Video Digest: January 5, 2007

One Digest you don't want to miss: The Beaver Trilogy, the fascinating story of a boy in Utah who worships Olivia Newton-John, and the director who's so compelled he can't stop making a movie about him.

Like many people with a soft spot for NPR, I learned about The Beaver Trilogy through a 2002 piece on This American Life, in an episode called “Reruns.” Produced by Starlee Kine, it’s a Russian nesting doll of a story: a television cameraman films a documentary about a kid from a city called Beaver, then remakes the documentary with actors, then remakes the remake. Incidentally, those remakes star important people prior to their big breaks—Sean Penn and Crispin Glover. But the most compelling character is the one who never makes it big at all—the documentary subject, a small-town naif who loves impersonating famous actors and worships Olivia Newton-John.

The Beaver Trilogy is a compilation of all three iterations. It played at Sundance but was never distributed. Kine begins her TAL piece by saying, “Ten minutes into The Beaver Trilogy I could already feel how much I’d be talking about it. Once it was over, I already felt mournful that I’d never be able to watch it again for the first time. Everything about it is so surprising and unexpected, the way movies almost never are. And what I’m going to do right now, here on the radio, is to re-create what it’s like to see it.” And for the next 30 minutes, she does just that.

The piece is the deconstruction of a creative rut—an artist who keeps telling the same story, but with slightly different lines each time. Like a Beckett play—or an Everclear album. But it’s also the story of a filmmaker genuinely haunted by his subject, worried that his ambition trampled the one person whose story he meant to tell. And as defining as the relationship becomes for both filmmaker and film subject, the strange thing is how small and coincidentally it begins. They just happen upon each other one sunny afternoon in a parking lot, and start talking.

The Beaver Trilogy showed up on YouTube recently—in ten 10-minute installments. Probably a bit epic to sneak into your workday. But when you have time, I suggest you settle in somewhere comfortable, and watch it. At least some of it. I suspect you’ve never seen anything like this—and possibly never will again.

1979, a parking lot near Salt Lake City: The Beaver Kid imitates Sylvester Stallone, John Wayne, and Barry Manilow, but mostly he gushes with excitement about being on the TV. He is the kind of person for whom reality television was invented. And you can imagine that director Trent Harris, behind the camera, must be equal parts entranced and horrified by this kid. As a sidenote, I don’t know if everyone in Beaver, Utah, is Mormon, but it might explain some of the Beaver Kid’s golly-gee earnestness.

With very little warning, the documentary veers into a completely new direction as the Beaver Kid dresses up in his “Olivia Newton-Don” outfit. He talks as if he’s being interviewed by Rolling Stone, not some guy from the local news. And he says things that are meant to be reassuring but instead sound unmoored. “I hope the viewer doesn’t think I’m really whacked out,” he says, sitting there in a blond wig and painted with makeup. “I just do it for a kick. I don’t take a lot of this seriously. I take the impersonation itself seriously. But as far as really wanting to be Olivia Newton-John, no. Olivia is Olivia.”

Here lie the money shots. It’s a small-town talent show in a high school auditorium, so hellooo: feathered bangs, dancers in sequins, and off-key songs. And to top it all off, the Beaver Kid’s performance of ONJ’s “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting.” Again, this is the kind of moment reality television thrives on—people doing ridiculous things without the consciousness that they’re being ridiculous—but because there’s no Ryan Seacrest in the wings to make jokes and offer a ticket to Hollywood, the Kid seems alone and vulnerable. It’s hard to watch. For a bit of silver lining, there is a plain-clothes finale to this, in which the Kid sings Barry Manilow’s “New York City Rhythm.”

Now we get to the remakes. I won’t talk about all of them, just a section of each. You can watch the first episode of the Beaver Kid Trilogy Part 2, in which Sean Penn re-enacts the fateful first meeting, here:

The Olivia Newton-John sequence. It’s nearly impossible to watch this without thinking of Jeff Spicoli. For me, Penn is more surfer-stoner than eccentric yokel. You can tell he studied tapes of the Beaver Kid, but without any narrative context for his bizarre behavior—why does he act like this? Why Olivia? Why? Why? Why?—it just comes off as a hollow imitation. Here is the third episode, with an invented (or is it?) scene in which the Beaver Kid almost commits suicide after the filmmaker refuses his request to quash the ONJ performance:

Taken as a whole, it’s an odd little movie and, despite being based almost shot-for-shot on a documentary, not at all believable. If you watched this and this only, you’d say, wow, that was a bullshit movie.

It makes me suspect that’s the very reaction director Trent Harris got, because he remade the film again—but this time fleshed out with backstory and supporting characters who bully the protagonist (now called the Orkly Kid and played by Crispin Glover). Now the filmmaker is a character, too—a self-promoting asshole who privately scoffs at the kid. Here’s the first scene (with a fancy new opening sequence, a backlit ONJ number):

And the second:

This time out, in the third episode, the kid is given a truly triumphant ending.

There’s nothing better than driving out of town with Olivia on the 8-track. But I miss the original, incomplete version, with all its strange innocence and incomprehensibility. The ending of the This American Life story hints that there might be a reunion of sorts. Note to the props department: I’ve got a Xanadu poster and a blond wig. And I quote Olivia when I say, “Please don’t keep me waiting.”

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