Hot Docs 2012: ‘Beauty is Embarrassing’ is neither

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Beauty is Embarrassing

Directed by Neil Berkeley

USA, 2012

Chances are, you haven’t heard of Wayne White. Quiet and unassuming, White could go for a walk in downtown Los Angeles and be completely inconspicuous to the artistic layman, but chances are, you’ve seen his work. Whether it be on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, or a Smashing Pumpkins music video, White’s various contributions to influential projects from the 80’s onward have solidified his status as an accomplished art director, painter, cartoonist, and illustrator. So it’s a shame, really, when Neil Berkeley’s documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing, doesn’t do him much justice.

Through Berkeley, we examine the life and career of White, from his childhood in Tennessee, to his rise to prominence and love in New York, and, finally, to his eventual disillusionment with art in Hollywood. From these examinations, we come to the realization that White is really just a simple man, whose love for art is at constant odds with the world around him.

For a cinematic undertaking with so much purpose, the film has a surprising lack of focus and direction. As Berkeley tries to encapsulate a man’s entire life into a 90-minute tribute, he ends up trying too much and accomplishing too little.

From the start, it’s clear that White is a seasoned raconteur. In fact, the film starts off with White presenting a lecture about his life and career. Taken individually, his stories are deeply fascinating, enlightening the viewer on the often-shadowy world of pop art and Hollywood. In particular, the debate around his work straddling the artificial false dichotomy of art and entertainment is extremely engrossing.

But there are just too many. The film often diverts from its conventional narrative structure of child to man to artist, to inexplicably go off on tangents. In order to fit them all, White’s anecdotes are peppered into the film, and because they are so interesting, they take your attention away from the central story. As the film delves into its self-created diversions, we completely forget about the strands we left behind, so when the film comes back to tie them back together, it doesn’t work. The result is everything feeling too episodic and meandering. It’s a classic case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.

However, for all of the film’s misgivings, Beauty is Embarrassing still delivers to a very minimal extent. The documentarian, in this case, is very fortunate to have an interesting documentary subject. Every time White abjectly muses about his challenges and hardships in his career, we are endeared because his polemics are awash with brutal honestly and humorously restrained contempt. Furthermore, when White carefully touches upon moments of incredible poignancy, the impact is real, often for the very same reasons.

For anyone having trouble picturing Beauty is Embarrassing, it should be said that the film is very much like White’s art. On the surface, it is smart, clever, profane, and provocative, but underneath, it’s entirely unimpressive and plain; it’s art imitating art.

– Justin Li

Visit the official website for the Hot Docs Film Festival


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