Movie Review: Beauty is Embarassing (2012)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s computer.

In case somehow you don’t already know, I study art history and it’s like the main thing I know anything about besides movies. And I’ve got a lot of opinions about it, including an outspoken hatred for pretentious art world snobs and scholars. So I feel a natural affinity with artist Wayne White, the subject of the excellent documentary Beauty is Embarrassing. A painter, sculptor, animator, puppeteer, and banjo player, White is known primarily for his work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. After years in television and music video, he unexpectedly found mid-life success as a fine artist in hip L.A. galleries with his funny and weird paintings. The film tracks the ups and downs of his career, while also looking into his rural Southern roots and family life.

With a wry sense of humor and an already-prolific career, White makes for a fantastic subject. He’s open and funny, with an impressive archive of past works and an anti-establishment attitude coupled with astute self-awareness. I loved the interviews with his family, friends, and peers, many of whom are artists and writers themselves (including Mark Mothersbaugh, Paul Reubens, and his awesome cartoonist wife Mimi Pond). His struggle with his supportive but emotionally closed-off father is compelling, as that “strict Southern dad” archetype has found its way into his work again and again. I’ve seen some of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse– I remember it rerunning on some digital cable channel when I was in high school- but I’m not super familiar with its history, so it was also really interesting to see the behind-the-scenes stuff as well as meet some of the talented and interesting people who worked on it. And best of all, SO MUCH COOL ART. White is a remarkable fabricator and puppeteer, and it was joy for me just to watch what he’d do with some cardboard and paint.

While it’s so cool to watch White work and learn about all the awesome stuff he’s done (Hello, Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight video?!), I think what sealed the deal for me was the discussion of the contemporary art world’s closed-mindedness and general lack of humor, because dang it infuriates me that we can still be so fucking snobby about these things! And I love that artists like Wayne White have caught on to how stupid such people can be and are totally toying with them in their work. Everything can be art, you guys, just deal with it. And Wayne White, you just keep on keeping on with your goofy, supremely talented self.

Oh one criticism of this movie, though: I really wanted to know more about his wife Mimi! She is so awesome! But I guess that’ll be for when she gets her own doc.


Pair This Movie With: Ok I watched this before the whole Kevin Clash debacle but I think Being Elmo would make a really great pairing.

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