Dallas — Filmmaker Brad Besser still remembers when he saw The Beaver Trilogy for the first time, as a film student in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"I was in awe of it but also confused about what it was about," he says.
That's a common reaction to experimental filmmaker Trent Harris' cult film. It's a tricky one to describe; the short version is that it's a movie comprised of a short film based on a shorter film spun from another short film. It has a fascinating and decidedly surreal history behind it, one that reveals some odd parallels and bittersweet commentary when the layers are peeled back by Besser in his documentary, The Beaver Trilogy Part IV, which screens at this year's Oak Cliff Film Festival at 7:45pm Saturday at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center.
So yeah, Besser's is a movie about a movie that's about a—well, you get the idea.
The story began in 1979 when Harris, an aspiring filmmaker living in Salt Lake City, Utah at the time, videotaped a chance encounter with Dick Griffiths while testing out new equipment in the parking lot of a local news station. Griffiths, who refers to himself as "Groovin' Gary" in the footage, comes across as an eccentric and undeniably charming young man who loves doing celebrity impersonations and expresses an intense desire for fame.
Griffiths later invited Harris to film the local talent show, during which Griffiths sang Olivia Newton-John's "Don't Keep Me Waiting" in full drag (with make-up provided by the local mortician) in a performance that fell horribly flat with the audience and later aired on the local TV news magazine, Extra.
Griffiths comes across as an endearing larger-than-life character throughout the piece, so much so that viewers who see the footage without foreknowledge often don’t realize they’re watching a documentary.
“You couldn’t write anything like it,” says Besser. “It makes no sense. But he hooks you immediately. I’m so glad Trent had that instinct. Others would have passed [Griffiths] by.”
It was a crushing moment for Griffiths, yet Harris saw potential for a story and decided to base a project around it. In 1981 he filmed a dramatic version of the original short titled The Beaver Kid 2 and starring a pre-Fast Times at Ridgemont High Sean Penn; in 1985 used the footage to land funding for a longer, more nuanced dramatic short/thesis project, The Orkly Kid, starring a pre-Back to the Future Crispin Glover.
Concurrently, Griffiths fell into a crippling depression that culminated in a suicide attempt. He gave up his hopes for stardom and sank into obscurity, working odd jobs in and around his hometown of Beaver, Utah.
Meanwhile, Harris' own career bottomed out in the late '80s. He eventually returned to the Beaver project and combined the triptych into a single film and released it on the festival circuit in 2001, where it achieved cult status.
“Seeing the footage of Sean Penn before fame, you can see where the paths diverge,” says Besser. “What if Groovin’ Gary had followed his dream? How many people will tell you ‘that’s not what you should do’? In a way, Trent went for it, and although his career imploded for a while he has a lot of stories to share and a lot of accomplishments.”
His friendship with Harris and the film’s enduring cult status inspired Besser to dig into The Beaver Trilogy's quirky history. “I couldn’t help but see the story of Groovin’ Gary and relate to it, and also I couldn’t help but see the story of Trent and relate as well,” he says.
Griffiths eventually saw Harris’ movie when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, where fans treated him like a star. His death in 2009 means he never got to how popular The Beaver Trilogy has become: Not unlike Danny Wiseau’s The Room, it has a legion of fans, including celebrities who screen it at parties and keep it in circulation, such as Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess, actor Paul Rudd, Academy Award-winning director Phil Lord (who called it "a film school education in 83 minutes"), and actor Bill Hader, who narrates the documentary.
» Beaver Trilogy: Part IV screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 12 at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, 215 S. Tyler St., Oak Cliff.
» This year's Oak Cliff Film Festival boasts nearly two dozen feature length programs and five blocks of short films, with an overarching theme of DIY and No-Wave aesthetics, plus an emphasis on music-related documentaries. Badges are $175, and single ticket admission for most films is $10. (More information and a complete festival schedule are available here.)
» TheaterJones is co-hosting the Filmmaker Happy Hour, 5-7 p.m. on Friday, June 12 at the Turner House in the Winnetka Heights neighbhor of Oak Cliff, at 401 N. Rosemont Ave. Come by for some cocktails, croquet, snacks and ticket giveaways.