Maybe you’ve heard of Trent Harris and maybe you haven’t. You probably haven’t. And that’s ok. There was I time I hadn’t heard of him either (a time gladly passed). But even if you haven’t, you may have heard of something called the Beaver Trilogy. Maybe someone mentioned it, maybe you saw something on youtube. I dont know, I’m not here to remind you. But if its escaped your scope of experience up to this point, now is the absolute best time to dive in. Cinedelphia Film Festival 2016 is presenting the Trilogy along with Brad Besser’s documentary Beaver Trilogy Part IV on April 9th. Did I mention Trent Harris in attendance!? Like all cult films, the Beaver Trilogy is best experienced in a group setting, and PhilaMOCA is a perfect scrappy venue to host it. In fact, Cinedelphia Film Fest introduced me to the Beaver Trilogy and other works by Trent Harris in festivals past, so they are intertwined for me. With all the pieces in place though, you are poised for the maximum possible appreciation of this classic and its maker.
For the uninitiated, Beaver Trilogy constitutes the repeated attempt of filmmaker Trent Harris to arrive at the essential expression of an idea that was first captured by complete surprise in 1979. The initial film, titled The Beaver Kid is a work of brilliant happenstance. Harris meets 21 year old Richard Griffiths, credited as Groovin’ Gary, in the parking lot of KUTV-2 Salt Lake City TV studio. Harris was merely testing out a new video camera, but the approachable Grooving Gary turns out to be absolutely captivating in his sincerity and infectious in his penchant for impersonations. This brief exchange leads to a second encounter, months later in the town of Beaver, Utah. Grooving Gary has organized a talent show to shed light on his little town and to stage his most treasured impersonation of Olivia Newton-John. The resulting transformation and performance is penetrating. Its as elated as it is sad. You feel privy to the emergence of an inner self. Harris goes on to remake this initially unscripted piece two more times, with Sean Penn (1981) and Crispin Glover (1985) respectively, hoping to expose the deeper layers of strange beauty that he feared did not come across in the first piece. Each version takes on a different dimension of this “character’s” nature and desires. Glover’s take on Groovin Gary, notably called The Orkley Kid, is something particularly special, and that version is the most expansive. It attempts to arc where the original fades into the unknown. Long unseen, these three vignettes were strung together as a single piece in 2001. In their conjunction they elevate to a state of cinematic cubism. One could see them as what they are, remakes. But one could also see these incarnations of “the beaver kid” as the same person in parallel realities, exercising a kind of pathos and urgent humanism that only comes across in an overlapping view.
Director Brad Besser delves into the artistic journey of Trent Harris with the Beaver Trilogy as an entrypoint and as its main focus. His film The Beaver Trilogy Part IV is assembled in a playful, textural and unfettered manner. Part IV responds to its own content through intuitive editing and garnishes of light animation. There is balance and spontaneity to the film, which samples liberally from the Beaver Trilogy and therefore is best seen after the trilogy itself. Besser’s sequences with Gary’s surviving three sisters and childhood friends are a moving and satisfying expansion of the man, yet there is still much inner mystery to Groovin’ Gary, and this may be his great legacy. That lasting curiosity that he engenders may be a version of the fame he hoped for. Besser finds parallels between Harris’s trajectory and the Beaver Kid but takes a mostly physical approach in drawing them, or else allows Harris to come to his own conclusions while discussing his practice and his works.
The wildfire cult success of the Trilogy in recent years, and the subsequent outpouring of love for Gary brought a cycle of personal dismay to an end. Even though his death precipitated a few years after in 2009, the catharsis of this secretly building fame and popular acceptance brought Gary back to a place of joy that he could share with his family and friends if only for a short while.