A portrait of the artist as a righteously bearded middle-aged man, Beauty Is Embarrassing takes its title from the mantra of its subject, Wayne White. “What do I mean by that?” asks White in his Tennessee drawl while staring down an audience gathered to view his work – including a photograph of his pet phrase scrawled several stories high on the side of a building in Miami.
“I’ll tell you what,” he adds quickly. “I’ll tell you later.”
Beauty would seem to be the only thing that White finds embarrassing. His long and decorated career as an in-demand cartoonist, illustrator, art director, puppeteer and “word painter” (a Pop Art discipline that scrawls glossy 3-D phrases on secondhand lithographs) has been marked by a bold exuberance.
His art is a force that can’t be contained: No wonder he felt so at home in the warped environs of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He won three Emmy Awards for his work as a designer on Paul Reubens’s eighties kid’s-show hit, and he took home an MTV Award for his brilliant, Georges Méliès-derived sets for the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight music video (although 15 years later, he plays the outsider-artist to the hilt by recalling that triumphant awards-show evening as being a total bore).
It’s not always easy, however, to tell when White is kidding. An inveterate raconteur, his stories (like his artwork) tend toward the giddily profane, and he doesn’t seem to have much use for a filter. He’s hugely appealing as a documentary subject, because he’s able to discuss his output more comprehensively and unpretentiously than his critics, and because it’s clear from the testimony of family members and peers (including the camera-shy Matt Groening) that for all his good-natured posturing, he’s no poseur.
Structurally, Neil Berkeley’s film is nothing special: We meet White in the present tense and get a sense of his success, and then circle back to his childhood, his adolescent hijinks, his culture shock as a Southerner in the scenester sections of New York and his eventual industry breakthrough.
But he does avoid the trap of simply shooting one talking head after another by interspersing concise animated segments, including a comic-book-panelled account of White meeting his wife Mimi Pond.
Things are also kept visually interesting by the focus on White’s pieces: If the word-paintings are often amusingly glib (“Date” “Mate” “Sate” “Grate” reads one savage précis of monogamy), his puppets and sculptural pieces have an enchanted junk-shop quality.
At times, Beauty Is Embarrassing skirts around hagiography, like in the long sequence where a troupe of Pee-Wee collaborators wax rhapsodic about the creative freedom they had working with each other, but White’s rough edges keep poking through.
In one scene, he vows not to give his teenaged daughter advice on her current painting but then can’t help critiquing her compositional decisions. It’s a telling moment that Berkeley holds on just long enough for it to register.
White’s realization that all of the naysayers in his life have been replaced by loving, supportive friends and colleagues is similarly revelatory: How does a person defined by zealously anti-establishment views and aesthetics deal with finally getting mainstream recognition – and with the realization that this acceptance is something that he wanted all along? It’s actually a bit embarrassing – which, or course, is a fine grace note to the film.