On the Margins: The Cinema of Trent Harris
Trent Harris, who was the subject of a retrospective at the 20th Raindance Film Festival, is not the sort of filmmaker you expect people to know: operating on the margins on of US indie cinema since the early 90s, he’s the kind of figure whose work can justify the use of terms like ‘cult’ and ‘underground’. And although his films might not be easily available to the casual viewer, unlike other ‘underground cult’ works , they all easily engage the audience: humanistic portraits of unusual individuals marginalised by society ; unusual characters whose stories might have never been heard had it not been for the astute ear of this director.
In Rubin & Ed, Trent Harris focuses on two characters who personify everything that he’s interested in: mystical and the esoteric clashes set in what Marlon Brando called ‘Palookaville’ as the titular duo go on an unexpected journey into the desert to bury a frozen cat. The story is not the thing here – it’s slight, whimsical and frankly feels not-all-that-important. It’s the characters. Rubin and Ed might be kooky and weird but they’re also very real: the way they interact with each other , the way they talk all adds up to something mainstream films lack: a soul.
In his next film, Plan 10 from Outer Space Trent Harris attempts something on a much larger scale: a conspiracy theory comedy steeped in the Mormon history and Masonic lore, it’s a funny, fast-moving film that takes no prisoners. The warped logic of Trent Harris’s world is not one that alienates: the audience never feels as if they’re listening to a private joke that does not make sense. Focusing on Lucinda (played perfectly by Stefen Russell), who, through the Plaque of Kolob, discovers an alien plot to dominate the world, the film takes satiric pot-shots at any subject it can think of – add in a few musical numbers, a brilliant dance sequence and some B-movie special effects and you get a thrill ride that is hard to refuse.
The next film Trent Harris made might be his best known work – strangely enough it’s also his earliest. Shot in 1984 and 1985, The Beaver Kid Trilogy is made up of three short films: a documentary and two fictional recreations of the same story. It’s the film with which Trent Harris made a splash at Sundance and yet today, it’s as obscure a title as one can hope to find perhaps due to its unavailability on any home video format.
The original Beaver Kid was Groovin’ Gary –a young man from Beaver, Utah, whom Trent Harris runs into in the parking lot of Salt Lake City News. Gary is a vivacious and lively character: seeing Harris’s camera he immediately launches into a series of impersonations: John Wayne, and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. He has the sort of manic energy that could power entire continents and he comes across as an intriguing, if slightly odd individual.
After their initial encounter Gary writes a letter to Harris inviting him to a local talent show he’s putting on in Beaver. What happens after this is too good to ruin: suffice it to say that Harris’s ability to identify and understand marginalised individuals clearly shows here.
The next two shorts that make up the rest of The Beaver Kid Trilogy are Harris’s attempts at recreating that important encounter with famous actors – the first one has Sean Penn taking the role of Gary, while in the second it’s Crispin Glover. It’s a fascinating experiment and one that works: Harris uses each segment to build on what really occurred: making a narrative change here, adding a slight variation there. It’s like a composer trying out different approaches to the same tune and it’s an incredible experience to watch. It’s not hard to see why the film was such a success at Sundance.
The Cement Ball of Heaven, Hell and Earth continues Harris’s fascination with the individual: this time it’s Aki Ra, a former child soldier Khmer Rouge who now spends his time defusing mines in his free time to redeem himself for his previous acts. It’s a fascinating story and Harris tells it well: within the 54-minutes running time he manages to combine a mystical view of Cambodia’s violent history with the very personal story of Aki Ra and not lose his way.
Perhaps this is why his newest film, Luna Mesa, does not work: Harris tries to turn the camera on himself and explore mystical and philosophical ideas head-on through a fictional narrative. The result is an unmitigated mess. The film comes across as pretentious and dull, and in contrast to his previous work it’s hard to see what he’s aiming for other than a sounding profound. The story of Luna never appears to be more than the aimless wandering of a spoilt woman, and the connection with the divine, which occupies the last quarter of the film, feels less like universal insight than boring twaddle.
However, Luna Mesa cannot undermine the body of work of a man who over the past 27 years has challenged the norms of what is accepted as independent cinema: by focusing on the marginal, Harris, like others before him, has captured people invisible to the rest of society. His ability to create without judgement and with a terrific sense of humour (as well as an inexplicable obsession with hubcaps!) is a sign of a master craftsman at work: a first-class filmmaker.
Long may he continue to make films!