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Originally published Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"America the Beautiful" director's exploration of societal obsession leads to unexpected places

Director Darryl Roberts talks about his feature-length documentary "America the Beautiful," opening at the Uptown. He ended up shooting and editing much of the picture in Vancouver, Wash.

Special to The Seattle Times

Half a dozen years ago, Darryl Roberts read about a man who was so infatuated with a beautiful model that he killed her. She had rejected him, and he decided that if he couldn't have her, no one would.

Roberts thought that was pretty crazy, but then he remembered how smitten he'd once been with a woman who was so gorgeous that he could barely speak around her.

"I was discombobulated," he said during a Seattle visit. He wanted her so much on their first date that he bought a red and black Jaguar just to impress her.

That recognition of an irrational passion eventually led him to direct a feature-length documentary, "America the Beautiful" (opening today at the Uptown) that tries to come to terms with the American obsession with beauty — and the increasingly elaborate and artificial means used to achieve it.

A former entertainment reporter, furniture maker and sometime filmmaker (he directed and starred in the 1993 romantic comedy "How U Like Me Now"), Roberts started the project with $30,000 charged to his credit card.

He shot about 70 hours, most of it talking-heads material that included exasperated schoolteachers, glib plastic surgeons, unrepentant male chauvinists, magazine editors who shamelessly retouch photographs and "The Vagina Monologues" creator Eve Ensler. Then he went through a couple of editors before finding the form (and the financing) he needed.

Roberts ended up shooting and editing much of the picture in Vancouver, Wash., where his first editor lived. He'd been working on the film for about six months in Los Angeles, and immediately he noticed major differences in the female teenage population.

"The girls in Los Angeles were more obsessed with beauty, and it's because their parents, living in Los Angeles, just accepted that's the way it was. A lot of the parents in Portland and Vancouver were more grounded.

"You saw a stronger sense of them trying to raise their children — I won't say properly — but in a way that they weren't as affected by the images. If you're in a healthy environment it seems to me that you have more stamina and strength.

"Teenage girls in Vancouver weren't obsessing about having plastic surgery at 16, whereas that was predominant in Los Angeles. They were still affected, but not to the degree they were in Los Angeles."

Roberts claims that Europe and Canada are also less susceptible, but that soft-core American advertising has an impact there as well. It's also affected the teenagers of Fiji, who are wearing more makeup since television was introduced.

Looking for a subject to tie everything together, Roberts ended up focusing on a 12-year-old California model, Gerren Taylor, who was the star of the American fashion runways for a time. As the movie demonstrates, her success faded fast.

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"I'd never really planned on using her footage much," said Roberts. But then the real story took a dramatic turn in London and Paris, where she was considered overweight at the age of 17.

"She had this meltdown, when they told her she was too many centimeters big to model, and she began thinking she was ugly," he said. "Everyone had been telling her she's beautiful, and that's where her self-esteem came from. But when you get your self-esteem from external things, it can be taken away from you.

"We went back and restructured the whole film, and kind of laid the film around the young model's story — which became a way to explore this bigger, broader social issue. That's what happens with editing. The footage kind of tells you what to do."

Something similar happened with Christopher Bell's "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American," a recent documentary about the addiction to steroids to create Rambo-style physical perfection.

Roberts acknowledges the similarities, points out that "we started our movie first," then laughs and says he has a more-the-merrier attitude toward a new kind of documentary that he and Bell seem to be creating from scratch.

"We're all family," he said.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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