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Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

1985. Directed by Tim Burton. With Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), Elizabeth Dailey, Ed Herlihy.


Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is one of the funniest and more original comedies of the 80s. Like Pee-Wee himself, it's got the sensibility of a depraved child. It's simultaneous cynical about and charmed by decades worth of cliched attitudes, situations, characters, and (pardon my French) mise-en-scene. Among its many riffs, there's a hilarious, astute take-off on that self-ref chestnut, the studio comedy.

As you recall, Pee-Wee spends the movie searching for his stolen bike. When he spots it in a newsreel, being presented to a child star, he heads immediately to Warner Brothers Studios. There he re-enacts the classic outsider-on-a-movie-lot situations that turn up in every generation of movies: Chaplin's 1916 The Masquerader, Merton of the Movies and Ella Cinders in the 20s, Movie Crazy in the 30s, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood in the 40s, Hollywood or Bust in the 50s, to name a few. You've seen this dozens of times: He has to sneak past the guard at the studio gate. He's amazed to see incongruously-dressed extras chatting together (inevitably, there's an Indian chief and a gladiator). He encounters the gulf between truth and illusion as the bratty child star argues with the actress playing the Mother Superior until theAction!" sets them to hugging and weeping" He gets chased through the sound-stages, disrupting a ski scene, a Japanese dinosaur movie, a Tarzan picture, etc.

And, of course-—this seems the inevitable climax of every studio comedy—all this mayhem turns out to have been inadvertently captured on film. A studio executive screening dailies gets a look at Pee-Wee's mad scramble past Godzilla and decides that he's a brilliant new talent and must be signed at once.

(Every times it appears, this tricky piece of plotting turns in on itself. On one level, a "civilian," our surrogate, penetrates the mysterious world of movie-making, and turns out to be at home there. Natural, human befuddlement in the face of all that artifice wins him or her a movie contract. (There's always a line like: "Refreshing! Just what we need!"). On another level, it's a fact that these civilians are actually stars to begin with; we're watching them on-screen, after all. Before our eyes, they have their star status reconfirmed, and sort of earn their way into the movie we're watching.)

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, a post-modern version of an already highly reflexive story, adds its own commentary on the cliche. The producer who discovers Pee-Wee (he's played by real-life producer Tony Bill) decides to build around him a film called Pee-Wee's Big Adventure but it isn't the same movie we've been watching. It's a James Bond-ized version, with James Brolin as a macho P.W., Morgan Fairchild as his suddenly-sexy girlfriend, and a souped-up motorcycle in place of Pee-Wee's beloved bike. True to the genre, Pee-Wee himself makes one of those gimmicky guest appearances (like the real Melvin Dummar in Melvin and Howard, the real Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, et al). In his role as the bellboy, Pee-Wee does all those distracting things that amateurs tend to do onscreen—blinking too much, staring into the lens, reacting visibly to off-camera instructions. He's even been dubbed with a weird deep voice. It's such a well-observed piece of satire!.

We see this new version of Pee-Wee's story during its premiere screening, at a drive-in where Pee-Wee has invited all the folks he met on the road. He and the real Dolly make a little fun of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but mostly they love it. Warned that he's missing the movie, Pee-Wee does his James Brolin imitation: "I don't have to see it; I lived it."

It's not right to talk about layers of fantasy and reality here, since there is no reality, starting with Pee-Wee Herman himself, a fictitious performer playing an invented character involved in a completely surrealistic "adventure." The Brolin-Fairchild "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" is age-aproporate for Pee-Wee; it's a 9-year-old's dream of what a movie about him should be like.It's a send-up of Hollywood cliches, but it also serves to show how unconventional and subversive the original Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (the one with Pee-Wee) is.

It's hard to write about the Pee-Wee phenomenon because—and this is his charm—it's never clear what is being ridiculed, what is meant sincerely, and whether it really matters. This funny, cynical movie is also quite sweet. Like Pee-Wee, it's both degenerate and innocent. It seems perfect that Pee-Wee's post modern odyssey across America would end in Hollywood, USA, turn into cinematic trash, and emerge unscathed in its charming final shot.

(2/6/1998)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein