The Beaver Trilogy

January 15, 2008

Somehow I saw The Beaver Trilogy by Trent Harris recently. A friend had unearthed a copy of this profoundly odd film, with Young Sean Penn aping a guy who impersonates Olivia Newton-John, along with Crispin Glover and the actual guy. The film’s one of those back alley masterpieces, like The Holy Mountain or El Topo, long unavailable, more imagined than seen.

Yet one could still see those films as a midnight movie, or on foreign video. Harris’ movie has never appeared on legit video anywhere, and rarely screens at festivals. I guess rights issues should take the blame. The cost of licensing Newton-John’s songs must be out of reach for such a small film. That’s a shame, and a flaw in the way rights are assessed: would that prices were scaled somehow. These laws kept the masterpiece Killer of Sheep out of the public eye for decades. They ultimately restrict profits for filmmakers and musicians both instead of protecting them.

Having heard about Beaver a while ago, I already had quite an elaborate image of it. In my mind, all the action unfolded in a parking lot at night, under harsh halogen lights. Of course, the real film didn’t resemble my notional one, and I felt underwhelmed while watching it. The editing in the documentary part seemed unduly rough, while the fictional versions felt rather flat. I suppose some letdown’s inevitable.

But they’re all well-crafted individually. Alone, any of them would hold my interest, whether as an outsider doc or Hollywood mistake. Taken together, they resonate, building something that has since lingered and grown in my mind. This film is layered. Its simplicity defies easy understanding, much like any of the three versions of this guy who so loves Xanadu.

So the three parts of the film echo one another, reverberating more loudly as they overlap and repeat. The structure doesn’t hint at Rashomon so much as Celine & Julie, that feeling of free variation. Different actors could keep performing “Olivia” to infinity, each with unique grace notes. While film actors usually define a character once and for all, Beaver‘s Olivia lives on as pure potential. Crispin plays Sean plays “Olivia,” and someone new could play Crispin years from now, like a Latter-Day Hamlet.

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