Let me tell you a little story. Like all good stories, it is about me. My editor, in his sweet, trusting foolishness, asked me to write a review of a documentary called Beauty is Embarrassing (dir. Neil Berkeley, playing at the Bijou on Nov. 9), stating that since it was for the Little Village online blog there were no constraints on length, content, or style. I was drunk on power: I could add GIFs of Lol-cats, links to that screaming goat on YouTube, maybe even some swears. I was all set to just swaddle this review in my patented soft cottony blend of %15 filmic insight, %85 goofy snark and call it a day. Then the hounding began. The publicist team for the documentary sent a flurry of emails and voicemails pleading that we do a double interview with the subject and director of the film. Recognizing that this wonderful opportunity would make for better journalism and lend more credibility to my review, I responded,
“Jeez! Gawd, fiiiiiiiiiiine!”
…And the nightmare began.
Before I get to that, though, let me tell you a bit about the film. It is about a contemporary artist named Wayne White. Ever heard of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? Well, that show owes a lot of its kooky sets and whimsical puppets (and even some voice acting) to Wayne White. That’s cool firstly because Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is still one of the most recognizable and visually iconic shows ever to grace the boob tube which means Wayne White contributed to a decently major chunk of American pop culture, and secondly because somebody paid him to play with puppets all day for years. Nowadays, he paints kooky and whimsical paintings about which critics were all like, “Bleh, this can’t be good art because it’s funny and funny things can’t be good!” and then later were all like, “Oh, wait. We’re dumb. It’s good art-making after all.” Not only that, but Mr. White came from humble Tennessee roots. Obviously, he is an interesting guy. That comes through in the movie. However, the film itself is a bit dry; lacking in a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a little thing I like to call “entertainingness”. Perhaps this interesting guy’s story would be better suited to a talk show slot, or a 30 min. TV special, or given his affinity for puppets, some sort of kabuki theater thing rather than a feature-length documentary that took 2 years and 300+ hours of footage to make.
Anyway, enough about people who aren’t me. Back to the aforementioned nightmare: the interview with Wayne White and director Neil Berkeley. After so many calls and emails from the Californian publicist confirming, and changing, and again confirming the time of the interview that it may meet the legal definition of harassment (I’m not sure, is 72 billion calls too many?) the hour of the scheduled conference call was at hand. So, like a girl hoping her breath hadn’t been too garlicky on that magical first date, I waited nervously for the phone to ring. I waited for half an hour, feeling minutes of my life slip away into the abyss, never to return. Then I called my favorite publicist back (who, thanks to Stockholm’s Syndrome, I’m pretty sure is my future husband) to ask sobbingly, “Whyyyy haven’t they called? Was it something I said? Am I not p-pretty enough?” My new Californian fiancée then tracked these bums down and eventually got them to call me. Here’s how the interview went, laid bare for your sadistic pleasure:
Me (Courteously anticipating my well-deserved apology): Hi! I’m Kit Bryant. I write for the Little Village, a news and culture magazine in Iowa City.
Them: Mmm. Hmm.
Me (Bewildered): …Iowa.
Them: Hmm. Mmmhmm.
Me (Sucking up like a weenie): Anyway, I loved the documentary. I thought it was really…charming!
Them: Okay. Thanks.
Me (A cowardly, cowardly little weenie): Okay. Well, I’ve prepared a few questions for you both. I’ll start with some softballs for ya to ease into it.
Them: We only have 15 minutes.
Me (Vacillating wildly between self-pity and self-hatred): Oh! Okay, uh, nevermind then. Let’s see…Wayne, this question is for you. How did you react to the final project?
Wayne White: I enjoyed it! I didn’t see it until it premiered at South by Southwest. I was crossing my fingers that it would turn out good, but I trusted Neil to do his thing and stayed out of it. What do I know about making movies? But I couldn’t have been more pleased with how it turned out.
Me (Mired in petulant resentment): The film gets pretty personal, especially in regard to your parents. How did they react to it?
WW: Well, as you could see in the movie, my dad doesn’t react to anything. He is incapable of expressing himself. They saw it when it came to Nashville and afterwards he came up to me and said, “Well, we’d better get going. The traffic on the I-24 gets pretty bad.”
Me (Who do they think they are: some big-shots? I’m just some nobody?): Oh, haha that’s great! It’s in character at least, right? Next question: your paintings met some mixed critical reception because they were funny. Do you have any theories on why humor isn’t taken seriously, so to speak?
WW: Well, humor isn’t serious! It’s a paradox: people think humor is frivolity, that laughter is frivolity, but laughter is deep. That’s the paradox of humor.
Me (Jeez, Kit! They’re just a couple of guys who made a movie. It’s cool. They’re not trying to murder you or anything.): Wayne, what would be your ultimate dream project if you could work on anything right now?
WW: I’d like to do a sculpture that would be a permanent part of the landscape. That dream is hopefully coming true soon in my hometown, Chatanooga, Tennessee.
Me (Yeah, just calm down, Kit. You’re over-reacting): Cool! What will it be of?
WW: Huh? Well, it would be a sculpture. A permanent part of the landscape.
Me (Aaaaaggh! Kit, you’re in a tailspin, you nobody!): Yes, but of what?
WW: A sculpture. Made of steel. And painted.
Me (Regroup, Tiger. Ask the director why he made such a boring movie!): Neil, this question is for you. Wayne’s work is really humorous and whimsical whereas your film has some definitely melancholy moments. Were you aiming to create a more realistic tone and if so, why?
Neil Berkeley: Well, I’ve never heard anyone describe the film as “melancholy” before. There was the car accident and he had kind of a downfall in the nineties, but there’s humor as well. I think it captures the humor of Wayne.
Me (Oh, never heard that before? That’s cuz I got the guts ta tell the truth, baby! Bam!): Haha, yeah, I liked the shots of Wayne dancing.
WW: He made me do that. At every opportunity.
NB: I wanted to tell the truth though. Wayne didn’t always have it easy.
Me (Just a few more questions. You’re almost done!): Neil, the press kit mentioned you shot the film for two years and got over 300 hours of footage. How did you decide what to cut and what to keep? What principle or narrative was guiding those decisions?
NB: That’s more the editor, miracle-worker that he is. We did a test screening and people weren’t reacting the way I thought they would to certain parts so we had to tear down the whole film and sort of rebuild.
Me (What’s the point of this? What’s the point of anything? Oh God!): What were you hoping the audience would take away from the film?
NB: What they did take away: a joyful, hopeful feeling. Seeing that it is possible to do what you want to for a living.
Me (Humanity is shallow and self-serving and there’s no hope for us): I’ve got one last question for the both of you. Iowa City is a college town with a lot of recent graduates in this economy. What advice do you have for the aspiring filmmakers and puppeteers of Iowa City?
WW: Perseverance. It’s hard. Especially in the arts. You’re going to get rejected a lot. You just have to persevere.
NB: Yeah, I think that, and…you can do what you love for a living.
Me: Anything else either of you would like to add?
NB: Buy the movie! It’s the perfect gift. Tell your friends.
Me: Oh, I will.
Well there you have it, folks! You can do what you love and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Seriously, my bitter neurosis aside, Beauty is Embarrassing left me, someone who wants to get paid to write jokes full-time, with a creeping optimism; a sense of that with a lot of luck and grit I could make that dream come true. If for nothing else, the documentary is worthwhile to watch for that rare glimmer of hope that your weird hobby could become your job. Plus, all the sweet puppets.
Watch the trailer here.