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New York Video Festival: Beaver Trilogy

By Chris Chang

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As heard on This American Life: fact and fiction are up for grabs in Beaver Trilogy, an authentic one-of-a-kind video oddity

The remake is a tricky thing. On the one hand it raises the issue of an absence of ideas in the culture industry. On the other it paves the way for projects that provide a modicum of perverse fascination. (Think Terry Gilliam remaking La Jetée as 12 Monkeys or Gus Van Sant doing whatever it was he thought he was doing with the shot-by-shot remake of Psycho.) Filmmaker Trent Harris jumps the remake gun with his project Beaver Trilogy. In it we find three story variations within one cross-pollinated whole. Trilogy doesn't retell one narrative from different perspectives, à la Rashomon, but does something altogether new. And what makes that newness all the more invigorating is the fact that the video was begun two decades ago and has only now been brought to light by the New York Video Festival.

The storyline is simple enough. In 1980, a TV cameraman encounters a young man named Gary in the station's parking lot in the arid suburban environs of Salt Lake City. He energetically explains his love of impersonation and his fascination with all things broadcast. He informs the director that he has an alter ego named Olivia Newton Dawn, based on you know who, and shyly suggests his act would make entertaining subject matter. The director agrees and meets up with the performer at a funeral parlor in a town called Beaver. The town is apparently so small that this is the only place you can get a decent male-to-female makeover. The camera records his transformation from an idiosyncratic resident into a simulated superstar and we are off to a nearby high school where "Olivia" is part of the line-up in a local talent show in which, he promises, we will be treated to "Beaver's finest." Although the visual style appears to be as makeshift as home video comes, the unsuspecting viewer has already been introduced to one of the many structural interplays that make Beaver Trilogy a unique artifact. As one watches very funny examples of amateur local color strutting its stuff with reckless abandon, aspects of what could be called a "pathetic aesthetic" come into play. Is this a condescending exploitation of complete outsider artistry? Or is it an example of a keen documentarian's eye doing exactly what keen documentarians' eyes are supposed to do? That is, show the viewer things never seen before. The only other alternative for documentary excellence is to show old things in new ways.

Enter Sean Penn. For the second part of the trilogy, made in 1981, Gary has become "Larry," and is played by Mister Bad Boy himself. Penn's performance retraces everything we observed the first time through, although this time the elements of directorial condescension are made much clearer. There is now an actor playing the part of the director, his name has shifted from Trent to Terrence, and he clearly displays an attitude of exploitation. Penn's version of Gary prepares for the talent show, but this time there is a greater sense of the desperation inherent in his drag fantasy. Penn, as an actor, does a remarkable job portraying a nonactor. He nails the operative balance of greenhorn timidity and recklessness on the head. And insofar as the story line allows, he does an excellent job of plumbing the new depths of psychology the second version introduces. Whereas the original population of Beaver accepted the apparition of "Olivia," this time around Larry is perceived as putting on stage something a little too degenerate for small-town tastes. And that reaction is deeply troubling to Penn's Larry. By the end, he barely escapes total disaster.

The first story is shot in a cinema vérité video format. The Sean Penn sequence is shot in black-and-white video, with greater emphasis on what that kind of light and darkness can bring to composition. The third version, The Orkly Kid, made in 1985, this time featuring Crispin Glover, is shot in grainy color film. Glover's performance synthesizes elements from the first two and moves on into new territory. The actual Gary can be excused for his own ridiculousness because he is perceived by the audience as a real person. Penn's Larry can't get off that easily because he comes off as a bit of a parody.

But his reverence for the original makes that parody one from the heart. Glover turns everything inside out by somehow becoming more Gary than Gary himself. He's obviously been studying the videotapes. He can do the original walk and talk but he manages to add something new to the growing complexity that surrounds Gary's "act." He elevates a small-town joke to the level of tragedy. In version three we watch Glover go through the same basic rigmarole. This time the viewer is mentally armed with two earlier versions to contrast and compare. Gary is a performer who hits his apex when covering an Olivia Newton-John song. Penn is an actor covering Gary covering the same song. Is Penn covering Olivia's song or "Olivia"'s song? Whose song is Crispin Glover covering? A pervasive sense of visual madness ferments as the idea of originality collapses. This is the same kind of circularity that drives characters in Roman Polanski movies bonkers. It's also reminiscent of musical invention. Think of fugal modality, serial music, theme and variation, etc.

What makes Beaver Trilogy even more complex is that the first version, the alleged original, appears to be based in reality. By definition we then return to the concept of documentary. What would it mean to take, for example, a famous documentary and remake it? Could there be a remake of Titicut Follies, Triumph of the Will, or Grey Gardens? If it were possible, one assumes they would all end up resembling This Is Spinal Tap.

Much theoretical noise has been made about the disappearance of the real, the primacy of the simulacra, and the end of art in a post-everything world. If you'd like to address these issues and walk away with laughter, rather than a headache, search out Beaver Trilogy. Forgoing that, you'll just have to wait for the Hollywood remake. And that will most certainly be a long time coming.

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