SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2015
By Don Simpson | February 4, 2015
Director: Brad Besser
At first glance, Brad Besser’s Beaver Trilogy Part IV might appear to be a run-of-the-mill feature documentary about cult film director Trent Harris, but the film quickly succumbs to its surrealistic tendencies and just…well…goes with the flow of things. The freewheeling nature of Besser’s film seamlessly transforms Beaver Trilogy Part IV from a film about a filmmaker to a film about one of that filmmaker’s subjects to the representation of Truth in the documentary process to the exploitative consequences of non-fiction filmmaking — gargle, rinse, shuffle and repeat. All the while, the audience grows acutely aware of Besser’s ever-present directorial hand as he oh-so-purposefully re-directs the film’s narrative structure time and time again. Every edit is precisely timed, just as the narration (graced by the cleverly unrecognizable vocal stylings of Bill Hader) and images are so minutely sculpted to the point that Beaver Trilogy Part IV evolves into an artificial representation of the truth, thus serving as both a critique and homage to Harris’ own cinematic approach as well as an ingenious manifestation of Harris’ thought processes.
Harris is probably best known for directing Rubin and Ed, but his Beaver Trilogy (no, it is not a triad of porn films) serves as the crux of Besser’s documentary. Besser approaches his subject through the lens of an unsolved mystery of sorts about the focal point of Harris’ trilogy of short films — “Groovin’ Gary” — a Beaver, Utah native whom Harris fatefully stumbled upon outside of his Salt Lake City television studio in 1979. “Groovin’ Gary” served as the real-life subject of Harris’ beguiling first film, who then spawned two dramatic re-imaginings by yet-to-be-discovered actors Sean Penn and Crispin Glover in Harris’ second and third short films, respectively. Besser contemplates that in shooting three versions of the same story, Harris might have been trying to work through some issues concerning the exploitative interpretations of his representation of “Groovin’ Gary”; moreover, Besser wonders just how the trilogy of films could have affected the psyche of the fame-obsessed “Groovin’ Gary.”
As meta as meta gets, Besser’s film is an essay on non-fiction storytelling, teaching the audience to become more cognizant of the director’s perspective and motivation(s). As if “Breaking the Documentarian’s Code,” Besser showcases how the inherent falsities and contrivances of documentary filmmaking bring the approach much closer to the fictional world of cinema than most moviegoers realize. Besser’s technique blurs multiple “types” of documentaries — expository, observational, participatory, and reflexive — in order to reveal that none of them can truly be representations of the Truth. The most egregious sin of documentary filmmaking, however, is the exploitative effects of placing an unsuspecting subject in front of the lens.