As alluring as his own work
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 19, 2012
Of all the notable documentaries on offer at this year’s Silverdocs film festival, the one that kept bringing a smile to my face was “Beauty Is Embarrassing,” Neil Berkeley’s infectiously affectionate portrait of artist, puppeteer and genially profane provocateur Wayne White.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the work will: White made Georges Melies’s silent classic “A Trip to the Moon” famous long before “Hugo” did, in his music video for the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.” And he brought his singular, darkly whimsical sensibility to his work as the production designer for “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” that paragon of 1980s post-modern, knowing playfulness that gave thousands of hungover partiers a way to face Saturday morning and helped define an iconically ironic generation.
Most recently, White has conquered the fine arts world with a series of works that continue and deepen his signatures, emblazoning candy-colored, drop-shadowed, often exuberantly vulgar sayings over kitschy sentimental paintings he finds in thrift stores. In “Beauty Is Embarrassing,” Berkeley chronicles White’s one-man show in which he enthralls and amuses audiences with tales of his Tennessee upbringing and explications of his aesthetic approach.
Under most circumstances, a film anchored by a slideshow would be akin to cinematic hari-kiri. What’s more, the film’s ultra-cool subject could come off as insufferably hipper-than-thou. But “Beauty Is Embarrassing” turns out to be the “An Inconvenient Truth” of imaginative energy and self-reinvention, an engaging, thoroughly entertaining celebration of creativity in all its anarchic glory.
Not only does White’s kinetic, boldly graphic work lend itself well to being filmed, but the man himself turns out to be a preternaturally gifted screen presence -- tall, handsome, smart and blessed with as much humanism as hard satirical edges. (White comes most endearingly to life when surrounded by family, whether at his ancestral home in Tennessee or in Los Angeles with his wife, cartoonist Mimi Pond, and their two children.) “Beauty Is Embarrassing” stays true to White’s own exacting standards: It’s thoughtful, skillfully executed and pure pop pleasure, from start to finish.
Contains pervasive (and often hilarious) profanity.