Kate Winslet and Todd Haynes Take on Mildred Pierce

28 April 2010 at 17:15 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Gorgeously shot, brilliantly acted, and perfectly structured, Mildred Pierce exemplifies the best of that slippery pseudo-genre known as film noir (is it a genre, a style, a period?). For me, the film is especially notable for its representation of mother-daughter relationships, even if that depiction ends up being incredibly problematic–how fitting given that Joan Crawford, who plays the title character, would later become synonymous with bad mothering after her adoptive daughter’s scathing memoir, Mommie Dearest, and its film adaptation? Despite the subtext created by Crawford’s biography and the film’s troubling conclusion, one still can’t help but admire Mildred’s fierce independence and determination. The trailer below emphasizes Mildred’s will-to-power, but this feminist argues that Crawford’s performance complicates the character:

Imagine my surprise when I heard that Todd Haynes, writer and director of some of my favorite films, is currently shooting a new version of Mildred Pierce starring my favorite living actress, Kate Winslet, in the title role. This new version will air on HBO as a 5 hour mini-series, giving Haynes and company more breathing room than the original. Kevin Jagernauth from The Playlist speculates that given the additional running time, co-screenwriters Haynes and Jon Raymond will likely return to the original source material, James M. Cain‘s novel of the same name, rather than follow the 1945 film. I suspect that drawing from the book may result in a more progressive text (Cain wrote the book as a satire of bourgeouis values), a bent I’ve come to expect from films directed by Haynes. I also imagine that the film will exhibit many of the same traits as films previously under Haynes’ direction–an interest in melodrama, period mise-en-scene, and strong female characters a la Far From Heaven. Hopefully the perfectly chosen players for this project will equal a statisfying whole.

Kate Winslet on the first day of shooting for Mildred Pierce. Picture form media.onsugar.com

The personel selected for the Mildred Pierce are almost too perfect. I mean, Evan Rachel Wood as the ungrateful daughter, Veda? Wood has made a career out of playing this role! I worry that the film will fall into the traps of other re-workings (see the Gus Van Sant directed version of Psycho)–I’ve seen so many terrible remakes with brilliant casts, directors, and writers that I will do everything to temper my expectations but will probably fail.

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Adventures in Auditing #5: Polanski and Paranoia

26 April 2010 at 21:56 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

In my most recent “Gender and Horror Film” class, we watched The Tenant, a 1976 film directed, co-written, and starring the controversial filmmaker, Roman Polanski. The film follows Trelkovsky (portrayed by Polanski), a young Polish-Frenchman, as he moves into a small, Parisian apartment whose previous occupant committed suicide. Watch the trailer below:

As the trailer makes clear, the film elaborates on themes previously explored in films written and directed by Polanski. Specifically at issue: the paranoia that results from the claustrophobia of urban life. In the case of The Tenant, Trelkovsky’s problems begin with nosy, irritable neighbors before his mental state devolves into madness; Trelkovsky comes to believe that his neighbors have plotted to drive him to suicide and eventually, he begins to dress and behave like the former occupant of his apartment named Simone. The film does such an excellent job of conveying his neurosis that, as one of my classmates suggested, you’re relieved once he finally succeeds at suicide.

Of the films directed by Polanski, The Tenant most closely resembles Repulsion. Like Trelkovsky, Repulsion‘s protagonist, Carole (played by Catherine Deneuve) is a foreigner living in a small apartment in an urban milieu (London):

As in The Tenant, paranoia derives not only from the trappings of city life, but from conflicts related to gender and sexuality. From the beginning of the film, Carol appears fearful of men and seems to date a man named Colin purely due to social pressures. A photograph of Carol as a child suggests that her emotional instability began in childhood and a past trauma is also implied. When left alone for the weekend by her friend Helen, Carol murders Colin, who forcefully enters her apartment demanding an explanation for her disinterest. She then murders a landlord who attempts to rape her. (Sidenote: Repulsion predicted the rape-revenge genre, with cult-classic Ms. 45 seeming especially reminiscent with its similarly androphobic protagonist retaliating violently after two incidents of rape.) Repulsion, then, suggests that in spite of her psychosis, Carol’s paranoia may be justified.

The poster for Repulsion makes the film's gender politics quite plain. Image taken from retroslashers.net.

The same can be said for one of the most famous of Polanski-directed films, Rosemary’s Baby. The film, based on a book penned by the great Ira Levin, follows Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) , the wife of a young actor (John Cassavettes) who becomes pregnant after experiencing a strange “dream” of being raped by a demon. Much of the suspense hinges upon whether or not Rosemary’s strange symptoms (a craving for raw meat, unbearable cramps) and fears stem from neuroses or a genuine physical source. The end of the film confirms Rosemary’s fears that a satanic conspiracy surrounds her pregnancy, revealing her baby to be the spawn of Satan. Ultimately, Rosemary agrees to mother her baby in spite of his grotesque appearance (implied rather than shown). Here’s the groovy trailer:

While I find the gender politics of the film somewhat problematic since the film aligns femininity with weakness and vulnerability, I do think that Rosemary’s Baby contains subversive elements. The trailer above, for instance, makes motherhood and marriage look creepy, undermining their privileged place within our heteronormative culture. In many ways, its Rosemary’s strict adherence to traditional gender roles that leads to the film’s terrifying conclusion; while I wish it didn’t all fall on Rosemary’s shoulders, I do think an argument can be made that the film challenges dominant beliefs about marriage and motherhood.

Of all films directed by Polanski, this trio of films, sometimes called “The Apartment Trilogy,” most obviously explore themes of paranoia. Of course, many other films directed by Polanski also highlight similar ideas: Chinatown, for instance, explores city politics, conspiracy, and family trauma. The recently-released The Ghost Writer harks back to Chinatown with its focus on corruption in English politics:

While clearly not on par with Polanski’s best projects, I would recommend The Ghost Writer if you’re looking for something a little bit smarter than the average mainstream film (although we were all a little puzzled by the dubbing over of swear words–clearly, someone wanted a PG-13 rating. Such obvious studio edits should remind us about the limits of authorial control). A bit stuffy overall, but enjoyable genre entertainment.

Some critics have suggested that Polanski’s biography may influence these themes, with the trauma of the holocaust he experienced as a child, the horrific death of his wife Sharon Tate, and the judicial response to Polanski’s rape of a thirteen year-old girl (see the excellent documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) all feeding into a sense of persecution. In one of the television interviews featured in the film, Polanski says he felt like “a mouse with which an abominable cat was making sport”–you get much the same feeling as a viewer watching these films.

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Beyond Film #4 – “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

19 April 2010 at 21:30 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

In spite of authoring a blog called “Dark Room,” I’ve never considered myself a “goth chick” in the least, but ever since seeing The Hunger a couple of years ago, I’ve found “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which plays over the opening sequence, how shall I say it, infectious?

The Bauhaus track supposedly christened the post-punk genre of “gothic rock.” Of course, such a clear origin story is ripe for nit picking–what about the darker tunes of Joy Division or the theatrics of The Damned?

At the same time, you couldn’t pick a better tune to spin as the first of your genre. It has an unaffected rawness to it, which makes sense given the band’s lack of recording experience at the time. It begins with faint percussion before the bassist overlays a simple line. Then comes the guitar, the creepiest element of the the song with its echoey reverb. What happens next is best described by the AllMusic.com song review:

The ingredients merge, but the curtain is still rising; it takes minutes before Peter Murphy, his voice a deep, sepulchral rumble, is cued to take the stage, and minutes more before there’s even a hint that the tension might be relieved, as the song — such an inappropriate word — moves towards its melody. It’s relentless, one of those so-scarce moments when performer, performance, mood, and music are so expertly blended that the actual components are absolutely inextricable. Guitars become creaking coffin lids, the bass becomes footfalls in a darkened corridor above, the drum is the flapping of a myriad of bat wings, and Murphy — Murphy is the count, dead, undead.

The last line of the quote alludes to the lyrics, which prove fascinating in and of themselves. As much as the song can be described as “post-punk,” it could also be labeled post-modern due to its referentiality. Also interesting: the fact that the lyrics speak of Bela Lugosi the performer rather than Dracula the character. One might read this conflation as a commentary on the way in which Lugosi’s star persona became bigger than the man himself. In other words, Bela Lugosi, like Dracula, remains undead as a kind of cinematic ghost, doomed to continually feast upon flesh for audiences in homes and theaters everywhere.

The original cover for the for the Bauhaus 12" of "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Like the song itself, the cover references cinematic horror with it's use of a still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Image taken from wiels.com.

The song’s invocation of horror cinema may be part of the reason it continues to crop up in film and television with movies like The Hunger exploiting its atmospheric qualities.

As much as the song has come to embody goth, it’s also been used to take the genre to task for its excesses. Saturday Night Live’sGoth Talk” sketch, for example, used it as a kind of short-hand to parody the goth subculture. The sketches featured two white, suburban teenagers in full goth-garb performing mock funerals (as in this sketch) and other ceremonies. The sketches consistently undermine the seriousness of these performances by reminding viewers of the white, middle-class privilege that makes such goth antics possible for so many. Unfortunately, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” features prominently in these sketches, becoming a part of the theatrics that the sketch parodies as inauthentic.

Molly Shannon and Chris Kattan in the "Goth Talk" sketch from SNL. Image from morethings.com.

Say what you want about goth subculture (I neither defend it nor condemn it), but “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” does not deserve this bad rap. Impressively, it holds up thirty years after the fact in spite of how dated goth culture has become. Few songs achieve such timelessness while at the same time epitomizing such an outrageous subculture. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” like its title subject persists undead.

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Mulholland Drive, The Sequel?

16 April 2010 at 21:56 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Reading The Guardian today, I was surprised to learn that rumors are flying about a possible Mulholland Drive sequel in the works. Easily one of the best films of the aughts (see my list of the top films of the decade here), the prospect of a sequel seems both exciting and terrifying for myself and the writer of The Guardian piece, Danny Leigh.

Leigh points out that critics detested Lynch’s previous attempt at a sequel (or more accurately, a prequel), Fire Walk with Me (see trailer above). Leigh also notes that Lynch’s work elaborates upon many of the same themes and archetypes from film to film. Hence, Mulholland Dr.’s sequel may merely explore the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles the way Lynch’s films since Blue Velvet have all been interested in unearthing the criminal element that underlies any idealized community (The Straight Story not withstanding).

Mulholland Dr. stars Laura Herring and Naomi Watts with Mullholland Dr. director David Lynch.

There are still many unanswered questions: will Laura Harring and Naomi Watts reprise their roles? If so, which of their characters will be revived? Betty and Rita and/or Diane and Camilla? Like the best Lynch films, the answers won’t come easy, but hopefully the dutiful viewer will be rewarded.

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Strange Little (Spanish) Girls

12 April 2010 at 18:11 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

About a year ago, I went on a Spanish cinema kick, watching a bunch of “classic” titles from the period and doing some research on the side. I learned from Barry Jordan and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas’s Contemporary Spanish Cinema that post-Franco Spanish Cinema tends to meditate upon past national traumas in order to better understand what national identity means in present-day Spain. The violence of the Civil War and the ideological conflicts that fueled it became particularly important themes with the rise of “New Spanish Cinema” in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the final years of the Franco regime and persist to this day.

Interestingly, I noticed that some of my favorite Spanish films featured girl protagonists as the witnesses to such traumatic events. The most obvious example: The Spirit of the Beehive, which stars Ana Torrent as Ana. Ana lives in a rural Spanish village where the film’s action begins just after the Civil War has ended. She and her sister, Isabel, watch a touring exhibition of Frankenstein early in the story. Below is a clip of that scene:

In the clip, Isabel tells Ana that the monster can be summoned if she says “It’s me, Ana” aloud. Later, Isabel shows Ana a small, abandoned building and tells her that it is the monster’s house. Soon thereafter, Ana says the magic words and when she returns to the building, finds a Republican soldier hiding there. Ana helps him by bringing him some of her father’s clothing and effects. Here is another clip showing what unfolds:

Ana’s response to discovering the soldier’s blood builds upon the previous themes established since Ana runs away from home and experiences a mystical encounter with the monster. When discovered by her family, the traumatized Ana refuses to interact with them. The film closes with her calling to the monster once more, a moment captured in the still below:

A black and white still of the final moments in The Spirit of the Beehive. Taken from the Duke Library website.

The Spirit of the Beehive, then, uses the character of Ana to explore themes of political upheaval in an allegorical fashion. Frankenstein’s monster becomes aligned with the Republican soldier, and Ana’s compassion for the condemned monster encourages viewers to also sympathize with the Republican cause. The use of allegory here, especially given the film’s release date late into the years of the Franco regime, proves interesting in and of itself.

The clearest antecedent of The Spirit of the Beehive would be the recent Mexican fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which stars Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. Below is the film’s trailer:

As with The Spirit of the Beehive, Ofelia interprets both personal and historical traumas into a whimsical fantasy in which a Faun charges her with several tasks to test whether or not she might be the reincarnation of an ancient princess. Meanwhile, Ofelia’s brutal stepfather, an officer for the Fascists, attempts to root out any Republican dissidents hiding in the countryside (think Colonel Landa of Inglourious Basterds, except more cartoonish). The film, then, integrates the political and historical context of the early post-Civil War era into Ofelia’s imaginings.

Another film starring Torrent called Cria Cuervos also features a (literally) fascist father figure in opposition to the girl protagonist, this time in the late years of the Franco era. In that film, Ana (Torrent) discovers her father’s dead body and imagines that she poisoned him. These feelings of hatred result from Ana’s resentment of her father after the death of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) who frequently appears to Ana as if alive. Chaplin also plays an adult Ana, who interjects commentary occasionally, further blending fantasy and reality as well as various temporalities. Below is the trailer:

Cria Cuervos may seem apolitical on the surface, but the frustrations that Ana faces at home under her father’s (and later her aunt’s) authoritarian rule mirror the frustrations that many filmmakers (including Cria Cuervos writer/director Carlos Saura and Behive co-writer/director Victor Erice) felt under the fascist regime.

While the exploration of trauma in all three films raises important questions about the role of allegory in art, I am even more interested in the use of girl protagonists as the conduits for such representations. Reading Barbara Creed‘s Phallic Panic recently, I learned that the surrealists in particular explored this connection between girlhood and what Tzvetan Todorov called the fantastic. Creed explains:

The view of the female child as particularly close to the world of fantasy and the imagination was central to the beliefs of the surrealists. They regarded childhood as “the privileged age in which imaginative faculties were still a l’état sauvage–sensitive to all kinds of impressions and associations which education would systematically ‘correct’.”

She goes on to explain that girls in particular were idealized “femme-enfant” and that the surrealists saw them as particularly in touch with the marvelous due to their purity and innocence. Surrealist writer Andre Breton even promoted the work of Gisele Prassinos resulting in the publication of her poems by the time she was fourteen. A photograph taken by Man Ray shows the young Prassinos:

Gisele Prassinos reading her poetry to Andre Breton and other male artists from the surrealist movement. Photograph by Man Ray, taken from National Galleries of Scotland website

The picture (and what Creed describes) encapsulates my conflicted feelings about this portrayal of girlhood imagination. On the one hand, I appreciate any attention given to girls as genuine artists with valuable insights to share, just as the men seem genuinely interested to hear Prassinos read. On the other hand, I wonder if the romanticization of girlhood imagination (particularly the way the surrealists associate girlhood with purity and innocence) oversimplifies what girl artists might have to say by desexualizing their work. This might say more about the fantasies of men rather than the thoughts of girls–the picture, after all, most prominently depicts the men crowding around her in an almost intimidating manner. How much of the meaning of the femme-enfant (both Prassinos and our young female heroines), then, is merely an idealized perception of girlhood? I’m sure more than I would like to admit.

Nonetheless, these girls give voice to the private experiences of Spaniards during this difficult period, blurring the line between private trials and public concerns. They may not offer viewers a direct view into the imagination of the femme-enfant (as if that could ever be possible), but they do suggest that girls’ emotions and experiences are worthy of art and politically significant.

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Adventures in Auditing #4 – Antichrist

7 April 2010 at 17:00 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

“The crying woman is a scheming woman.”
-She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Antichrist

Since hearing about Antichrist last spring, I’ve been eager to see the film and gauge the hype in relation to the content. This week, my “Gender and Horror Films” class was charged with watching the film after a failed attempt (technical difficulties) to watch it as a group. Tired from travel, I watched it in a daze which resulted in a very disturbing first viewing (note for future reference: slipping in and out of consciousness during scenes of genital violence burns these images into your brain). To be sure I’d grasped it in all its complexity, I rewatched the film a second time in the light of day. It proved less traumatizing and more easily digestible this time around, but still troubling for its ideologically problematic content. Find the film’s trailer below:

First things first, a brief run-down: the film opens with a highly stylized, melodramatic sequence in which a toddler falls from an open apartment window while his parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg, unnamed and credited as “She,” and Willem Defoe, likewise listed as “He”) have sex. Burdened with grief and guilt over her child’s death, She receives psychiatric treatment including powerful meds. He, who happens to be a therapist, disagrees with this regimen, insisting that She cut out the pills and focus on confronting her emotions. This inspires the couple to take a trip to their cabin out in the woods, a space that He identifies as one that She greatly fears. After several attempts to get her to face her fears, She seems to respond positively to the exercises claiming to be no longer afraid. Soon thereafter, however, He discovers some disturbing notes and pictures when looking over her research materials and She attacks him. After some grueling scenes of genital mutilation and torture, He strangles her before hiking up the mountain and away from the cabin. Following closely behind him: a swarm of women with pixelated faces, presumably out to finish what She started.

The question for me: can Antichrist possibly be interpreted as a feminist film in any sense? On the surface, I would say no. The film clearly aligns women with nature and its indifferent (scratch that, evil) power, suggesting that women compulsively harm men. The primary female character even recognizes this essential female evil after researching witchcraft for her master’s thesis (thank god I didn’t take my thesis topic so literally). Can a feminist reader work around these problems to develop a coherent progressive reading?

The misogyny is self-evident from the plot trajectory, but the narrative structure also lends itself to this interpretation with flashbacks that suggest She watched her son approach the window before plumetting to his death. He also discovers multiple pictures taken by his wife in which She put her son’s shoes on backwards (an accompanying flashback indicates this caused her son pain, as does a medical examiner’s report that notes foot deformities in the child). This newly-aquired knowledge on the viewer’s part puts earlier scenes in which She expresses regret for her son’s death in a different light.

A still from Antichrist. Image courtesy of http://www.linternaute.com.

Still, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Antichrist contains the seeds of an alternate reading. One of my fellow classmates suggested that Antichrist could be read as a “reimagining” of the Charlotte Perkins Stetson short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” That tale also features a wife treated for depression by her husband. His insistence that she remain confined against her wishes leads to her madness, despite her protests. Re-reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I can see my classmate’s point: like the husband in the short story, He regularly dismisses his wife’s concerns as irrational, calling upon his authority as a therapist and as a husband (He in Antichrist: “No one knows you better than I do”; the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”: “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”) to disempower his wife. For these reasons, the husbands cause their wives’ psychoses more so than the initial depression.

An illustration from the original publication of "The Yellow Wallpaper." Image courtesy of Bucknell.edu

But while “The Yellow Wallpaper” generates sympathy for its female protagonist by showing how her madness results from her treatment for post-partum depression due to its cruelty, Antichrist seems to suggest that by forcing her to confront her fears and embrace nature, He awakens a dormant evil inherent in all women. As a result, the film tranfers blame from the husband specifically to womankind as a whole. Few films have depicted a hatred for women so blatantly.

The only means of salvaging the film for a progressive reading would be to suggest that either a) the violent expressions of She consitute an act of resistence on the wife’s part or b) the events that unfold late in the film represent a kind of projection on the part of the husband. In both cases, the film might be seen as a critique of the very thing it portrays. The interpretative acrobatics required to make these readings work, however, weaken their plausibility.

Of course, I would welcome others to see the film and tell me what they think about it. Please post any of your ideas in the comments section below!

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Undermining Auteurism #3: Crispin Glover

2 April 2010 at 15:01 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

When I initially viewed the trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine, I had very little interest in going out to see it during its theatrical run. The viewing public has been subjected to far too many movies of late about a group of men going on an adventure together where bonding and hijinks ensue (i.e. The Hangover and pretty much anything starring Vince Vaughn). But then, I learned of the involvement of the eccentric character actor Crispin Glover, and suddenly the scales tipped. I’m thinking I might actually go watch this for the sheer pleasure of seeing what it is Mr. Glover might do with his small part but inevitably big character.

This got me thinking about Glover’s role as an actor in shaping films and the ways in which actors in general challenge the idea of the auteurist director. While some folks might argue that casting in fact proves the premise of auteurism since it demonstrates how a director’s casting decisions impact a film, I would challenge that assertion by suggesting that casting is not simply a director selecting players from a variety of choices; ultimately, actors (and their agents) must agree to a project, granting them some degree of agency (though certainly this would not have been the case in studio system in which actors were contractually obligated to perform in a certain number of pictures). Furthermore, actors clearly exercise agency in their performances; otherwise, why would we feel the need to honor them during award season? Ultimately, then, the actor contributes to the end-product of a film and as a result has some degree of authorship.

Glover specifically has developed a star persona that embues the films he performs in with a particular charm. You can see this energy in one of his earliest film performances in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Without Glover, the film would be just another formulaic installment in the series; with Glover, you get awkward dance sequences and one of the best kills in the series preceded by one of the best lines in the series:

Of course, Glover may be best known for his role in the 1980’s sci-fi comedy classic, Back to the Future, in which he played the nerdy, timid George McFly, father of protagonist Marty McFly. While credit is due to the screenwriters of the film, Glover’s delivery of lines like “Lorraine, my density has bought me to you,” “I’m just not very good at… confrontations,” and “Hey, you! Get your damn hands off her!” make for some of the most memorable moments in an already terrific film.

It seems, however, that Glover’s early work merely hinted at the potential zaniness of the actor. His turns in River’s Edge and Wild at Heart, for instance, are some of the strangest characters I can remember:

What’s more, Glover fueled his reputation as one of the strangest personalities in the industry with his bizarre appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, on which fans continue to speculate to this day. Here’s the original clip and then the follow-up appearance:

With a reputation for weirdness, Glover has built an odd filmography, combining smaller roles in mainstream films (The Doors, the Charlie’s Angels remake and sequel, and more recently, Alice and Wonderland and the aforementioned Hot Tub Time Machine) and “independent” features (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) as well as a few starring turns in Bartleby and Willard. Below, the trailer for the latter:

Glover has used the paychecks from these bigger roles to fund his own projects such as the experimental films What Is It? and It is Fine. Everything is Fine

Having seen neither film, I’m not sure what to make of Glover’s use of racist imagery and actors with down syndrome. I would probably find all of the above problematic in some way. Still, the bizarre content and especially the exhibition of these films (Glover presents the films in person and follows the screening with a slideshow and q&a session) intrigues me nonetheless.

In a career full of fascinating turns, I find Glover’s work as an author most compelling. Glover takes hardback books that have become public domain and turns them into stories by redacting passages and adding new ones. One book called Rat Catching is based on a 1896 manual for capturing rodents. Below are a couple of pictures:

A page from Rat Catching by Crispin Hellion Glover. Image courtesy of Flckr.

Another page out of Glover's book. Image also courtesy of Flickr.

These books encapsulate what Glover does in all of his performances: he takes the content he is given and puts his own spin on it, dramatically impacting the text as a whole. He becomes one of the text’s many authors through his presence on screen, like so many actors whose names may not make the marquee.

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