In the back of my mind I figured I’ve seen this years ago and just forgotten most of it, but nope, I couldn’t have forgotten this – a jaw-dropping sci-fi story (with funky music). Humans are pests and pets, the planet controlled by blue gill-eared giants. A highly-placed alien child calls his pet human Terr, which grows up and starts playing pranks and spying, eventually defecting to lead the tiny human revolution. Truce is called after the humans build miniature rockets, travel to the Wild Planet and laser down the alien sex statues.

Michael Brooke for Criterion:

Over four decades after its May 1973 premiere, it remains more or less unique. Its peculiar universe, designed by Roland Topor and realized by a team of Czechoslovak animators in Prague, is instantly recognizable from virtually any freeze-frame, and the film as a whole is so rich, strange, and sui generis that nothing has emerged since to retrospectively blunt its impact … [Topor] cofounded the Panic Movement with Fernando Arrabal and Alejandro Jodorowsky, named after the god Pan and intended to make surrealism as shocking as it had been in the 1920s, before its imagery and ideas were co-opted and diluted by the mainstream … he wrote the 1964 source novel for Roman Polanski’s disquietingly paranoid The Tenant (1976), appeared in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, as the lunatic Renfield).


Les Temps Morts (1965)

I’ve seen Laloux’s earlier Monkey Teeth short, but this is when he teamed up with Topor. A grim little anthropological study of man’s propensity for murder. I think their sensibility worked better when applied to a fictional scenario – and the animation is in very rough form here, illustrations cross-faded in sequence, drawings shuffling Gilliam-style, but mostly the camera panning around stills. Some sharp stills, though – if you cut the live-action atrocity footage it’d make a good picture-book of horrors.


Les Escargots (1966)

A different kind of apocalyptic movie, this one really takes a turn. Farmer realizes his crops will only grow if he cries on them, so he walks around the field holding cut onions, reading sad books, and wearing an ass-kicking machine. The giant plants attract snails, which also grow giant, slide over to the nearest major city and utterly destroy it. Little Shop of Horrors may have been an influence.

This would make a good double-feature with Dead Ringers, another 1980’s movie about twin doctors who fall for the same woman. In this one, Oliver and Oswald (twins, separated conjoined, I think Oliver is the blond one) are played by Eric and Brian Oswald (brothers, not twins) – zoologists studying animal behavior when their wives are killed in a car accident while being driven by Alba (Andréa Ferréol of La grande bouffe, The Last Metro, Street of No Return). They become increasingly obsessed with Alba, with each other, and with chaos and decay, freeing zoo animals and shooting time-lapse films of ever-larger dead ones.

These three are surrounded by some suspicious characters: a woman called Venus (Frances Barber of Secret Friends) and a mad surgeon named Van Meegeren, who amputated Alba’s leg after the car crash and now wants to amputate the other leg. She finally turns down the twins in favor of a new man who is also missing his legs – I think she dies at the end but not sure exactly why, and the brothers stage a suicide before the time-lapse camera to add their own decaying images to the collection.

It sounds like a bunch of weirdness from a plot description, but in practice it’s much weirder. Obsessed with Vermeer, decay, snails, symmetry, doubles, the alphabet, fakes and missing limbs – with the great pulsing Nyman music, and always more than one thing happening per shot, each splendidly composed frame full of motion.

People in line behind me:
– “You know I’ve seen this movie already, saw it last year.”
– “So… ‘What Is It’?”
– “I’m still not sure.”

Actor Crispin Glover (not to be confused with director Crispin Hellion Glover):
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CH Glover brought his travelling show to our fair city, and hopefully attendance was high enough that he’ll return in a couple years with the follow-up. Started around 8:15 with The Big Slideshow, an actual slideshow during which Glover narrates from eight of his books. This was the highlight of the night – the books were fun, and the performance was mostly great (sometimes it seemed like he was speeding through a page as fast as he could make the words come out). Crowd seemed to like it – big applause after each book. I’d definitely watch that again. Then the notorious cult film What Is It? followed by a 90-minute Q&A.

I did not bootleg the film – all images are from the trailer
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The experience of watching the film was unique. As far as I could tell, CH Glover was not in front of the theater scanning the audience for cameras during the whole screening, as I’d heard rumors that he’d do. There wasn’t enough story or atmosphere to make the film totally engrossing, so it felt less like something I am watching, more like something I am looking at. Certain parts seem intended for laughter or revulsion, for some audience reaction, but our audience was all cool cats, cultists, tattooed giant-earlobed punk hipsters (and there would’ve been even more of them if not for Drive-Invasion), so we got some of the laughter but little of the shock. Truly, I’ve sought out shocking movies before, some very good (Simon of the Desert), some very bad (Salo, Cannibal Ferox) but most bizarrely entertaining (Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Sex & Zen, El Topo, etc). This has got actors with Downs syndrome making out in the park, snails being killed on-camera, a blackface minstrel, the Johnny Rebel song “some n**gers never die (they just smell that way)”, Charlie Manson and Anton LaVey contributions, weirdo Glover himself playing some kind of underground king, S&M fantasies of Shirley Temple, and a man with cerebral palsy being masturbated by a topless woman in an animal mask. So nothing uniquely shocking except for that last one.

The inner sanctum:
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Only “name” actor besides Glover is Fairuza Balk (the intense girlfriend in American History X), who plays the voice of a snail, distraught when her snail friend is smashed to bits by our hero. Ah, our hero, an actor with Downs syndrome playing a character who does not necessarily have Downs syndrome, he goes on a minor snail rampage then heads for the park, where he kisses a girl and gets in a fight. Tries to get back home but there are problems with the key. Finally he gets back home. Looking over the press notes, there’s also the outer sanctum (I guess that’d be the cemetery and other outdoor locations) the inner sanctum (where Glover sits above the masturbating of Steven C. Stewart, who plays “the young man’s uber ego”) and hangs out on a couch with two concubines where he presides over the killing of unfortunate Eric Yates (the far-out-looking guy wearing a garland in the press photos). Stewart topples Glover from the throne towards the end, which both represents the young leading man’s triumph over his difficulties with the key and the insects, and sets us up for the next film, which Stewart wrote and stars in.

The minstrel, injecting his face with snail juice:
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The Q&A was very good and in-depth. CHG has some vocabulary tics though – if you removed all the times he said either “actors with downs syndrome playing characters who do not necessarily have downs syndrome” and “corporate-funded and distributed films”, you could shave twenty minutes off the talk. Discussed, in no order: the complete history of the making of What Is It?, the trilogy and the next film, It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. (we watched the trailer for it), Glover’s future as a director (he’s going to make some small films in his new Czech studio before tackling the third trilogy feature It Is Mine), the disparity between his commercial acting and non-commercial directing careers (says he came to embrace the big-studio acting jobs after his Charlie’s Angels paycheck enabled him to shoot Everything Is Fine), Glover’s day narrating Brand Upon The Brain, and so on.

I think this is the basement of the inner sanctum:
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So, back to the film itself, the camera and sound work were not stunning, the acting and story were not stunning, the symbolism and meaning were obscure, and ultimately it was just a weird movie. But it’s not necessarily a bad movie, like I’d feared it would be. I’m very glad I saw it, and seeing it around the same time as fellow outsider film Brand Upon The Brain and fellow critique of corporate media product La Commune makes it seem more interesting and important. Still, I’m hoping its just an introduction (like CHG said, he’s getting all the taboos out of the way now so people won’t focus on them in his next films) to two even better films.

From the director’s notes:
“Most of the film was shot on locations around my house, in my house, or on the set in SLC. One Graveyard was a location in Downey and one Graveyard was a set made with a backdrop in front of my house.” David Lynch may be an uncredited executive producer, or maybe that’s for part three, I’m not sure. The final edit of the film got caught up at an uncooperative post-house for five years! This is a good answer: “I will often be asked why I chose to work with people with Down’s Syndrome. I would say there are quite a few reasons but the one of the most important is that when I look in to the face of someone that has Down’s Syndrome I see the history of someone who has genuinely lived outside of the culture. When peopling an entire film with actors that innately have that quality it affects the world of the film.”