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An old Sundance treasure grows richer and only slightly less strange in Beaver Trilogy Part IV, Brad Besser‘s play-it-straight documentary about Trent Harris‘s doc/fiction hybrid Beaver Trilogy. Pursuing the recursive mysteries in its source material while adding more than a few twists to the plot, Besser shows more diligence than one would expect given the subject’s obscurity. He’s rewarded with a film that resolves the original’s overtones of exploitation without sacrificing entertainment value; it should be warmly received at fests and would appeal in arthouses, ideally as a double-feature with the original.
Sundance’s 2001 edition introduced Trilogy, a project almost too strange to exist: After a fortuitous encounter led him to make a short documentary about a would-be entertainer in Utah, TV producer Harris fictionalized the encounter using an unknown actor named Sean Penn; he then remade that in 1985 with another soon-to-be-famous lead, Crispin Glover. Kept hidden for over a decade, the three shorts were united at Sundance for a movie that begged viewers to wonder if they were seeing some kind of hoax.
They weren’t, but subsequent media attention (namely a This American Life segment by Starlee Kine) suggested there was more to the relationship between the verite footage and its fictionalizations, all of which revolve around an awkward drag performance where the man impersonates Olivia Newton-John, than Harris would admit. It’s not spoiling anything to say that there was — and that Besser has uncovered it in detective work leading him to the true identity of the original interviewee, a gregarious oddball credited in the film simply as “Groovin’ Gary.”
The phenomenon of the cult classic has changed immensely in the internet age. Where a Heavy Metal Parking Lot grew in mystique over many years, with nth-generation VHS dubs circulating among friends-of-friends, something similar might today go from cutting-edge to passé in mere weeks (or days) given the right retweets. Moreover, mystery was sometimes essential to the pleasure offered by these cultural artifacts: Would the pseudonymous, reclusive folk musician Jandek have generated a following in an era when five minutes of Googling told you everything about him?
Any worry about ruining Beaver Trilogy by investigating it fades quickly here, as a look at the film’s maker proves resonant with the pursuit of its obscure star. In the years between shooting the shorts and introducing them to the public, Harris made his own crash-and-burn attempts to succeed in entertainment: His feature debut, Rubin & Ed, was panned mercilessly by critics, and subsequent failures pushed him to begin a long, self-reflective documentary project that makes him look nearly as deluded and fringe-dwelling as Groovin’ Gary.
Besser deploys his discoveries strategically, maintaining a sense of mystery that is artificially constructed but, considering his subject, not inappropriate. As narrator Bill Hader and onscreen titles jab us in the ribs, asking obvious questions about the elusive nature of “reality,” what would elsewhere seem clumsy feels playful and slightly arch. We might wish for interviews with Penn and Glover, but shifting the focus to the world of successful filmmaking, away from this realm of failed aspirants who construct their own realities (cue some amusing Ed Wood tie-ins), is probably unwise. Press notes reveal that Besser “is already daydreaming about Beaver Trilogy V, a narrative retelling of Beaver Trilogy Part IV and the final installment of the Beaver Trilogy Trilogy.” If moviegoers are lucky enough to see such a thing, maybe those actors can return, adding yet another layer of metacommentary to this strange creation.
Production company: Fiercely Independent
Director-Editor: Brad Besser
Producers: Kelly Williams, Jonathan Duffy, Don Swaynos, Brad Besser
Executive Producers: Julie Parker Benello, Russell Long
Director of photography: Dan Billups
Music: Michael Kramer
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 86 minutes
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