Best of Hot Docs 2012: Wayne White charms the crap out of viewers in Beauty Is Embarrassing

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Director Neil Berkeley picked a great subject for his wildly entertaining first documentary. Wayne White, a genuine good ol’ boy from the Tennessee hill country, has become the darling of that sector of America’s fine-art in-crowd that likes (or at least doesn’t mind too much) poking fun at itself.

Simultaneously all aw-shucks and in your face, White is just as likely to yell “Fuck it!” in conversation as he is to paint it across one of his in-demand, cheap-as-shit thrift-store lithographs, usually featuring a serene landscape.

For Beauty Is Embarrassing, Berkeley didn’t need to pull together insightful commentary on White’s work and life from such brilliantly brain-damaged co-conspirators as Paul Reubens, Matt Groening, and Mark Mothersbaugh. He could have just let White show his work, talk about its creation, and ramble on about his experiences (he’s really that diverting).

But he did bring in the creators of The Simpsons, Pee-wee Herman, and Devo. And he interviewed the usual suspects—White’s parents, former coworkers, his sister, wife (Mimi Ponds, who wrote the first-ever Simpsons episode), friends he grew up with, gallery owners, critics—but also spliced in segments from a hilarious one-man biographical stage show White toured recently that becomes the attenuated backbone of the film, albeit a spine with one hell of a dowager’s hump.

Berkeley knows that White’s breakthrough success as one of the creators of TV’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse will hold a lot of appeal for a certain segment of White’s fans; accordingly, he devotes a fair chunk of time there, including some fascinating insider scoop on the show’s first season in New York, where White fled after university art studies in Middle America.

Before White caught the sustained attention of the Los Angeles fart-through-silk crowd, he was dismissed as a cheap Ed Ruscha imitator, which pissed him off mightily. “Any time you get near that sacred cow…you know, it’s like, ‘Fuck you! Back off! Ed’s our man!’ ” he grumps, not without humour.

But once his Value Village wordscapes (bearing such messages as “Failed Abstract Paintings of the Seventies”, “I’ll Smash This Painting Over Your Fucking Head”, “Dude or Chick?”, and “Fanfuckintastic”) started scuffing up gallery partitions instead of the coffee-shop walls where he first hung his creations, the critics came around. Eventually.

“Entertainment is a dirty word in the art world,” he muses during the film. “You’re not supposed to entertain people. You’re supposed to question their core values and make them reevaluate their lives and give them a deep insight into blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-fuckin’-blah.”

Mostly, White has fun with his art, which also has included animation, voice acting, puppets (both really big and small), music videos (Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins), and sculpture. He says that humour is his “sacred mission”, and that it informs much of his “word paintings”. “I’ll settle for laughter any day,” he tells Berkeley’s camera. “Laughter is a deep thing. Most people don’t think it is, but it is.”

He collects twigs, cardboard, anything, really, and can’t throw stuff away (“This is what makes me happy: a pile of garbage”).

And just watching him mope around and pull off some hoedown-redneck clogging in his giant Lyndon Baines Johnson puppet head is worth the price of a ticket and a fatty in itself.

Beauty is Embarrassing screens at Best of Hot Docs at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday (June 24) at 6 p.m.

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