Monday, October 20, 2008

Film Review--A Man Named Pearl

A Man Named Pearl
directed by Scott Galloway, Brent Pierson

A Man Named Pearl is the story of Pearl Fryar. A self-taught topiary artist from Bishopville, South Carolina. Fryar presents himself as an easy going, calm, ambassador for the town and has brought fame to the tiny Southern town.

Fryar originally tried to move into a neighborhood but was rebuked by his potential neighborhoods who felt he would not be able to keep up his lawn (Fryar is black). Undeterred Fryar found a house sitting on three acres and gradually went to work. He began to bring home plants that were discarded by a local business. He would plant them about his yard and began to see them as something more than simple plants. After a fifteen minute demonstration at a local hardware store, he began to shape the plants in accordance to his own designs. Eventually he won the hard-fought “Yard of the Month” competition being the first African American to ever claim the prize. From that point on his yard began to get attention. He made the local papers and soon national publications were seeking him out. His celebrity did not effect him in any discernible way and he continued to apply much of his time to caring for his garden.

The film focuses much of its time on Fryar’s tireless work ethic as he is shown performing a variety of necessary tasks. He worked at a local bottling factory up to twelve hours per day and would come home and often work well into the morning. There are several scenes with Fryar brandishing his chain saw trimming bushes into their freakish forms.

Fryar is something of a local treasure who is hired by the town to line a street downtown with his creations. The local economy is weak as many businesses have moved on leaving the community trying to create interest for the five thousand commuters who pass through their town on their way to other destinations. There is a definite sadness about this town as the boarded up buildings pay tribute to a place that is broken, abused, and nearly lacking a pulse. Fryar is the only thing the town has to offer and it comes across as rather pathetic how they use him as a selling point to tourists who are looking for the only real thing to do there. All through it Fryar retains his charming demeanor and even shows up late for church to meet and greet a bus filled with people who have heard or read something about his garden.

Fryar is a simple man. He has worked hard all his life and is not overtly troubled by circumstances beyond his control. The film relates the impact his garden has on those who witness it first hand. It is described as almost a sacred place of solace where people can escape to if only for a few minutes. Indeed, there is much religion in this film be it the local all-black Baptist church or the presentation of the garden as the work of God. Although racism is not directly addressed there is a sense that this is mostly a segregated town and this is born out by the racial make up of the black church.

The film interviews the mayor, the pastor, and Fryar’s wife among others. Throughout they sing Fryar’s praises and it does become a bit redundant toward the end. It’s clear that Fryar is beloved by all and it seems as if he has no faults whatsoever based on the comments given by all those who know him. He’s described in the most lofty terms as a man of God, as a beacon of goodness, and as a role model to children to whom he devotes a specialized attention. He spends considerable time in the film sharing his life experience with high school art students. They sit in rapture eagerly devouring every word. Again, this man is presented like a saint and there is no doubt that when he passes there will be a statue of him in front of the library.

The idea has been suggested to me that topiary is an abominable practice that distorts the natural beauty of plants. There is something to this as I noticed immediately upon leaving the film that I was buying into the propaganda that Fryar’s garden was more beautiful than a typical garden simply because it was so unorthodox and strange. I then looked around and realized that the trees, left in their natural state, were far more aesthetically appealing to what I had witnessed on screen. I said initially that it was the most beautiful garden I had ever seen but in actuality it was merely the most different. In this light, Fryar’s garden is something of a grotesquerie that impresses simply because of its novelty. Upon reflection his works actually seem ugly when compared to what might be had he left them to their natural state. Still, he is heralded as a local icon who has taken discarded plants and morphed them into something original from his own imagination. He has changed the language of his community and has actually inspired his neighbors to make their own efforts toward copying his handiwork.

This film isn’t about topiary at all. Instead it is a portrait of a man who has given of himself to his community in such a way that he has literally touched the lives of most everyone who has come in contact with him. Pearl Fryar is presented as a man who lives in accordance with simple principles that guide him and allow him to react to his audience with genuine appreciation. He is clearly gifted and returns his gifts to whomever he meets. Nevertheless, his life’s work is to pervert the cause of nature into creations that do not edify in the end. They are simply weird for weird sake and they would most certainly not be able to survive in the wild. They have been declawed, broken down, and forced into shapes that go against their tendencies.

Overall, this is a man who clearly knows how to play to his audience. He gives the people what they want and simply cannot slow down for a second because such a thing is utterly foreign to him. His work is everything to him and it has brought him considerable fame that seemingly has not gone to his head. It isn’t clear if his local fame has led to any actual improvements in the town which seems desperate to find itself once again. But, he is a topic of interest who does manage to attract tourists from all over the world. It’s no doubt one of the most interesting exhibits on display for miles around. It’s bizarre and people seem to enjoy anomalies that challenge their sense of propriety and common sense. Fryar’s garden is an inspiration not because of its alleged beauty but mainly because of the work of this singular man whose genius has left an indelible impression on everyone who has encountered it.

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