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The Beaver Trilogy

Posted by martinteller on December 14, 2013

In 1979, Trent Harris was testing out a new camera in the parking lot of a television station in Salt Lake City.  He encountered Richard “Groovin’ Gary” Griffiths, a 21-year-old from the small town of Beaver, Utah.  Griffiths is clearly thrilled to be on camera, a natural ham who enjoys doing impressions like John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone, and showing off his car named “Farrah”.  He’d love to be on “the tube”.  Griffiths started to write to Harris, and invited him to come film the Beaver talent show that he had organized.  Harris shows up in the morning at the mortuary — the only place in town that does professional makeup — to watch Griffiths transform into “Olivia Newton-Don” and then films Griffiths (among other performers).  Two years later, Harris dramatized this footage with a young Sean Penn (shooting Fast Times at Ridgemont High at the time) as “Larry” and an actor portraying the filmmaker “Terrance”.  Some of the scenes are recreated, others show Terrance gleefully jumping at the chance to have fun at Larry’s expense, and Larry’s near-tragic regrets.  And in 1985, Harris dramatized it again with Crispin Glover in the lead, this time making it an even more poignant story about an outcast who becomes empowered through self-acceptance.

This is a unique piece of filmmaking, one of the most unusual I’ve seen in a while.  I love the novelty of it, and it raises some intriguing questions.  To what extent does the first segment (“The Beaver Kid”) exploit Griffiths and the citizens of Beaver, and to what extent do the other segments (“Beaver Kid #2” and “The Orkley Kid”, because for some reason he moved the action to Orkley, Idaho) compensate for that?  Is “The Beaver Kid” a cynical, condescending portrait or is it an honest slice of Americana?  And there is something about it that feels distinctly American… the “anyone can make it” enthusiasm of Griffiths, the obsession with celebrity and television, even the very idea of a variety show (with its roots in vaudeville) seems like something that belongs to the United States.  And is Griffiths’s desire to dress up and perform as Olivia Newton-John a sign of something repressed within him?

Unfortunately, the other two segments struck me as misguided guilt.  Harris seems to want to cast Griffiths as a troubled, ostracized and perhaps sexually confused youth, up against both big bad media (i.e., Harris himself) and small-town small-mindedness.  Kudos to him for wanting to face this sort of issue and his role in it, but perhaps he’s projecting, or rather building a victim where there isn’t one.  I’m a staunch liberal, but one of our shortcomings is that we often rush to the defense of those we perceive as downtrodden and persecuted without getting their opinion, consent or approval first.  In the first film, “Groovin’ Gary” seems pretty comfortable with who he is to me.  Yes, he’s a little anxious and yes, he reasserts a few times that he is “a man” and just does this for a lark… but maybe he really does.  Maybe we should celebrate how Griffiths lets his freak flag fly without putting all these imagined cultural obstacles in his way.  Perhaps there is footage we don’t see, but in what we do see, no one else in the town seems bothered by him.  No one is hurling stones at his car or calling him “faggot”.  Where are all the bullies that Harris envisions in “The Orkley Kid”?

And I have to say Harris does not impress as a filmmaker.  As a documentarian, yes, but his attempts at dramatics have all the nuance of an afterschool special.  Penn and Glover are both terrific and fun to watch, but nothing else about either of the remakes is much above the level of “competent”.  I’m not sorry I watched this movie.  It’s a really interesting experiment and not quite like anything I’ve seen.  But I think that Harris asks the wrong questions of himself.  It’s not about how Griffiths was exploited, but why you think he was exploited at all.  Rating: Fair (66)

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