is, is also clearly a thinker. From the moment he rejoined us, I could tell that his mind was racing so fast, his mouth was having trouble keeping up with it. He would struggle for a term, or meander through tangent after tangent. After an hour and a half, I think he'd managed to answer only 4-5 questions, which I'm not sure he actually answered at all.

It was a little difficult to sit through, after having already been in my seat for several hours at that point. This surprised me; I really thought the post-show Q&A was going to be the highlight of the evening. Instead, the highlight, for me, was the three-minute reading of "Land of Sunshine," which was forcefully belted out entirely in German. I don't know German; I don't know the content of the story, and wouldn't really want to. I figure, if that is the thing I understand the least from this somewhat surrealistic night, I'm doing pretty damn well.

Crispin Hellion Glover's books are available for purchase here.
For more on the Burton Theatre, please visit their website.