Beauty is Embarrassing

by michael murray for FILMbutton

Beauty is Embarrassing, the first time effort of writer and director Neil Berkeley, is a documentary about visual artist Wayne White. White, who hails from Tennessee, has beautiful and gentle eyes. He’s charming, articulate and alert, and in him you can see a George Clooney fighting to get out. He’s the sort of guy that you’d want to drink with, hell, he’s the sort of guy you might even want to be. Unpretentious and built for rebellion, he’s a tempest of creative energy.

Perhaps best known for his work on Pee Wee’s Playhouse–where he won three Emmy awards—White is a vulgar, brilliant, madly eclectic and instinctively likeable man. It’s a fun movie, one that firmly establishes White as a kind of folk-hero, a champion for those of us who feel like retching when confronted by the joyless posturing of art snobs.

The movie is a collage of White’s work and life, giving us the shape of his career rather than a linear explication of his accomplishment and influence. We see what White does, but never really come to understand the psychological underpinnings that inform it. But this isn’t a formal weakness in the documentary, but more of a statement of its Raison D’etre. It’s an appealingly easy approach, and the sheer fun of White’s work and the force of his personality wash right over us.

Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, White, feeling like an outsider, burned with ambition to leave. There’s more than a trace of resentment in White, rankling at the thought of being considered some small-town Southern hick who at best would be considered an Idiot Savant by the elite. No matter, the blazing arc of his invention and talent took him to New York City and Los Angeles, where he now lives with his wife and kids as a kind of Renaissance man, presently building a reputation for his brilliantly hilarious and subversive word paintings. Come Hell or high water, White will bring humor into the high art world.

The movie offers us many funny, inspiring and touching passages. We see White’s father, a man who had to make many sacrifices to keep his family headed in the right direction, wordlessly tear up as he watches his son at a book signing. White’s wife, the gifted artist Mimi Pond, is present throughout the movie, too. She was the talent and stability upon which White gravitated as a young man. In her life we can see the story of many, of a woman of great ability and potential who chose to raise a family rather than recklessly pursue her career– a privilege (or compulsion) that was enjoyed by her now more famous husband.

There’s an awful lot to see in and hear in Beauty is Embarrassing, and perhaps the clearest realization of the movie’s spirit could be seen in the form of a high school boy. White and an old artist friend had returned to their high school stomping grounds in Chattanooga, and here, with the help of students, created a huge, puppet head of the antique authority figure that loomed over the establishment like some terrible ghost. There seemed to be little reason to do this other than it was fun, and as the head was paraded out on the grounds and the students were released, one boy looked mad, utterly ecstatic with the spontaneous, pointless joy of it all, and he just ran headlong toward it, as if into the light.

Michael Murray feels awkward talking about his genius, which he recently found out does not translate in IQ tests. He usually writes about Pop Culture for places like The Ottawa Citizen, Slant Magazine, Fashion Magazine and Pajiba.com. He also Blogs like an all-star at: http://www.michaelmurray.ca/blog/ .

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