Sunday, July 24


Big Flop Pee-Wee

Last night I went to the Bridge Theatre for Peaches Christ's midnight presentation of one of my favorite films of all-time, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. What can I say about that film? Before the show (after a performance of a spoof skit "Peaches' Playhouse") the drag queen talked about her former life as a teenage goth who wore black and listened only to dirgelike music by Bauhaus. Yet she would put on Tim Burton's film all the time, as it was the "only thing in the world that made me smile." Though my affection for the film doesn't come from a story quite like that, I think many in the sold-out crowd have similar histories with the film (there were many attendees in Pee-Wee costumes, and the guy sitting two seats down from me was quietly reciting practically every line of dialogue.)

What makes this film resonate so strongly with so many of my (approximate) generation? What makes it continue to find new fans 20 years after its initial release? I don't have any concrete theories, but I do have a sense that somehow the Pee-Wee Herman character, as portrayed in his television series but especially in this film (which, in case you're fuzzy on your 80's pop culture history, came first), represents a very attractive vision of non-adulthood. Pee-Wee acts like a child, playing with a fire engine the first thing after getting out of bed in the morning, maintaining his lawn with a Water Wiggle, and using childish retorts to disarm his rivals. But though he looks odd he definitely is not a child. Was a whole generation who saw this film as kids (I was twelve and in no hurry to be a teenager at the time, so I think I qualify) exposed to the idea of an adult functioning (if barely) in the adult world, yet holding firmly onto childlike behavior? Is this part of the explanation for so many young, and even not quite so young, adults maintaining an arrested adolescence these days? Who knows?

Today I appreciate the film for its succinct, cinematic style. Paul Reubens' and Phil Hartman's script beautifully utilizes cultural archetypes such as the spoiled rich kid, the prison escapee, and the motorcycle gang, but tweaks them just a tad, to make them seem real in Pee-Wee's (and director Tim Burton's) stylized universe. Danny Elfman's score may be little more than a love letter to Nino Rota's music for 8 1/2, but damn if it doesn't work with this material. But Pee-Wee has also become something of a gay icon (perhaps he always was), as evidenced by the crowd at the Bridge. The line he gives the valley girl at the bike shop, "There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand." drew the loudest roar of applause of the night. Perhaps this was in light of Mr. Reubens' 1991 arrest, or perhaps just because its an inherently funny line. But I'm sure many see Pee-Wee's rejection of Dottie as a sign of his gayness. I'm more likely to think of him as a pre-sexual being; a boy who, like Dan Savage's 6-year-old son, simply is at the maturity level where he thinks of the idea of a girlfriend as "icky."

Either way, its clear why everything about Big Top Pee Wee, the 1988 sequel directed by Randal Klesier, doesn't work at all. It tries to have Pee-Wee grow out of that pre-sexual (or homosexual, depending on your perspective) phase by placing him in a love triangle between two women. The moment when Valerie Golino's Gina and Pee-Wee engage in Hollywood's longest screen kiss is mildly amusing in an over-the-top way, but it fatally undercuts Pee-Wee's character, who had already been partially undercut by a scene when he tries to hump his schoolteacher fiancée (Penelope Ann Miller) on a picnic blanket. Love is simply not the right motivator for Pee Wee, unless it's love of something a child can relate to like a bicycle. His other passion expressed in the sequel is his desire to join the circus already amply staffed by such talent as Kris Kristofferson, Susan Tyrell and Benicio Del Toro. At least it's an appropriate desire for the character. Too bad it keeps him tethered to the small town where he's inexplicably disliked by practically every other resident (only to set up a moment of supposedly magical whimsy late in the film, by which point we no longer much care.) Pee-Wee's Big Adventure derives much of its charm from the plotlessness inherent in the road movie genre it inhabits. The entire midsection of the film has no meaning to Pee Wee's quest for his bicycle; its a wild goose chase concocted by the fraudulent seer Madame Ruby. By contrast, Big Top Pee Wee tries to let events pile up on each other in a semblance of logical order. It doesn't work. Pee Wee feels too reigned-in by this structure. This is leaving alone the typical pitfalls of sequel-itis that the film exemplifies, such as the recycled lines of dialogue that invariably lose their impact in the new context and only serve to remind of the original film's superiority. And the mirrored devices like the opening dream sequence followed by the breakfast-making scene, the "let's put on a show" finale, etc. Add on the fact that Elfman was unable to reuse the one element that might have been a welcome continuity from the first film, its musical themes (due to the fact that the two films were produced at separate studios) and there's really very little to hold your attention to the screen except to count the misjudgements.

I'd long been told to avoid Big Top Pee Wee, and I'd long avoided it, as if in fear that seeing it might even taint my opinion of the Tim Burton film. I'm glad to say that after finally watching it on DVD this afternoon, 12 hours after seeing the original, the sequel's total failure has not made me think one iota less of the magnificent Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

Great post! Nice reference to This American Life too. I was actually listening to it as I read your entry....Synchronisity at work I suppose.

I've never been a fan of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure but your post has convinced me to sit down for an evening some time this week and give it a through going over.

Thanks for the comment, John! Back in 1998 or so I used to proudly tell anyone who'd listen that This American Life was my favorite radio program. Now it seems almost redundant to try to get excited about it. It's more like, "yes, I'm an intelligent person, so yes, I know about This American Life and I enjoy it." It's now a starting point rather than a cool thing to point to. But I'm glad I was able to point to it anyway. I was just thinking about Pee Wee and realizing, "Hey haven't I just recently heard somebody else talk about that state of mind?"

I hope you like PWBA. At least there's a shot from inside a dinosaur's head that I think you ought to appreciate even if the narrative doesn't float your boat.
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