Beauty is Embarrassing: SXSW Review

Consistently entertaining doc introduces an artist.

Neil Berkeley's documentary brings light to an artist who specializes in humor and highbrow art forms.

AUSTIN - Surprisingly charming for a painter whose work spills over with four-letter provocations, painter Wayne White emerges as an unsung force of nature in Neil Berkeley's zippy, delightful Beauty is Embarrassing. The doc exudes the relieved good vibes of a narrowly-averted tragedy, and has a broad enough appeal to draw arthouse audiences from both high-falutin' and punk-rock constituencies.

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White, described by Mark Mothersbaugh as a "founding father" of Pop Art's current generation, is known today for dryly funny paintings that pair thrift-store landscapes with messages spelled out in huge, 3-D letters. But his no-boundaries visual creativity has produced much wider-ranging output, including some whose cultural impact stretches far beyond the art galleries that now represent him.

Bookended by rollicking, Tennessee-accented slide presentations in which the Southern boy recounts adventures in NYC- and LA-based art scenes, the film details a background and family life whose emotional normalcy is refreshing: Loving parents express pride in White's weirdo success; his wife and two kids, all artists themselves, form a happily creative household. (Wife Mimi Pond, whose CV includes penning the first full-length Simpsons episode, comes across as an ultra-stable hipster whose practicality enables White's experimentation.)

The painter's early work led him to the TV version of Pee-wee's Playhouse, where he designed sets and puppets and even voiced a few characters. Using interviews with the show's crew and behind-the-scenes home video, Berkeley captures the happy anarchy of that series's no-budget first season. But even serious Playhouse fans may be surprised by clips of an earlier show White worked on -- a Nashville kids' production called Mrs. Cabobble's Caboose, which looks like Playhouse as hosted by a genuine square instead of a winking wunderkind -- which suggest his contributions to the Pee-wee phenomenon might outweigh those of his celebrated collaborators.

As he summarizes White's post-Pee-wee showbiz career, where highlights included a Méliès-inspired Smashing Pumpkins video and low points were plentiful, Berkeley finds an artist burning up gears, trying to be a one-man moving picture factory while pleasing corporate employers.

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Just as viewers feel they're watching a downward-spiral doc about a failed visionary, though, Berkeley cuts back to the slideshows, where admiring crowds listen to the latest chapters in White's biography. He also recruits college collaborators to elaborate on White's puppetry and art world professionals who contextualize his jump from backstage chaos to white-wall success. The only thing missing is an interview with Ed Ruscha, whose word paintings long precede White's; it's impossible not to wonder what the elder artist makes of White, and how his experience bringing humor to highbrows differs from White's own.

In between it all, we watch White cavort in a yard-tall cardboard mask of Lyndon B. Johnson. His facility with physical performance and costuming, examplified in the LBJ antics, suggests the painter and puppeteer might have had yet another career, if only days had a few more hours in them. Then again, who's to say White won't segue from slideshows about painting to one-man gigs that ignore the artworks entirely, introducing his spiky humor to yet another audience that knows nothing of what came before?

Venue: South By Southwest film festival, Documentary Spotlight
Production Companies: Future You Pictures, Tremolo Productions
Director-Editor: Neil Berkeley
Screenwriters: Neil Berkeley, Chris Bradley, Kevin Klauber
Producers: Neil Berkeley, Chris Bradley, Morgan Neville, Milan Erceg
Executive producers:  Aimee Bothwell, Bart McDonough, Eddie Schmidt
Director of photography: Neil Berkeley, Chris Bradley
Music: Tim Rutili
Sales: Morgan Neville and Eddie Schmidt, Tremolo Productions
No rating, 89 minutes