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The Puppetmaster

From Pee-Wee’s Playhouse to art house, one artist’s life

If you’re somewhere in your 30s and grew up with a television, Wayne White’s work probably slipped into your young mind somewhere. As a young artist, White landed a job on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he designed (and voiced) some of the show’s iconic characters. His work turned up in the music videos for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” and he worked on a host of other children’s shows.

But White is hardly a household name. With Beauty is Embarrassing, writer-director-cinematographer Neil Berkeley set out to change that. After a bumpy start, the film chronicles White’s youthful success and midlife career change; now, he’s a successful visual artist whose word paintings — thrift-store landscapes with phrases marching across them in cheeky capital letters — have caught the eye of art dealers, fashion designers (Todd Oldham appears in the film) and art fans. 

White is a character, loopy and enthusiastic, a perfect subject. With a bushy, grey-streaked beard and a penchant for banjo-picking, he bounds through his own story, narrating from his studio, from a stage while giving a talk or from the art room of a high school, where he and an old friend create an enormous, slightly eerie and oddly beautiful puppet of the school’s founder. The filmmakers splice in a little bit of everything: clips from Pee-wee’s Playhouse; goofy footage from behind the scenes of Pee-wee’s, where the artists were making their own videos (the word “psychedelic” is used more than once); animation that tells the story of a horrific car wreck the White family was in when Wayne was young; and clips from White’s various projects. There’s hardly time to linger on any one project or topic, though the giant George Jones puppet gets (and deserves) a quick breather. Briefly, Berkeley turns to Mimi Pond, White’s wife, who was far more successful than he was when they met. Pond’s career was sidelined when the couple had kids, and her thoughts on that choice suggest a different, equally interesting artist’s narrative.

But there’s no time to linger. Beauty is Embarrassing eventually wiggles its way into being a solid take on one artist’s life, but the film begins with an unfocused introductory section that overflows with artist clichés: art is a way of life; a real artist can’t not make art; he was such a talented child; he’s just so special and unique! These empty, standard-issue comments, mixed with White’s occasional bitter (his word) cracks, set a sour tone that the film has to work to overcome. Gradually, it does, and the picture comes back into focus. An affectionate portrait of one creative man, Beauty may make you wonder how many other artists like White — hovering just above the radar, rising and falling — have stories just as deserving of a cinematic telling. 

 

BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING: Directed by Neil Berkeley. Written by Berkeley, Chris Bradley and Kevin Klauber. Cinematography, Berkeley and Bradley. Editor, Bradley. Music, Tim Rutili. Future You Pictures, 2012. 87 minutes. Three Stars.