Beauty is Embarrassing
Wayne White, Mimi Pond, Gary Panter, Mark Mothersbaugh, Ric Heitzman, Paul Reubens, Matt Groening
(Future You Pictures)
It’s the typical documentary cliche - you may not know Wayne White, but you definitely ‘know’ his work. Don’t think so? Well, what if we were to tell you that he was part of the underground/alternative comic movement coming out of New York in the late ‘70s. He worked on the influential magazine Raw and contributed to The Village Voice and The New Yorker. In 1986, he was one of 400 artists who applied for the job of designing the set and characters for Paul Reuben’s quintessential Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Landing the gig, he worked closely with Gary Panter and Richard Goleszowski to create characters like Floory, Randy, and Dirty Dog. Winning three Emmys, he would later contribute to other “kiddie” titles, such as Shining Time Station, The Weird Al Show, and Beakman’s World.
Still don’t know him? Well, he added stop motion puppetry to Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” video, and won an MTV Award for his art direction on the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.” Still nothing? Well then, you need to settle down with a tasty snack and a refreshing beverage and watch Beauty is Embarrassing, the brilliant new film by Neil Berkley. In collaboration with White, his wife Mimi Pond (who wrote the first ever episode of The Simpsons) and writers Chris Bradley and Kevin Klauber, we get the kind of polished overview that only reality can provide. White, now in his 50s, spends a lot of his time traveling around, putting on a one man show which highlights his upbringing in Tennessee, his introduction to “subversive” art while in college, his time with the seminal TV series, and his current career revival as a painter.
He’s not just any painter, mind you. In typical White fashion, he scours thrift stores and junk shops for discarded motel-ready landscapes. He then takes the framed canvases back to his home studio, and meticulously “inserts” comic phrases into the scenery. Ripe with curse words and inappropriate sentiments, he was initially scoffed at by the ‘serious’ art world. Now, a few years later, he has been celebrated as a commentator and rebel, a sly Southern gent whose managed to remake himself several times over. As compelling a personality as any fictional character, White has maintained important friendships throughout the decades while he and his equally talented wife have raised two equally gifted kids. It’s not a question of job, says Ms. Pond. The Whites create art because they are compelled to do so - Wayne most of all.
Vaguely connected to the content of the one man show, Beauty is Embarrassing traces his roots back to a childhood in Chattanooga, his stoic father, a bratty sister, and a mother severely injured in a car accident. It was this event which pushed White to pursue his dreams of being an artist. Step by step (and jumping around a bit), Berkley finds those who became his aesthetic sphere of influence and lets them describe/defend/deconstruct their friend/ally/coworker. Even a reclusive Paul Reubens sits down to explain how important White was to the personality of the Playhouse. There is lots of behind the scenes footage, glimpses of the show’s initial production run in a converted NYC sweat shop and the chaos that went on when filming stopped. Equally compelling is the whole “on the fly” mindset. One of the most influential and beloved gems of the mid ‘80s was more a series of happy accidents than a well planned out presentation.
It’s this kind of insight and detail that makes Beauty is Embarrassing so special. Sure, it gets into White’s weird psyche, explaining his love of puppets, found objects, salty language, cardboard, hot glue, and the banjo with skill and insight. We learn of the initial rush of being part of the TV scene, and the dangers of over-polishing your awards. We watch as he builds kinetic sculptures of a fabled Southern icon and a massive George Jones head for a Houston gallery. There’s an odd running gag about an LBJ mask that only seems to tickle White and an emotionally charged moment when an influential figure from his past shows up at one of his performances. Even more touching are the scenes of his elderly parents, still as Southern as sweet tea, tearing up over their son’s success.
In fact, it’s safe to say that Beauty is Embarrassing is one of the greatest examples of a career celebration ever. There’s no scandal, White never slipping into psychosis ala Wild Man Fischer or ‘screwing the professional pooch’ like so many once famous documentary subjects. We learn of the workaholic drive that almost made him nuts, and the decision to drop out of the rat race known as Hollywood for a more psychologically sounds life as a painter. In a typical bit of surreal synergy, Todd Oldman, an MTV alum from House of Style, discovered White’s word pictures and fell in love with them. He championed the coffee table book of his work which, then, allowed him to be taken more seriously by the art world. Now he is featured in galleries around the world, something White claims was always his goal/dream.
As engaging as it is informative and entertaining, Beauty is Embarrassing has literally nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, it’s the reason the documentary genre excels where the fiction film often fails. It takes a subject some know about and universalizes it, turning the tale of a man whose made his way through the complicated worlds of media and art and survived, magnificently. He still bears the scars of a time spent in service of the machine and maintains his genial spirit even in the face of post-modern merchandising. Like many who came to the scene and survived - heck, even thrived - White walks a singularly solid path. He not only dances to his own drummer, he crafts the knotty beats himself. You may not have heard of Wayne White until now. Once you witness the story of his life, you’ll never forget him, or his art.