Not a jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road

Auteur and actor Crispin Glover’s (of “Willard” and “Back to the Future”) directorial debut “What Is It?” brings to fruition nine-and-a-half years of careful, diligent and bizarre production.

Because “What Is It?” features a cast composed almost entirely of underage individuals with Down syndrome, and steeps in bizarre, oft-considered taboo imagery, no distributor would touch it. Glover funded the entire project himself, working sporadically to keep the cash flowing, and employing the help of local filmmaker David Brothers. They shot the whole film in 12 days, stretched over a two-and-a-half year period.

Though initially slated as a short film, “What Is It?” grew “organically,” Glover said. His next two films, “It Is Fine, EVERYTHING IS FINE!” and “It Is Mine,” which will come out in the next few years, complete a trilogy of experimental, touchy films.

Glover’s final film in the trilogy (“It Is Mine”) draws from a screenplay written by Steve Stewart, a native Utahn who died a few years ago due to complications from cerebral palsy. Stewart also stars in all three films, and has written many screenplays, all of which drip with graphic sexuality.

“[Stewart] wanted to show that handicapped people are human, sexual [and] horrible,” Glover said, “and ‘It Is Mine’ will be much more sexual than the other two.”

When “What Is It?” screened at Sundance in January, 15 bewildered and appalled people walked out-despite its relatively short one-hour running time.

Replete with inscrutable symbolism and unsettling sexuality (most of which involves individuals with mental and physical disabilities), “What Is It?” is bound to repel most moviegoers. After all, it isn’t every day that you watch a score of snails liquefy under a salt storm or a man with cerebral palsy receiving a sexual favor from a woman sporting nothing but a monkey mask. Glover treads dangerous ground, to say the least.

However if you ask Glover, those who are mortified by such images are merely the victims of and slaves to the amoral (by which he means devoid of any morality, good or bad) corporate “pro-culture” that permeates nearly all cinema today.

“Ninety-nine percent of all movies today are made by committees,” Glover said. To avoid this homogenization, Glover circumvented corporations altogether, funding his own countercultural endeavor. Even though he knows that “genuine countercultural films make people uncomfortable,” he believes that art must remain unfettered. “What Is It?” has avant-garde subject matter that may be construed as distasteful, but it “is only meant to spark discussion and self-examination” in Glover’s eyes.

If audience members perceive the images as depraved, it may be that they have just been inculcated with prefabricated ideals, culled from a generally saccharine dominant culture, Glover thinks.

In other words, it almost doesn’t matter what “What Is It?” is trying to convey, as long as it says something and provokes discourse-or any reaction at all, positive or negative. All Glover intends is for moviegoers to explore and gain new perspectives.

That said, it will be interesting to see how many brave souls are ready to delve into Glover’s psyche, to give him a chance to incite something uncommon in each of us, to find out just what, exactly, “it” is.

bzalkind@chronicle.utah.edu