Friday, January 2, 2009

How to leave Sean Penn alone in restaurants: watch "Beaver Trilogy by Trent Harris

A purposefully uneventful family New Year's getaway finally provided the occasion for me to watch Salt Lake City filmmaker Trent Harris' film Beaver Trilogy, which he sent me recently at the outset of an ongoing cultural exchange.

I know Trent from Stefene Russell, a fellow native Salt Lake Citizen, star of Trent's film Plan 10 from Outer Space and featured actor in his latest effort, Delightful Water Universe. Stefene thought Trent and I were supposed to be friends, that we are kindred spirits, and as usually she seems to be correct.

Beaver Trilogy is unique, in my admittedly not very detailed experience of film. It opens with documentary footage of a young man who describes himself "the Beaver Rich Little." Beaver is a town in Utah, but since the impersonation this guy does that becomes the plot vehicle of the film is Olivia Newton-John, a deadpan pun stalks the town name.

The documentary footage - shot with what seems almost intentional clumsiness in 1979 - focusses on a talent show at the local high school. The other amateur acts on the program are introduced, performed, and filmed with an earnestness that lets them stand revealed as American folk art. But the star of the show is our impersonator, who in one of those documentary moments that is far too good to be true, gets made up as Olivia by the beautician at a local mortuary.

The other two episodes of the trilogy retell the brief story of the documentary as narrative shorts, each introducing new dramatic elements and characters, and - somewhat unbelievably - each starring a very young actor who would grown into an American legend: Sean Penn and Crispin Glover.

From what I gather looking at the dates, Sean Penn filmed these scenes on video after he had finished playing Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High but before its theatrical release in 1982. Seeing a very young Sean Penn on black-and-white video playing a female impersonator singing into a very 1970s hair brush microphone with an even more 1970s poster of Olivia Newton-John behind him is an image I'm taking with me into the cold ground.
Trent has told an interviewer about reading an interview with the mature Sean Penn. He said, "They were interviewing (Penn) and asked, 'If people didn't know who you were and you wanted them to see one film to get a sense of who you are, which would you tell them to watch?' He said, 'The Beaver Kid by Trent Harris. He said, 'If people looked at that thing, they'd leave me alone in restaurants.'"

Penn also was slated to reprise the lead role in the color film adaptation of the story that forms the final leg of the trology, Trent said, but "he got famous and ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone." Glover stepped in and delivered an equally unforgettable performance, though the real star of the film segment is the cinematography. It has this gloriously grainy and hazy quality I have only ever seen before on Les Blank documentaries from the 1970s.

An odd and amusing post-script from Trent:

"Oddly enough, Sean (Penn) bought Olivia (Newton-John)'s house. Actually it was when he was married with Madonna, they bought their house in Malibu from Olivia."

There is a YouTube clip of Glover doing the female impersonator act, but I recommend against seeing any part of this film in isolation. It needs to be seen as a cumulative whole to communicate any of its power. To order a copy, email the filmmaker at Also, Trent will be in Kansas City in April, so we hope to get him to St. Louis for a mini-festival of his work.

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