For whoever’s counting, the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT) is off to a monster start in 2013, with a second consecutive weekend featuring a documentary about a particular artistic process. Previously, it was the astounding photographic productions of Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, and last weekend it was the far-ranging multi-mediated stylings of cartoonist and set designer-come-fine artist Wayne White, in the hilarious documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing (directed by Neil Berkeley).
I may date myself to note that I first became familiar with White’s work at quite a young age, as he was one of the psychedelic set-builders and puppeteers behind the explosively imaginative Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The documentary features a wonderful glimpse behind the scenes, with commentary not only from Paul Reubens (who acted as the show’s eponymous host) but clips from the unseen stream-of-consciousness puppeteering that took place behind the scenes of the official production, a delightful artistic petri dish created by shepherding a team of East Village creative into a Los Angeles soundstage, and giving them ample downtime.
More valuable than a retread of a much-loved cultural reference, however, is the living portrait of White’s career as he struggles to exist as an artist. Graced with early success, White found himself floating in uncertainty after the end of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and though contemporary culture is pitted with his creative output (such as the award-winning Smashing Pumpkins video for “Tonight, Tonight”), high visibility doesn’t keep you on top for long, especially in Los Angeles.
More recently White has broken into the realm of fine art, with “word paintings” that highlight a puckish sense of humor that is neither regular nor generally welcome in the world of “high art.” This humor makes Beauty Is Embarrassing a sheer pleasure, as it is the framework through which White copes with his identity as a Southerner, his trials as an artist, and his place in his family. A thoroughly human picture of an unquestionably great artist, and another win for the DFT, under the guidance of Margaret Thomas.
Detroit Film Theatre, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7887; www.dia.org/detroitfilmtheatre/14/DFT.aspx.