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Film

Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story

Art is a 24/7 way of life.

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Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story

Directed by Neil Berkeley

Even if you’ve never heard of Wayne White, you’ve seen his work and felt its influence. He’s most famous as one of the creators of the puppets and the sets on the seminal Saturday-morning show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He’s equally well-known for taking thrift-store paintings of landscapes and superimposing 3-D lettering like “Beauty’s Embarrassin’!” or “Fanfuckingtastic” on them. At first, he was dismissively compared with Ed Ruscha by the L.A. art world, but eventually his work, far funnier than Ruscha’s text-based paintings, began to gain acceptance and critical acclaim.

Throughout the documentary, White repeats what may be his guiding principle: that art is a 24/7 way of life.

The film follows him from a childhood in rural Tennessee, where he was wildly misunderstood by the more macho males in his life, through a tragic car accident that almost killed his creative-type mother (whose sense of decor inspired Pee-wee’s Playhouse) to the creation of his own family—all of whom are artists themselves. And though White escaped specifically Southern masculinity, his relationship with his wife, Mimi Pond, comes off as a bit troubling. It’s not that they don’t seem happy, but when the two met, Pond was a famous cartoonist and White was unknown. After raising their kids, her career, which includes a credit for the first episode of the Simpsons, took a backseat to White’s—a disconcerting dynamic the film only touches on.

Similarly, we see an old friend, Mike Quinn, who initially inspired White but remained in the country and created an art farm. When we see the them together, it is not hard to imagine that White is somehow the less authentic of the two, the bluesman who went to Chicago instead of remaining in the Delta jukejoints, capitalizing on the Southern weirdness Quinn continues to live in—to the point that White eventually made a painting of the words “Drop the Country Boy Act.”

Still, White comes across as warm, generous, and extremely funny. Whether he is making puppets and masks—the film ends with a giant puppet of White moving around with celebratory swagger—regaling a crowd with his Rabelaisian tales, or spending time with his family, White has succeeded in turning his life into art.

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