Trent Harris: The Beaver Trilogy

at Gallery 312, through March 22

It’s no secret that movies often skew real events in order to make them more entertaining. In The Beaver Trilogy, short films being shown continuously as part of the “Really Real” exhibit at Gallery 312, Trent Harris tracks this process of distortion by juxtaposing a documentary he made in 1979 with two fictionalized remakes, one shot in 1981 and the other in 1985. It’s unclear whether this comparison of reality and fantasy was intentional, but it should leave moviegoers interested if unsatisfied.

An ode to a small-town eccentric, The Beaver Kid begins in a Salt Lake City parking lot where Harris is testing a TV camera. He’s approached by a bizarre young man, Groovin’ Gary, who declares himself “the Rich Little of Beaver” (his Utah hometown) and proceeds to perform impressions of Sylvester Stallone, John Wayne, and Barry Manilow. These validate what you already suspect: Gary’s dream of appearing on television is just that. Not one to give up, he invites Harris to Beaver to film a talent show where he’ll impersonate his idol, Olivia Newton-John.

Though Gary’s life boasts its share of muscle cars, cheerleaders, and high school coaches, his engaging idiosyncrasies offset these commonplaces: stenciled on the driver’s side window of his coupe is Farrah Fawcett’s profile. The townspeople clearly admire his cross-dressing impersonations, and when he’s preparing for the talent show, Gary gets his makeup done in a mortuary. This stirring scene kicks off the movie’s meditation on celebrity. While the mortician’s assistant transforms him into his alter ego, “Olivia Newton-Dawn,” Gary explains his love of performing. Like many people, he longs to be famous but is confined by his meager talents. What distinguishes him is his touching self-awareness: he declares his voice “a gift from God” but seems sadly aware that this talent show is the closest he’ll get to fame. Making the most of it, he dons a blond wig and platform boots and belts out a falsetto rendition of “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting.”

The striking thing about this performance is that when the camera closes in on Gary’s face, he doesn’t resemble Newton-John–but he doesn’t look like himself either. The symptoms of his insecurity–a nervous stammer, shifting eyes–disappear as he’s transported by his fantasy. Returning without makeup and declaring the show a success, he bids Harris good-bye so mournfully that we wonder whether real life in any form could ever satisfy him.

Harris didn’t plan to raise these provocative questions. He didn’t even plan to make a trilogy–in 1999 he put the original together with the remakes “just to see what would happen.” Yet the trilogy was an instant sensation when he screened it at festivals in 2000; James Christopher of the London Times called it “the most original film” at the Edinburgh film festival and wrote that “[t]he farther removed, and in a sense artificial the twists, the more powerful the film becomes.”

But to me the remakes seem lost opportunities. Harris tried twice to transform the documentary into a compelling fiction but ended up suffocating the story under cliches and sterile plot devices. The Beaver Kid 2, a black-and-white video that’s mostly a shot-by-shot re-creation of the original–with a few significant departures–initiated the decline. In this version Gary, renamed Larry Huff, is played by a young Sean Penn, fresh from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Penn’s acting is marvelous–he brilliantly mimes the tics and stutters of someone uncomfortable in front of a camera–but Larry Huff doesn’t have Gary’s depth. Penn overplays Huff’s insecurity yet also makes him seem convinced he could actually make it in showbiz.

Instead of using this underlying conflict to create compassion for Huff, Harris introduces Terrence–a fictional version of the filmmaker, though Harris is barely seen in the original. I guess one could read Terrence, a condescending city dweller who mocks Huff behind his back, as a commentary on how directors exploit their subjects. But it seems instead that Harris is making a joke at Huff’s expense. The only thing more tedious than this humor is the revamped ending: after Huff impersonates Newton-John a man offstage tells him that if he ends up on TV, audiences will think he’s “a fruit.” Distraught, Huff goes home and slides the barrel of a rifle into his mouth. He never pulls the trigger, but the melodrama still kills the movie.

Harris’s 1985 rewrite, The Orkly Kid, exacerbates the mistakes of the second version: a hollow caricature of small-town life, it tells a coming-of-age tale about the battle between Huff and his redneck neighbors, who are threatened by his individuality. Crispin Glover’s wild-eyed Huff is everything Gary longed to be: talented and bold. His cross-dressing performance completes his alienation: his ashamed mother flees the auditorium, his only friend abandons him, the school principal brands him a disgrace. After an abortive suicide attempt, Huff speeds off into the desert, heading for a town big enough to meet his ambitions. The whole thing is so formulaic it’s like an after-school special. Nor are Harris’s remakes successful satires: to satirize something, you have to point out the original’s absurdities. But Harris’s re-creations are themselves absurd, leaving you longing for the authenticity of the documentary.

The trilogy’s value is that it illustrates step-by-step how movies distort reality. Real life is raw and recalcitrant, forcing us to accommodate it. That’s why dealing with reality is often richer than indulging the imagination: who would think of being made up in a mortuary unless it was the only place you could go? Conventional stories tame reality for us, offering wish fulfillment, and Harris’s attempts to reshape his documentary are understandable. But ultimately they’re not creative enough to stand on their own. In the end you’re left longing for the real thing–ironic, given Gary’s desperate need to escape his real life.