“Beauty is Embarrassing” is such a warm, laugh-out-loud charmer of a documentary, thanks entirely to its subject, the wild and wonderful Wayne White, that it leaves you wondering, just where has this delightful man been all this time? And that’s the question “Beauty is Embarrassing” posits too — serving as an opportunity to bring attention to this artist who has been more influential than we, or even he, knows.
The film opens with White preparing to go onstage for his one-man show at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles. It’s essentially a slideshow with White displaying some of his most well-known work, telling stories, playing banjo and wackily dancing around. What you soon realize is: this guy is funny, and so are his paintings, thrift store landscapes bearing colorful turns of phrase, many of them bearing the F-bomb, which might just be White’s favorite word. This one-man show serves as a framing device for telling his life story, which starts in the present and then goes back to the beginning. When we meet White, he’s an LA artist with a wife and kids, known for his word paintings, full of kitschy humor which doesn’t go over so well in the uber-serious art world. White is a true artist through and through, inspired by the scraps of wood in his garage, driven to create art by an otherworldly drive he seems to have little control over. In order to break out of the “word painting” rut, White makes a giant puppet Lyndon Johnson head out of cardboard, which he parades and dances around in, truly a wondrous sight to behold.
At this point, the film takes us back to the beginning of the origin story, telling us who this guy is and where he’s from: Southern Tennessee that is! White grew up in a traditional Southern family, a kid who loved to draw from an early age, and loved his family and his mother’s strange sense of decor and taste in disturbing tchotkes. A rebellious, creative teen, White found his band of kooky artists in college before migrating to New York City to immerse himself in the comics and pop art world of the early ’80s. It was there he met his wife, comic book artist and author Mimi Pond, and landed the job that you may know him best for: designer and puppeteer on the groundbreaking TV show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” This acid trip of a kid’s program hosted by the venerable Pee-wee Herman is no doubt seared into the frontal lobes of any child exposed to the program between 1986 and 1990, which means in turn, that the work of Wayne White has been influencing us since then. As a puppeteer, set designer and voice of Randy on the show, White’s distinct aesthetic and style comes through in the bizarro world of the playhouse.
The show led him to Los Angeles, where he stayed on, working on shows, videos and animation after “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” ended, earning awards for art direction for the “Trip to the Moon”-inspired video for “Tonight Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. He soon burnt out on the schedule, and turned back to his love of painting and art, starting from scratch at the very bottom of the heap, driven by the single-minded need to always create something beautiful, weird or funny.
“Beauty is Embarrassing” is ultimately about being an artist, and even though it’s about one man, any artist will relate to the issues that White has gone through, the choices he has made, and his desire to stay true to his passion. When visiting an old artist friend in Tennessee, both men take a sort of grass is greener perspective, wondering if the pastoral life of living art wherever you are, regardless of success, outweighs life in the big city, earning plaudits and merits for your work, but also facing rejection and misunderstanding. Every artist has to make that choice, and suffer or enjoy the consequences of that choice.
Wayne White is such a hysterically funny, wacky and weird guy that the documentarian need only train his camera upon him in order to make it entertaining. It is a genuinely hilarious film, but it’s funny because of the pathos too, the sadness in White that makes him want to live everyday to its fullest, to make a silly puppet because it’s fun, and why not today? Director Neil Berkeley has created a loving portrait of this man, and while the end is a joyous romp through his life, you kind of wonder what the end message is. We love the guy, you don’t have to keep convincing us. But if it lacks a specific call to action or neat wrap up at the end, the film is still an inspiring look at an artist who lives beauty to the fullest, even if it is embarrassing. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the LA Film Festival.