In directing the taboo-themed It trilogy Crispin Hellion Glover broke away from his iconic role as George McFly in blockbuster Back to the Future (1985). In What is it? (2005) Glover’s insistence that he is not “McFly” but an “auteur” functions as an indicator that they are somehow defined specifically by a rejection of this character and what he represents. Glover’s resulting cinema marks itself therefore as the cinema of reaction. His career born in the 1980s during the Reagan era, Glover’s recent works fight to reject the social and economic conservatism prevalent in films of its time. Coined Reaganite Entertainment, the ethos behind these films remains present in contemporary cinema. In this paper, four main foundations of Reaganite entertainment will be discussed: their big-budget escapism; distinct lack of room for questioning; efficiency in eliciting an expected audience response; and encouraging the viewer’s absorption in the diegesis. Whilst George McFly’s journey is symbolic of Reaganite Entertainment, Glover’s recent films reject these principles. His films are not built on economic interest, rather revel in their own inefficiency to encourage the viewers to question what they are watching, whilst not allowing them an easy route to become absorbed in the film. However, that these films remain funded by Glover’s continuing acting career in blockbuster films makes them all ultimately directly reactionary, as Glover himself remains subject to the gravitational pull of the iconic and deeply symbolic McFly, the two figures dialectically bound. As such, an examination of both Glover and his films makes for an interesting and complex case study of the cinema of reaction.
It’s difficult to categorise the debut directorial feature from eccentric Hollywood star Crispin Hellion Glover, and this is by design. Enigmatically entitled What is it? (2005), the film is akin to a Kenneth Anger fever-dream, wherein characters – most of whom are played by actors with Down syndrome – conduct opaque rituals to a soundtrack equal parts Béla Bartók and Charles Manson. Glover himself appears as the despotic ruler of a swampy, fantastical netherworld. Holding court over a handful of subjects early in the film, he inquires, “What do you call me?” One boy (Rickey Wittman) mischievously offers, “McFly?” Garbed in a huge fur coat, and with his hair long, Glover’s aloof character is the antithesis of timid George McFly, whom the actor played in Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future (hereafter BTTF). The comedy of this playfully referential moment quickly sours when the boy is rebuked with a sharp “No!” This stern disavowal seems to issue from Glover himself (rather than his character), as if frustrated by the intrusion of a previous role. He demands to be acknowledged as his current incarnation, which, he icily corrects his followers, is “auteur”. This response again plays on the double identity of the onscreen figure as both the film’s tyrannical antagonist (billed as “Dueling Demi-God Auteur”) and its real-life director. In addressing Glover by the name of one of his most iconic roles, the boy punctures the filmic world, seeking to incite a nostalgic buzz amongst audience members. In reprimanding him, Glover is really reprimanding his viewers for their desire to equate him with the fictional McFly.
Glover’s insistence that he is not “McFly” but an “auteur” functions as both a comic inflation of his own career aspirations and an indicator that they are somehow defined specifically by a rejection of this character – or rather, what he represents. This exchange, indicative of the film’s status as a defiant gesture on Glover’s part, dramatises the conflict at the heart of What is it? To understand the deeper resonances of this interchange, and the implications they hold for interpretation of Glover’s directorial work, we must go back to the eighties, when Glover and McFly first intersected.
Back to the Eighties
The 1980s marked a new era of social and economic conservatism in the United States, guided by Ronald Reagan.1 The decade’s cultural climate had a distinct 1950s flavour: a period that, in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, took on a pre-lapsarian dimension, the image of happy, nuclear families and a thriving economy enshrined in collective memory. Hollywood mirrored this neo-conservative bent, producing films that championed the self-made man and American exceptionalism. Aesthetics shifted alongside ideology: studios wanted high-concept blockbusters after the runaway success of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977). Writing at the time, Andrew Britton coined the term “Reaganite entertainment” as shorthand for the wave of big-budget escapist fare he saw sweeping Hollywood.2 For Britton, the movie star president symbolised the politics and policies that fostered the rise of a new industry model, although he felt that his election was a symptom rather than cause of the nation’s (and Hollywood’s) conservative turn.3
Director-producers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Hughes were responsible for a significant swathe of the decade’s most popular – and most reactionary – films.4 Spielberg, a long-time patron of Zemeckis, was the executive producer of BTTF, which was the highest grossing film of 1985, and in many ways the text nonpareil of its era. At first glance, the film is a hybrid of generic elements borrowed from the dominant trinity: a fusion of Lucas’ penchant for science fiction, Hughes’ signature coming-of-age tale, and Spielberg’s taste for adventure and family values with Zemeckis’ own flair for slapstick. On closer inspection, BTTF becomes a mirror for the latent anxieties and values of the day. Transporting the protagonist (and viewers) back to the 1950s, it affirms strictly heteronormative gender roles, the joys of materialism, and (in a comical foreshadowing of the Iran-Contra scandal) bargaining with terrorists. The film’s message is that one man can re-write history and thereby create a future in his own favour, or, as Reagan famously affirmed, that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”5 BTTF is, as Christopher Justice writes, “a potent cultural artifact” which embodies “the nostalgic, re-inventive, ironic, and revisionist zeitgeist that dominated Reagan’s conservative decade.”6
That Glover’s Hollywood break came in a film that epitomises Reaganism seems incongruous with his longstanding reputation as a cult favourite, famed for traversing “artistic extremes”.7 Certainly, landing the role of Marty McFly’s bumbling father George was a propitious achievement for the 20-year-old actor, and the film’s success and enduring appeal have elevated Glover’s McFly to the status of a pop culture icon. Yet the contrarian attitude Glover displays toward this role in What is it? reaches back to the production of Zemeckis’ film, where tensions between the two resulted in Glover not taking part in the sequels, and ultimately suing Spielberg.8 At the crux of the initial dispute was a question of ideology: Glover, a self-professed “young idealist,”9 felt that the film’s conclusion, wherein the McFlys derive financial rewards from Marty’s meddling in the past, was needlessly materialistic. In Glover’s account of his attempt to raise this issue with the director, Zemeckis is unsympathetic:
Zemeckis got really mad at me, and he said, ‘Crispin, I like weird movies too … I even made one once (Used Cars, 1980). And you know what happened? I didn’t work for three years. And you know what, Crispin? I want to get rich. I want to get rich!’10
Thirty years on, Glover has forgiven11 but not forgotten – and his own “weird” films are a reaction to the filmmaking practices Zemeckis here personifies.
Glover’s directorial oeuvre currently consists of two films, both visions from the extreme fringes of society. What is it? centres on a young man who loses his house key, whose attempts to return home are repeatedly thwarted by “an hubristic, racist inner psyche”12 – Glover’s “auteur” character – and involve numerous snail deaths. The story’s action is divided into multiple, intersecting planes, according to the protagonist’s internal and external struggles. It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (2007, co-directed with David Brothers, hereafter It is Fine!) is a psychosexual murder mystery, penned by and starring the late Steven C. Stewart, a Salt Lake City disability rights advocate who had severe cerebral palsy. Like What is it?, It is Fine! also features fantastical worlds that function according to obscured rules – most notably, Stewart’s leading man Lothario speaks and is understood by his paramours, despite his dysarthria. A third film in the series, It is Mine, has been written but remains unproduced; when completed, it will round out the ‘It’ trilogy, wherein each film adopts “a perspective that is not necessarily an accepted point of view in mainstream society.”13
The films in the trilogy – made and unmade – are thematically linked by a bold exploration of taboo, conducted on both a conceptual and visual level.14 Glover claims this approach was motivated by his experience of the renewal of corporate control in Hollywood that took place under Reagan’s presidency,15 stating, “The … films I’ve made have been reactive.”16 Thus, his staged dismissal of the “McFly” moniker in What is it? represents a rejection not only of a specific role and film, but of “Reaganite entertainment,” as both a historical category, denoted roughly by the years of Reagan’s presidency, and a mode of production that still prevails: the transformations set in motion during the 1980s (products of changing social attitudes and policies such as media deregulation) continue to underpin an oligopolistic industry heavily focused on the blockbuster and its myriad franchising possibilities. His own work, in turn, constitutes a ‘cinema of reaction’, borne of the desire to call attention to (if not ameliorate) what he considers to be the ethical failures of filmmakers like Zemeckis.
Although What is it? would not be released until 20 years after BTTF, Glover’s career in the interim belies his “reactive” attitude: his involvement in Zemeckis’ film affected his choices as an actor long before he came to directing. “After Back to the Future made a lot of money,” he stated, “I felt an obligation to find material that psychologically reflected what my interests were.”17 Glover’s issue with Zemeckis was not the director’s desire to earn money in itself, but that he privileged “getting rich” over making “weird movies”. After having been burned by Used Cars, Zemeckis chose to engage in a form of self-censorship, consciously infusing BTTF with a pro-consumerist message that protected the interests of his employers. Post-BTTF, Glover became wary of being drawn into this kind of creative bind and as such made a point of relegating himself to the Hollywood fringe, appearing mostly in lower-budget and art-house fare.18
Glover’s appearance in McG’s Charlie’s Angels reboot (2000) marked a shift in his approach to acting. His decision to return to mainstream Hollywood after an absence of 15 years was not the result of a shift in ideology but rather priorities: “I have been able to divorce myself from the content of the films that I act in, and look at acting as a craft that I use to help other filmmakers,” he asserted. “With the money I am making … I can help to fund my own films that I am so truly passionate about.”19 Since 2000, Glover has embraced acting in corporate cinema20 as a means of acquiring the capital to independently produce his own films, which he privileges as fuller representations of his artistic goals. His desire for creative autonomy and individualism as a filmmaker does indeed resonate with the historical model of the “auteur” he envisions himself as in What is it?
That Glover’s films, which sit at the extreme end of independent cinema, are nevertheless indirectly funded by the studio system hints at the complexity of the image of mass entertainment put across in his own, avant-garde work. His simultaneous dependence on and rejection of corporate Hollywood is both financial and conceptual: his identification as a “reactive” artist situates his project as part of a negotiation between two opposed theories of filmmaking, from the “low cultural” commercial Hollywood feature to the “high cultural” art film. High and mass culture here reveal themselves to be, as Fredric Jameson argued, “objectively related and dialectically interdependent phenomena … twin and inseparable forms of the fission of aesthetic production under late capitalism.”21 In expounding his critical framework based on this principle, Jameson defines “high culture” as “modernism,” writing,
for modernism, the omnipresence of the commodity form determines a reactive stance, so that modernism conceives its formal vocation to be the resistance to commodity form, … to devise an aesthetic language incapable of offering commodity satisfaction.22
Taking a broad conception of modernism as “high cultural production contemporaneous with (mass culture),”23 it becomes possible to apply this rubric to Glover’s ‘cinema of reaction’: a project that takes as its “formal vocation” the resistance of Zemeckis’ mass cultural phenomenon and, by extension, the brand of entertainment it exemplifies.
“Asking Genuine Questions”
Glover’s turn away from acting and toward filmmaking as his primary creative medium is motivated by the deep-seated discomfort he continues to feel toward BTTF, and what it represents to him both personally (as a formative acting experience), and politically (as a metonym for the corporatisation of the film industry). He identifies the “central theme” of What is it? as
basically anything that is taboo has been cut out (of corporately funded films) … because … media organisations realized that if they continued to make movies that were causing people to ask questions, ultimately people would end up asking questions about … corporations …. I realised that there’s a very specific reason that in the ‘80s, … films stopped asking certain kinds of questions.24
His account is over-simplistic and almost conspiratorial, yet it taps in to the significant cultural change taking place in the United States as it moved from the 1970s into the 1980s.
This shift maps onto Glover’s personal narrative in a notable way: the “pro-militaristic, pro-materialism”25 subtexts that pervaded Hollywood’s output in the 1980s sharply contrasted his experience of film during his formative years. “I grew up going to see art-house films, films of the ‘60s and ‘70s – a period when there were films asking genuine questions,” recounts Glover. “When I started acting, I wondered where these films were.”26 This account is echoed by Robin Wood, who suggested that the dominant trait of America’s filmic output in the 1970s – the era of the radical New American Cinema – was “incoherence,”27 a reflection of a socially and politically turbulent time in which “the questioning of authority spread logically to a questioning of the entire social structure that validated it.”28 Both Wood and Glover focus on the act of questioning as the central feature of this era and indicator of its progressive ethos. Hollywood of the 1980s, by contrast, is characterised by “reassurance,”29 an attitude that effectively denies the need for questions.
Wood draws on the work of Britton, who narrativised this transformation in Hollywood as its descent into a Frankfurt School nightmare. Britton felt that the appeal and, critically, the danger of Reaganite entertainment derived from the optimism of its neo-conservative ideology, which baited its audience’s aspirations with gratuitous displays of wish fulfillment. “The notion of entertainment,” he asserted, “corresponds to film’s commodity form: to present something as entertainment is to define it as a commodity to be consumed rather than as a text to be read.”30 The entertainment value of these films lures viewers in whilst effectively masking their pedagogical potency; their overt levity rendering them impervious to criticism. Britton summarises the power of entertainment thus: “We are not told not to think, but we are told, over and over again, that there is nothing here to think about”31 – that there is no need to ask questions.
Contrary to the reassurance that Britton and Wood find in Reaganite entertainment, Glover’s trilogy is founded on the bipartite notion that cultural progress requires texts to invite questions, and, equally, readers to ask questions. Consider the title of his first film: What is it? In presenting itself as an unidentified object, the film instills an inquisitive attitude in (potential) spectators prior even to the act of viewing it – the question-as-title ensuring people enter into the experience to be challenged rather than ‘reassured’. Glover’s commitment to the ethos of the ‘cinema of reaction’ is also manifest in the unique and extremely labour intensive way in which he exhibits his films: neither What is it? nor It is Fine! are freely accessible to the public. They can only be seen when Glover goes on tour, screening them over the course of two night stints at art-house and repertory theatres internationally. Each film is preceded by a slideshow and performance of his experimental prose, and succeeded by an extensive Q&A and a book signing. Glover distributes his work in this manner partly in deference to their extreme subject matter, but also because it gives him a platform to make explicit his views on the importance of asking “genuine questions,” and to offer viewers an opportunity to do so.
“Right on Cue”
Between the amount of travel involved on Glover’s part, and the duration of what is an intense evening’s programming for both him and the audience, the most striking feature of this distribution model is its inefficiency – a feature which takes on a political dimension when considered alongside the Reaganite model. Wood casts efficiency as a hallmark of Reaganite entertainment in terms of its storytelling techniques. Taking the original Star Wars films as examples, he writes, “I had better confess … that I enjoy (them) well enough: I get moderately excited, laugh a bit, even brush back a tear at the happy endings, all right on cue: they work, they are extremely efficient.”32 Wood’s confession situates his enjoyment of the trilogy as a result of its “efficiency,” or rather, its emotionally manipulative quality. BTTF can be considered similarly “efficient”: we rejoice when Marty finally returns to 1985 to find that his circumstances – both familial and financial – have improved. Marty is a ‘good guy’, and wealth is the natural correlative of his newfound happiness. We rejoice again when we see that bully Biff has been reduced to the family’s groveling mechanic – as the ‘bad guy’, Biff deserves to be punished. The film leaves no doubt that this resolution reflects the desired and ‘natural’ order of things. In BTTF, as in many other films of its time, this simplistic morality guides viewers’ interpretations in an “extremely efficient” manner.
Wood’s notion of the “efficient” text can be fruitfully expanded: Reaganite entertainment in the historical sense is characterised by the efficiency not just of its narrative modes, but also the channels through which it was distributed. Technological advances made during the 1980s (in tandem with Reagan’s extensive media deregulation program) affected film distribution in two key ways. Firstly, home video was at the peak of its popularity as the affordability of VCRs increased.33 The reductions in a film’s audiovisual quality and screen size were offset by the economy and convenience of videotape – not to mention its ability to satisfy the urge to possess a cherished film. Secondly, despite the growth in the home entertainment market, the 1980s also saw a boom in multiplex construction.34 The proliferation of multiscreen theatres meant that blockbusters could open on more screens nationwide than ever before: an attractive prospect to studio executives who saw strong opening weekend box office returns as critical to the success of a film’s run.35 These advances represented a dramatic expansion and diversification of the potential film-viewing market.
Glover’s distribution model is, by contrast, spectacularly inefficient,36 not least because it drastically restricts his potential audience, which seems antithetical to the unique mass potential of film. He cites vaudeville as inspiration for his episodic, multi-media shows.37 In vaudeville’s heyday – the late 19th to early 20th century – the template of a touring variety show was a practical one. A century on, however, this model is unfashionable and anachronistic, superseded by far more streamlined forms of distribution. It also seems distinctly impractical for a jobbing Hollywood actor and burgeoning director such as Glover to tour personally with his films, and yet he has done for over a decade. The event he stages is furthermore patently too long for the attention spans of all but the most dedicated: collectively, the performance, film, and Q&A take almost four hours, and the book signing generally takes at least a couple more.38 Both Glover and the audience are visibly exhausted by the night’s end. The excessive qualities of Glover’s distribution model seem so pronounced as to be a deliberate statement; an assertion of the value of the labour involved in difficult and perplexing experiences. This is not to imply that he is spruiking an anti-pleasure philosophy, but rather an awareness of something like the distinction Wood draws between the “mindless and automatic pleasure” of Star Wars, and “the finer pleasures … we have to work for.”39
This message is carried over into Glover’s films themselves: What is it? reeks of inscrutable symbolism, with snails salted for unclear reasons, naked women with elephant and monkey masks crawling around a murky set, and a blackfaced minstrel dancing to an eerie Romanian folk melody. Although there is an apparently simple plot that binds these diverse and troubling images together, that their presence is not clearly explained leaves the viewer unsure of the auteur’s intentions – what they are meant to feel. Although It is Fine! does away with much of the absurdism of What is it?, the intended emotional affect remains obscured: the plot revolves around Stewart’s character, Paul Baker, who seduces a number of women only to murder them. The graphic sexuality in the film is unsettling, partly because of the collective viewing Glover’s distribution model requires, but primarily because Stewart’s palsied body does not match with those typically permitted sexual expression in the mainstream media. Although Stewart’s intention in writing the script was to respond to the ways in which disabled people are denied their humanity (that is, the media’s tendency to infantilise the disabled, presenting them as benignly asexual), the extreme depictions of sex and violence in Glover’s resultant film leaves viewers unsure if it is a cautionary or triumphant tale.
The absence of clear channels of identification that the spectator can use to navigate the text is Glover’s answer to the Hollywood standard, wherein
if there’s something that’s going to be considered a ‘bad’ thing within (a) film, … a corporately funded and distributed filmmaker must point to that thing so the audience understands that the filmmaker feels it’s evil. And that’s the way that the audience must feel about that thing.40
Speaking to a similar point, Britton argues, “a work … of entertainment never asks us to feel anything without sending up a signal that tells us the species of feeling involved and without congratulating us for recognising the signal.”41 There is no room for equivocation about directorial intentions in this model of filmmaking, and indeed understanding these intentions is critical to accessing the pleasure of the films themselves. Conversely, the penalties for failing to react on cue are dire: “to respond inappropriately,” writes Britton, “is to find oneself excluded from the human community.”42
Glover’s films play on our need to respond appropriately, and his distribution model is designed specifically to produce and highlight a variety of reactions rather than unify them. The trilogy’s broad theme of taboo, that “gray area … not clearly defined by the moral codes within the culture,”43 is of course generally something that makes people uncomfortable; in a public venue, the pressures of appearing to express the ‘correct’ response are far greater than in a private space, and as such there can be palpable tension at Glover’s screenings as viewers process the extreme images onscreen. This is his intention:
If someone is laughing at one end of the row of seats, someone may look … at the person who is laughing and think to themselves, ‘What is wrong with that person?’ … Group situations illustrate very clearly … what is taboo.44
Each spectator wants to be given an invitation by the auteur to laugh; Glover’s refusal to mark his creation in this way works to expose this very impulse.
The mode of exhibition Glover has crafted becomes central to each viewer’s experience of the films due to the way in which it works in tandem with the trilogy’s theme. Each screening has a different dynamic, as shaped by the degree of receptivity individuals brings to the experience, as well as the atmosphere generated by a particular audience. An anecdote at this point might illustrate the dynamism of the event: having attended numerous screenings of both films, I can assert that What is it? invokes more laughter than It is Fine!, for a number of reasons.45 However, at a screening of It is Fine! in Houston, Texas,46 as Stewart’s character Paul delivered his opening lines in his dysarthric mode of speech, two women close to the front of the theatre started laughing, their boisterous enjoyment (confusion? fear?) piercing the uncomfortable silence. They persisted as the film progressed, oblivious to their own indiscretion – and before long, others joined them.
An unprecedented (in my experience) amount of laughter rippled across the room intermittently throughout the film – although, to be clear, the ambiance in the theatre was still far from unified, and I’m sure many present did wonder (as I admittedly did initially), ‘What is wrong with those people?’ The point is not to condemn or praise these women, but merely to show the power that they inadvertently exercised over the atmosphere of the entire evening, because of the particular coping mechanism they chose in response to a bewildering experience. Their unashamed laughter acted as an invitation to give in to our collective wish to be “included in the human community” through sharing an emotive comportment – and some were glad to accept. Given a different collection of spectators, this act of levity could have been met with silence, effectively convicting the women of having transgressed cultural boundaries. Again, this is not to assert that the film is not ‘meant’ to be laughed at, but rather that it forces viewers to consider their reliance on the guidance of a directorial hand.
The “Interminable Solipsism” of Entertainment
The moral ambiguities that underpin both films invite the questions that Glover is so determined to generate precisely because they cultivate a sense of “incoherence”. Viewers find themselves prevented from easily categorising the symbols onscreen, perhaps inviting a distrust of Glover as author/auteur. In terms of transporting the audience on an emotional journey and creating a product that ‘entertains’, the “stimulus-response”47 model favoured by purveyors of Reaganite entertainment is undeniably more efficient than Glover’s ‘cinema of reaction’. Wood’s identification of this efficiency, however, carries a clear pejorative inflection that is mirrored in Glover’s own commitment to a striking inefficiency, in both his preferred modes of storytelling and film distribution. The difference between these two approaches in terms of impact upon the spectator can be framed as a question of directionality: Reaganite entertainment acts as a centripetal force, encouraging the viewer’s absorption in the diegesis: its “ritualised repetitiveness” complementing “its delirious, self-celebrating self-reference – it’s interminable solipsism.”48
In the BTTF franchise, this solipsism is striking: a postmodern mix of self-referentiality and cross-promotional gags form the fabric of its plot. Zemeckis’ trilogy, which turns on the recurrence of certain scenes, superficially altered,49 is “an inexhaustible game of spot-the-reference.”50 Winks towards mass cultural products pervade the catalogue of Reaganite entertainment as they do BTTF, inviting the viewer to feel the thrill of being in on the joke. Glover’s films, by contrast, are decidedly centrifugal forces, orienting the viewer outwards, reaching past the diegesis for points of reference that might help them ascribe meaning to the heterogeneous assemblage of symbols onscreen. That the backbone of the trilogy is formed by theme rather than narrative is furthermore significant, constituting a revisionist take on the typical film franchise. The proliferation of sequels in the 1980s generally transported a stable set of characters between scenarios that – if not constituent parts of some larger arc – at least developed from a similar premise as the franchise’s ur-film. What is it? and It is Fine!, by contrast, adopt different narrative modes and entirely different casts and characters.51 Glover sidesteps the “interminable solipsism” of the franchising endemic to the 1980s by privileging a more lyrical interpretation of the format.
Returning now to the comic insouciance of the boy who deigns to call Glover “McFly”: this light-hearted moment evokes in spectators the gratifying feeling of ‘getting it’. Yet Glover curtails the viewer’s pleasurable recognition with a stern “No,” the staged rebuke signalling his refusal to participate in the empty game of self-reflexivity that pervades BTTF and its Reaganite cohort. This moment marks the only appearance of ‘McFly’ in the first two films of the trilogy. The one other artifact of Glover’s commercial work featured thus far lies at the end of What is it?, the final credit reading, “This film has not advocated the assassination of Steven Spielberg in any way” – a caveat which of course comically implies its opposite. In invoking Spielberg – not only BTTF’s executive producer but a progenitor and major benefactor of “Reaganite entertainment” – Glover makes clear the target of his ‘cinema of reaction’.
“I’m George. George McFly. I’m your density. I mean, your destiny.”52
The inefficiencies and baroque excesses of Glover’s project represent both a nostalgia for the auteur as artisan and visionary, and a renunciation of the post-Fordist efficiency of the blockbuster. This renders the ‘It’ trilogy – the site of Glover’s ‘cinema of reaction’ – a prime candidate for investigation under the Jamesonian dialectic of high and consumer culture. Critical to Jameson’s theory, however, is that the “reactive stance” of the high cultural object determines its fate “as a symptom and result of cultural crisis, rather than a new ‘solution’ in its own right.” He continues,
Not only is the commodity the prior form in terms of which alone modernism can be structurally grasped, but the very terms of its solution – the conception of the modernist text as … the protest of an isolated individual, and the logic of its sign systems as so many private languages … – are contradictory and make the social and collective realization of its aesthetic project … impossible.53
Glover’s restrictive distribution model alone renders “the collective realisation of (his) aesthetic project … impossible,” cementing the status of his cinematic undertaking as “the protest of an isolated individual.”
The Q&A is Glover’s attempt to stave off this outcome – to school his audience in his deeply personal filmic lexicon. Although Glover here unpacks his intentions at length, he deliberately keeps the significance of the symbols that appear in his work obscure. This strategic withholding of meaning is essential to the aim of his project, which is, broadly, to promote independent thought. But it is also evidence of the contradictions Jameson sees as inherent to the high cultural text; the Q&A sheds just enough light on the films to make viewers realize the extent of their inability to participate in Glover’s singular vision.
To consider now, one final time, why Glover would want to afford the ghost of McFly – a source of personal and professional resentment – a cameo in his own trilogy: McFly must be called upon if only to banish him again, in order to allow the spectator a glimpse of the commodity that pre-exists Glover’s project, and defines the boundaries of his ‘cinema of reaction’. As Glover increases the fervor with which he seeks to articulate his own aesthetic values, the more he appears to be subject to the gravitational pull of the iconic and deeply symbolic McFly, the two figures dialectically bound by the forces of “density”.
This article has been peer reviewed.
- Ronald Reagan served as US President from 1981-1989. ↩
- Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment,” in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), pp. 97-154. ↩
- Writing in 1986, Britton could scarcely have predicted the mythological status that Reagan, now revered by conservatives, would attract in the ensuing decades. ↩
- Most notably, the original Indiana Jones (Steven Spielberg, 1981-1989) and Star Wars (George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand, 1977-1983) trilogies, and teen dramadies like Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986). ↩
- Thomas Paine’s revolutionary catch-cry acquired an apocalyptic tone when re-purposed by Reagan against the backdrop of a nuclear arms race. Ronald Reagan, “Acceptance of the Republican Nomination for President” (speech, Detroit, 17 July 1980), in PBS: American Experience, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/reagan-nomination/. ↩
- Christopher Justice, “Ronald Reagan and the Rhetoric of Travelling Back to the Future: The Zemeckis Aesthetic as Revisionist History and Conservative Fantasy,” in The Worlds of Back to the Future: Critical Essays on the Films, ed. Sorcha Ni Fhlainn (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010), p. 175. ↩
- Lynda Gorov, “Willard Actor Makes an Art of Eccentricity,” Boston Globe, 9 March 2003. ↩
- Glover filed the suit after the the release of BTTF II, upon discovering that the actor hired to replace him as George McFly had been made to look like him using prosthetics. For more on this lawsuit, which was settled out of court, see Eriq Gardner, “Back to the Future II From a Legal Perspective: Unintentionally Visionary,” The Hollywood Reporter, 21 October 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/back-future-ii-a-legal-833705. ↩
- Crispin Glover, Q&A, What Is It?, Alamo Drafthouse, Austin, TX, 18 June 2015. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Glover has stated that he bears no ill will toward Zemeckis personally, whom he worked with on Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007): “The fact I was treated fairly on Beowulf put Robert Zemeckis in a far better light to me than someone like (BTTF co-writer) Bob Gale.” See: Scott Lucas, “Interview: Crispin Hellion Glover Talks About His Craft,” Chicagoist, 30 January 2014, http://chicagoist.com/2014/01/30/interview_crispin_hellion_glover_ta.php. ↩
- Crispin Glover, What is it?, press kit, undated, http://www.crispinglover.com/statement.htm. ↩
- Crispin Glover, “Q&A with Director Crispin Hellion Glover,” undated, http://www.crispinglover.com/q&acrispin.htm. ↩
- Although the screenplay was written decades ago, Glover’s typical response when asked about completing the trilogy is, “I won’t get to It is Mine for many years, but when I do, it will be clear there was a consistent thematic element in all three … films.” See Glover, “Crispin Glover,” interview by Tasha Robinson, The A.V. Club, 13 January 2012, http://www.avclub.com/article/crispin-glover-67635. ↩
- In particular, Glover refers to What is it? as “my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have been imposed in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking.” See Glover, “Crispin Glover in Conversation,” interview by Owen Williams, Empire Online, undated, http://www.empireonline.com/interviews/interview.asp?IID=1182. ↩
- Simon Jablonski, “Art and Propaganda: Crispin Glover Interviewed,” interview by The Quietus, 3 September 2011, http://thequietus.com/articles/05831-cult-director-crispin-glover-interviewed. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- During this period, Glover appeared in Tim Hunter’s cult classic River’s Edge (1986), played a small but intensely memorable role in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), and turned leading man in Trent Harris’s bizarre buddy film Rubin and Ed (1991) as the eponymous Rubin. ↩
- Rachel Knight, “A Long Conversation with Crispin Hellion Glover,” Fatal Sincerity, 28 March 2013, http://fatalsincerity.com/2013/03/28/long-conversation-crispin-glover/. ↩
- Since being cast in Charlie’s Angels, Glover has appeared in numerous films of variable quality and profitability, including Willard (Glen Morgan, 2003), Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010), and Hot Tub Time Machine (Steve Pink, 2010). ↩
- Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 133-34. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 134-35 (emphasis added). ↩
- Ibid., p. 134. ↩
- Glover, quoted in Jablonski. ↩
- Glover, Q&A, What is it?, Alamo Drafthouse, Austin, TX, 18 June 2015. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- See: Robin Wood, “The Incoherent Text,” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 46-69. ↩
- Ibid., p. 50. ↩
- Ibid., p. 162. ↩
- Britton, p. 100. ↩
- Ibid., p. 102. ↩
- Ibid., 164. ↩
- Geoff King notes the “astronomical” growth of the home video market in the ‘80s: “penetration of video recorders into US households increased from three per cent in 1980 to nearly 75 per cent in 1989, creating an enormous demand for product.” Geoff King, American Independent Cinema, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), p. 22. ↩
- According to King, “the development of multiplex cinemas with larger numbers of smaller screens” resulted in the number of screens America-wide increasing from 17,500 to 23,000 over the course of the decade (Ibid.). ↩
- Economist Arthur De Vany asserts that the blockbuster model is based on the notion that “the opening is the most critical event in a film’s commercial life.” He cites producer Robert Evans, who compared releasing a film to parachuting: “If it doesn’t open, you are dead.” Arthur De Vany, Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 122. ↩
- So too is his production model: Glover is limited to working on his films between corporate acting gigs and when money allows; the two features took 20 years to complete. ↩
- That Glover “consider(s) what (he is) doing to be following in the steps of vaudeville performers” may seem ironic given vaudeville’s historical context as a popular low-brow and light-hearted mode of entertainment, and one that often perpetuated regressive social attitudes. In this respect, vaudeville seems to embody Reaganite entertainment more than it does Glover’s project. See Glover, in Williams. ↩
- Although each film only runs for approximately 75 minutes, Glover’s performance is an hour long, and the Q&A goes for a staggering 90 minutes. The book signing is not over until everyone in line has been met – often not until the early hours of the morning. Recent shows in Los Angeles stretched on until 3am. ↩
- Wood, p. 164. ↩
- Glover, in Robinson. ↩
- Britton, p. 106. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Glover, in Knight. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Namely: Glover’s appearance in a central role in What is it? pleases spectators who did, after all, probably buy a ticket on the basis of their fandom of Glover-as-actor. Its main plotline is also punctuated by darkly funny ‘puppet shows’ featuring kitschy children’s toys. By contrast, It is Fine!, which does not feature Glover, probes the dark fantasies of a severely physically disabled man – disability being something that most consider an inappropriate subject for jocularity, let alone the particularly knotty combination of disability and sex. ↩
- Alamo Drafthouse, Houston, TX, 20 June 2015. ↩
- “I love making films that are stimulus-response, stimulus-response,” Spielberg has said. See: Britton, p. 140. ↩
- Ibid., p. 99. ↩
- The ‘showdown’ scene that appears in each film, between one character played by Michael J. Fox and another played by Thomas Wilson, comes to mind here. ↩
- Randy Laist, “Showdown at the Café ‘80s: The Back to the Future Trilogy as Baudrillardian Parable,” in The Worlds of Back to the Future: Critical Essays on the Films, ed. Sorcha Ni Fhlainn (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010), p. 228. ↩
- Bar Stewart, who appears in a minor role in the first film as a kind of bizarre Botticellian Venus, hinting at his starring turn in its sequel. ↩
- George McFly to Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson) in BTTF. ↩
- Jameson, p. 135. ↩