Friday, July 18, 2008

A Man Named Pearl

Welcome to Mayberry. Enjoy the topiary. One might expect the agricultural community of Bishopville, South Carolina to conform to every Tobacco Road stereotype of the rural South. Yet despite its economic challenges, Bishopville appears to a harmonious and distinctive community, in large part due to the influence of self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar, profiled in A Man Named Pearl, a new documentary opening in New York today (trailer here).

The genesis of Fryar’s large-scale geometric plant sculptures certainly conforms to elitist preconceptions of the American South. When the Fryars’ realtor tried to dissuade them from looking at homes in the traditionally white part of town, because some neighbors voiced concerns they might not properly keep up their yard, it planted the seed of Fryar’s ambition to become the first African American to win the local yard of the month contest. To do so, Fryar believed he needed something really, really outside of the box.

Needless to say, Fryar picked up the gardening club’s award, but kept pursuing his otherworldly landscape art. Eventually, Fryar would lecture at the local college and receive a commission from the South Carolina State Museum. National media profiles made the gracious Fryars’ home a tourist attraction, earning him the thanks of a grateful local business community.

Fryar’s art appears to be a unifying force in his small town community. Fryar and his lovely wife Metra always eat for free at the local Waffle House, after he planted some of his work in front of their restaurant. The good ole boy mayor and Chamber of Commerce chairman are among his biggest fans. It really is an incredibly nice story.

Nice can also mean dull, without a dramatic conflict to keep things interesting. At first, it is crazy watching Fryar trim his enormous trees and bushes while balancing precariously on rickety looking ladders, but Pearl probably has the highest ladder to dialogue ratio of any film in recent memory. Fortunately, it also has a lively jazz score that keeps the film from losing momentum. Composer and pianist Fred Story, whose credits include work with Woody Herman and the London Symphony Orchestra, leads a jazz quartet of Carolina based players, including drummer Al Sergel, trumpeter Jon Thornton, and Phil Thompson on sax, through an appropriately upbeat, swinging program that keeps the film moving along nicely.

Fryar deserves all his accolades and the filmmakers are right to give him his due. As nice and life-affirming as the film is though, it does feel a little light for a full length theatrical feature, despite the swinging assist from Story’s soundtrack. It opens today in New York at the Angelika, with the artist himself on hand for the 6:00 screening.