Beaver Trilogy Part IV (2015)

Directed by Brad Besser

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Beaver Trilogy Part IV is a documentary about filmmaker Trent Harris and the subject of two of his earliest films, Groovin’ Gary aka Richard Griffiths.  The movie’s title refers to the story of the Beaver kid, Gary, as shot through Harris’ camera in the late 70s.  Enamored with the subject of this short documentary, Harris would turn the film into two short films, one starring a young Sean Penn and another starring a young Crispin Glover.

The documentary tracks Harris’ career following these films, through initial ups and subsequent downs, before he decided to release the documentary and two short films as a complete piece, titled The Beaver Trilogy.  The release of these three films together acts as the final climax of the film.

The story begins with the chance encounter between Harris and Gary, in the parking lot of a Salt Lake City news station.  Through interviews with Harris we learn about his fascination with the subject of this unplanned documentary, and then we get a brief glimpse into the life of Gary after the camera stopped rolling.  This strange kind of “meet cute” acts as the catalyst in both of their lives, driving forward Harris’ film career and causing a great deal of grief for Gary.  Part of Harris’ short documentary shows Gary performing in drag as Olivia Newton Dawn in his hometown of Beaver, Utah.  Despite being heterosexual, the performance made many others believe him to be gay, and at this time period in such a small town this made his life difficult.  Gary, or Griffiths, was driven to shoot himself, though he survived the suicide attempt.

Through interviews with Griffith’s three sisters we learn about who he was, his dreams and what Harris’ documentary did to him.  After the suicide attempt, they say, part of Griffiths never returned.  He was no longer the free spirit he once was which had captured Harris’ attention.  They seem to put some of the blame on Harris himself.

Most of the story here follows Harris.  He doesn’t like talking about the beaver trilogy because he’s already done so many times.  His fascination with Groovin’ Gary is undeniable, considering he made a shot for shot remake of his documentary twice over, but he knew of Griffith’s suicide attempt and eventually buried the project.

This documentary details Harris’ fascination with his subject as well as with his own role in Griffith’s life.  In the two short film remakes, the Gary character puts a gun into his mouth, mimicking the real life events, but decides not to pull the trigger.  In the second remake there is even a greedy director character, seemingly meant to imitate Harris himself.  The lines between reality and fiction were blurred.

Part of the documentary concerns itself with analyzing that gray area.  Were the short films some kind of confession?  Harris seems to understand his effect on Griffiths, yet he went forward with it anyway.  He himself says he identified with Groovin’ Gary as a driven young man with his eyes set on Hollywood.

When Harris made it to Hollywood, as we see, he set the project aside.  After a quick flameout, though, Harris languished in independent film, making experimental films with moderate critical success but no financial success.  Nearly broke, he resorted to releasing the Beaver Trilogy under the name The Secret Tapes of Trent Harris, because he didn’t want to bring any more grief to Griffiths or his family.

The release of the trilogy was well-received, eventually leading to a screening at the Sundance Film Festival.  Griffiths showed up somewhat unexpectedly, and he and Harris seemed to share a happy reunion.

The moment acts as a catharsis for Griffiths and for the audience as well.  Much of this documentary seems to build up to the idea that Harris stole something from his subject, maybe not literally but spiritually.  We’re told that part of Griffiths died after his suicide attempt which was a result of his involvement in the film with Harris.  We’re told about Harris’ own career struggles, and their reunion is meant to put a bow on this whole story.

It’s a little strange, I suppose, because Harris himself is such a fascinating character, and much of the documentary seems primed to make him a surprising villain.  Does he acknowledge his role in Griffiths’ near death?  In interviews he doesn’t seem to, but his decision to create a greedy director character in the second of the two Beaver short films suggests he knows he had something to do with it.

Then, throughout this documentary, we see just how egotistical and a bit insane Harris is.  Sure, maybe it’s just part of being some kind of artist, but the documentary goes out of its way to point out ways in which Harris tried to control or comment on this documentary’s presentation of him.  He laughs, saying their documentary has no story and no arc.  He critiques the way they point the camera at him, and he expresses misery both at his career and at the nature of filmmaking itself.

The film becomes much more fascinating as it dives into Harris’ quiet unravelling, but then this reunion between him and Griffiths offers their relationship closure.  We see that Griffiths has gone on to have a pleasant enough life, albeit a quiet one, and the Sundance exposure helps build Harris back up following a series of career setbacks.

Though Griffiths died of a heart attack before this documentary was produced, the story ends with Harris showing the camera a couple recordings Griffiths made for him.  In one he thanks Harris for discovering him.  It’s a strangely happy ending for a strange movie.

I really enjoyed The Beaver Trilogy Part IV.  It’s delightfully weird, surprisingly dark and the happy ending is a little out of the blue.  It’s scattered, to be sure, and I feel like it could’ve gone deeper with Harris.  I found him fascinating, even just in the role as a behind the camera guy forced in front of the camera.  The documentary attempts to discuss the way he made have stolen something from the person he filmed, and then it starts to seem as though he recognizes the way this documentary might be stealing something from him.

Though he never says such a thing directly, you can see the way he’s worn down both by his career and by being filmed.  The tables have turned, and it feels like karmic retribution.

Is the movie a celebration of Harris’ eccentricities and his relationship with Griffiths?  Is it paying respect to Griffiths’ own past ambitions?  Is it a discussion of the blurred lines between fiction and reality within a documentary?  Or is it a profile on Harris himself?

Okay, yeah it’s a little of each of these, and that jumpiness in the story can be a little frustrating.  At the same time, these are all elements at play, and you can’t rewrite what really happened.  Had there never been that Sundance screening and the reunion between Harris and Griffiths, then maybe there wouldn’t be such a happy ending.  The reunion felt necessary for their characters, something you’d put into a scripted version of this story, but it seemed to betray where the story was taking Harris’ character.

I say character because though it’s a documentary, who knows who Harris really is.  The film comments on the way documentaries can shape reality, and Harris does as well, so it only follows that we should question the way this documentary frames its story.  Because of that questioning, it’s only fair to see these people as characters, represented in a certain way to make a point.

Harris is kind of a hard pill to swallow.  He’s full of himself, he’s rude onscreen, and his obsession with the Beaver kid, as well as subsequent self-absolvement of blame, makes him hard to root for.  But the movie never wants to undermine him in such a way, at least if the ending is to be believed.

I think… well I don’t know what I think.  Did Besser’s documentary really want us to think Harris was a bad guy?  We’re pushed to believe that he really changed Griffiths’ life for the worst, and the sudden happy ending might be a purposeful bait and switch, intended to play on our expectations for what a documentary is supposed to be.  This final turn perhaps reframes the entire story and forces us to question the representation of Harris beforehand, showing just how malleable and subjective all documentaries can be.

Up Next: The Day of the Jackal (1973), Game Night (2018), The American Friend (1977)

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