The Best Film I Saw at South by Southwest

The Best Film I Saw at South by Southwest March 16, 2012

I attended SXSW last week mostly for things on the Interactive side of the festival–digital media panels and keynotes and whatnot. But in the evenings, I played hooky from my primary professional purposes and took in as many movies as I could. And the best one I saw was Beauty Is Embarrassing.

By “best,” part of what I mean is that it is sticking with me. One of the most important tests a film has to pass in order to gain my sustained admiration is that it can’t let me go–it has to filter its way through my consciousness in the days and weeks after I’ve seen it. Plenty of films are pleasant but forgettable, but films that speak to me well after I’ve left the theater or turned off the TV/laptop/iPad? Much rarer.

I’ve been thinking about Beauty Is Embarrassing for the better part of a week. Beauty is a documentary about the artist Wayne White. You may not know the man, but you likely know his work–he’s the creative director behind much of the look and feel of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, in addition to the music videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the George Méliès-inspired Smashing Pumpkins video “Tonight Tonight.”

White hooked up with the Pee Wee team not long after college and experienced quick and heady success. But after the show ended and aside from sparse music video success, there wasn’t much work for White. Beauty Is Embarrassing is the story of an artist who hits a midlife wall, and whose work is so unique and strange that there’s really no place for it until, almost magically, a new place is created, one more abundant and lasting.

It’s also the story of a strange kind of rascal–one who parades himself at times as a misanthrope, but he’s clearly too full of love for true misanthropy, too full of life for true despair, even when he wants to rage against the world. White believes deeply in beauty, and if you think that’s cheesy, then White wants you to know you’re part of the problem.

White’s Pee Wee days were big on puppetry, and to this day, the man has a gift for kinetic art. But his most recent work, and the work for which he’ll likely be most remembered, is a series of paintings that involve placing bright, shiny 3-D lettering over mass-produced lithograph landscapes–the kind you can pick up by the half-dozen at your local Salvation Army. The words and phrases White places on the paintings are often crass and often gauntlet-throwing, and at first glance the works seem like mere novelties. But as you take them in, you find that they have an odd staying power, not unlike White himself.

Beauty Is Embarrassing is a celebration of White, and I won’t be surprised to see people critique it for embracing its subject overly much. But Beauty wants to be a love letter to an earthy saint, and director Neil Berkeley manages that aim admirably. The film mixes heavily cut, montage sequences with slowly developing sections where we watch, for instance, White travel back to his Tennessee home to help a local high school pull off a high-concept art project.

Throughout the film, we get to watch pieces of a stage production White presented at the Modern Art Museum at Fort Worth. That night, White told his life story against a backdrop of his paintings and puppetry, revealing in intimate detail how his work emerged from the ground of his personal history. The presentation gives the film its shape and scope and allows much of it to remain first-person. The result is a film that feels like the beginning of a relationship–one that will stay with you long after the final frame.


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