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Sean P. Means: Utah filmmaker Trent Harris returns with experimental ‘Luna Mesa’

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jul 10 2014 11:28 am • Last Updated Sep 10 2014 02:05 pm

It’s impossible to categorize films by Trent Harris — even for Harris.

"Somebody told me, ‘You are your own genre,’ " Harris told me over coffee the other day.

At a glance

‘Luna Mesa’

Salt Lake City filmmaker Trent Harris’ experimental film “Luna Mesa.”

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

When » Friday through Thursday, 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets » $9.25 for evening shows; $6.75 for matinees.

Q&A » Harris will conduct a Q&A session after Friday’s 7 p.m. screening.

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The 62-year-old Salt Lake City-based filmmaker — who identifies more with the "outsider art" movement than Hollywood — has another movie to show people. It’s called "Luna Mesa" and is debuting Friday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

And it, like all of his previous films, is uniquely Harris.

The movie starts with a mystery: Luna (played by Liberty Valentine) is a globe-trotting photographer who has an affair with a videographer (played by Harris). But when the videographer is found dead in his hotel room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Luna tries to figure out why. She receives one of his notebooks, filled with cryptic messages, which leads her on an odyssey through Cambodia, Thailand, Mexico and southern Utah. As she travels, Luna’s mission transforms from solving the mystery to discovering herself.

It’s an experimental film, by Harris’ admission, and breaks most of the rules that govern what we consider a "narrative" film. It’s elliptical in its plot, and more concerned with image than straightforward storytelling. It clocks in at 61 minutes — a half-hour shorter than a conventional feature, but too long to be considered a short film. (For these reasons, and because I know Harris, I opted not to write a regular review of the film.)

It’s a surprise to Harris that "Luna Mesa" is even playing in a movie theater. Lately, his works are more likely to be seen in art museums. Museums from here to London have mounted retrospectives of his work in the past couple of years — particularly after his "Beaver Trilogy" (2001), a triptych that tells the same story in documentary and fictionalized form (with Glover and Sean Penn playing the same role), became a critic’s favorite.

"I way prefer to be in a museum — well, not me personally," Harris joked.

He tried the Hollywood thing once, when he made his directing debut with "Rubin & Ed" (1991), the odd-couple comedy about a nerdy guy (Crispin Glover) who drags a harried salesman (Howard Hesseman) on a desert odyssey.

After that, Hollywood had enough of Harris and vice versa.

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His follow-up was the independently produced "Plan 10 From Outer Space" (1995), a mix of science-fiction parody and offbeat Mormon history that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and has reached a sort of cult status. (It is not a sequel to Ed Wood’s notorious "Plan 9 From Outer Space," as lawyers representing that film will remind anyone within range of a cease-and-desist letter.)

Harris took to traveling the world — something he’s done all his life. "I had been twice around the world by the time I was 20," he said.

For the past decade, give or take, Harris has worked for WNET, New York’s public television station, as a segment producer for "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly." The job sends him all over the world, taping six or eight stories a year. "I got a lot of frequent-flier miles," he said.

The locations inspire his own work. "I see these places and think, ‘My God, this would be a great location. How could I shoot a movie over there?’ " he said.

For "Luna Mesa," shot on-and-off over two years, Harris would bring Valentine along on his work trips, and they would shoot scenes on the fly.

"She’s used to improv," he said of Valentine, a dancer formerly of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company who now performs for Stephen Brown’s SB Dance.

(For the record, even though Valentine has served as Harris’ muse in "Luna Mesa" and his 2011 film "Delightful Water Universe," they are not dating. "Intense friendship" is how he describes the relationship.)

Harris then takes the disparate scenes, along with other things (including, in "Luna Mesa," unsettling footage from an old documentary he made about Sierra Leone death squads), and writes a narrative to accommodate them. "I’m collecting random bits of information, and then you create a reality," he said.

When he describes his technique, he compares himself to two directors most film lovers would never mention in the same breath: the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni and the legendarily awful Ed Wood.

It sort of makes sense, though. Luna’s travels in "Luna Mesa" are similar to Jack Nicholson’s wanderings in Antonioni’s "The Passenger" (1975), while the assemblages of strange images echoes Wood’s weird use of stock footage in his 1953 transvestite tale "Glen or Glenda."

Harris is already eyeing his next project, something he calls "Welcome to the Rubber Room." He said he could add onto or rework "Luna Mesa" indefinitely, but that way lies madness.

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