Film Nerd 2.0: The boys hit the road for ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’

There was a period of time there where it seemed like if you chose to show a kid the movie “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” people might view that as bad parenting or a controversial choice because of some of the real-life misadventures of Paul Reubens.

Thank god that’s over.

I’m old enough that my first exposure to Paul Reubens and the Pee-Wee Herman character came through the Cheech and Chong movies he appeared in.  I was only ten years old when “Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie” came out, so I didn’t catch up with it until it showed up on cable a year later, which was right around the same time HBO first aired “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” a videotaped version of the show that Reubens staged in LA with the help of the Groundlings.  That’s how he ended up in the Cheech & Chong film, too.  There was an entire LA underground comedy scene that was captured in those early films that Cheech & Chong made, and when you see him play the character in “Next Movie” or when you see him as “The Hamburger Dude” in “Nice Dreams,” that’s the impression I had of Reubens for many years.  There was something great about the way he set the raunch and the rock-and-roll of the late ’70s against the super-pure ’50s kids show aesthetic that he so obviously adored, and it was edgy without being full-blown dirty.  I’ve written about this before, actually.

Even so, I had no idea what to expect one August afternoon in 1985 when I walked into a theater where my friend worked, bored and waiting for him to finish a shift.  I had that moment of “Oh, yeah, I remember that guy” looking at the poster for “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” but no expectations of any sort.  I just figured I’d kill some time waiting for my buddy to get off work.  Instead, when he finished his shift and came to get me, I told him I had to wait and see the rest of the film.  I was absolutely flattened by the surreal world of the film, by the visual wit of a young Tim Burton, and by the incredibly devoted comic performance Reubens gave.  I ended up seeing it at least five or six more times while it was in theaters, and one of the things I loved most was seeing it with someone who didn’t know what it was and watching them at key points in the film.

Yes.  I mean Large Marge, among other highlights.

“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is one of those films where every single thing just went right.  The script by Phil Hartman, Reubens, and Michael Varhol is a thing of lunatic beauty, with a logic that only works in that world, a particular skewed vision and voice that just doesn’t play like any other movie.  From the moment Pee-Wee Herman wakes up in his house, which is a much bigger and stranger Rube Goldberg set piece than the Playhouse, his much more famous and oft-visited address.  The house we see Pee-Wee in here is unique to this movie, and that’s one of the things I really like about the film.  Yes, I’m excited to see what happens when he finally does a movie in which the Playhouse is realized as both interior and exterior as part of the larger Playhouse world.  But this is as much a Tim Burton movie as it is a Pee-Wee Herman, and the autobiographical details that tie it to Burton are part of what gives it an identity all its own.

Specifically, I love that most of the “Big Adventure,” an epic road movie, seems to take place in and around Burbank.  From the town square featuring Chuck’s Bike Shop and the magic store where Pee-Wee’s bike is first stolen to the Warner Bros. lot that the final manic set piece takes place, this is a Burbank movie, through and through, and that’s Tim Burton’s ‘hood.  That’s what he is reacting to in pretty much everything else he’s ever made.  While he shot the exteriors of “Edward Scissorhands” (which we’ll be watching as the last film of 2012, this coming Christmas) in Florida, he’s still consciously evoking the flat Southern California hell where he suffered through childhood, and this film captures it beautifully.

Last week, Toshi had a particularly good day at school, and he and his brother made it through a day without any big knock-down drag-out fights (a bit of an accomplishment at the moment), and he had been eyeing the book where we put the DVDs that I picked with him in the last column.  He finally asked me about it when it dawned on him that the day was going well at that point.  “Can we watch a movie with you tonight, one of the ones from the book?”  When he asked, he was sitting behind me on my office couch, and I turned to see him, the book already open on his lap, paging through it.

He cracks me up, the way he likes to look at posters and DVD art and just take some time with them.  I did the same thing when I was his age, with novelizations and with magazine ads and with videocassette covers once they finally started to make their way into my home in the late ’70s.  I would look at the art and try to imagine what the film might be.  With Pee-Wee, Toshi has a pretty rich history to draw on already.  His very first stack of “approved” DVDs that his mother and I put in front of him included the “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” series.  My wife had never seen the show, and she really didn’t know Pee-Wee as a character, so when she played one of the discs one afternoon for Toshi, I was pleased to see that she became an instant fan, and Toshi really seemed to bond with Pee-Wee right away.  That show would send him into overdrive when he was Allen’s age, and it’s one of the few things that he watched when he was three that he still likes to watch.  That’s a big developmental period.  Toshi went from “Blue’s Clues” to “Revenge of the Sith” in that period.

“But wait, Allen’s only three, and he saw ‘Revenge Of The Sith’ with his brother.”  Yep.  It’s true.  Second and third and fourth children reap the benefits of their older siblings, who are the pioneers.  It’s just a fact.  It’s tough to tell one child that they can watch something that the other one can’t, and that’s going to benefit Allen for much of childhood until a few key years when it will actually work against Toshi, because we’re going to have to hold off on some of the R-rated fare until Allen’s ready, too.  Allen is already just as primed on the “Playhouse” as Toshi is, having watched those same discs, all of them starting to show some real wear and tear at this point.  Those discs have been well-loved.

When Paul Reubens announced his live show, I went and interviewed him for HitFix, and it was exciting to see him play the character again and to see him talking so optimistically about it.  At the time, there was a big question mark about what the audience for it would be, and I think even when we were at that breakfast event, the publicists sounded unsure about what any of us were planning to say or write.  That era when his personal life overwhelmed the professional was a strange one for anyone who admired his work.  I like many of the appearances he made in films like “Blow” or “Mystery Men” or “Life During Wartime” over the years, and I think he’s genuinely a benefit to anything he’s in.  He’s a sharp comedy brain in general, and has a great sense of how to build a character.  During that era when everything was front page and a hot topic, I saw him quite a bit at Dave’s Video where he was a customer, and he always had the long hair and the beard and the aggressively anti Pee-Wee look, and I totally understood why.  It must have seemed for a long time like he had torched Pee-Wee once and for all, like no one would ever tune in for a “Playhouse” style treatment of the character again.

But it worked.  People just plain don’t care, and that makes me so happy.  It really does.  We ended up getting tickets to the LA shows, and my wife and I took Toshi to see it with us.  Because our original dates were cancelled and rescheduled at a new venue, they gave us passes to a special post-show Q&A that was smaller, where Pee-Wee would actually chat with people.  We stayed for it, and Pee-Wee ended up talking to Toshi, on the mic, for a good six or seven minutes.  It was sort of mind-blowing, and Toshi handled himself with far more aplomb than I would have at his age.  Paul asked Toshi questions and then just scored some great point riffing off of his answers.  It was a great example of that live comedy background of his allowing him to do anything with the character.

Then when the live show went to Broadway and got taped for HBO, that eventually got put on Blu-ray and sent to me, and both of the boys saw that together.  Allen knows that Toshi went and saw it and he didn’t, but he seems okay with that since it happened before he can remember.  He really wasn’t old enough at that point to really get it, and so since he doesn’t remember the actual night we went and did it without him, it’s as if we didn’t.  He saw it on video, he’s seen the pictures of Toshi and Pee-Wee together, and that seems to him as if he was sort of basically kind of included.

So that’s all the build-up to the boys finally seeing the movie.  It’s been a long time coming, and we all got comfortable in my office, cranked it up, and settled in.  First observation I’d make is I really need to go pick up the Blu-ray of this one tomorrow.  My DVD is terrible.  It’s an old one, and the picture quality was pretty close to VHS quality.  I almost felt bad showing it to the boys this way, but they didn’t care.  I forget that to them, it’s all just “movies.”  They’re so involved in what they watch that they’re not worried about how it looks.  Kids open their pores to movies in a different way than we do, and with this one, both of the boys were vocal and rowdy, laughing and rolling around.  Allen’s ridiculous during comedies.  He has a laugh where he gets going and he can’t stop himself and then Toshi starts laughing at Allen laughing, and it’s a feedback loop.  Right away, just watching Pee-Wee’s morning ritual, they were laughing and talking about what they just saw.  Then they met Francis, and met Pee-Wee’s bike, and it was all just laughs and giggles, and then they got to the magic shop…

… and that’s when Allen got in my lap and got a little more serious.  He was still laughing, but he asked me, right around the time Mario walked out with the giant head and Pee-Wee screamed, “Daddy, is this scary, too?”

“Sort of.  But funny scary.  Like ‘Nightmare Before Christmas.'”

That helped.  He’s a big fan of that one.  “Can I sit with you?”

“Of course.”

“Then okay.  That’s okay.”  Again, that’s something that Burton nailed in this first feature of his that has been a goal throughout his career is that mix of comedy and scary, and this film’s got a few great examples.  Every one of them seemed to really work, too, with both of the boys riding that see-saw through moments like the Madam Ruby scene, or Pee-Wee walking in the dark with just his animated eyes showing, or, most famously, Large Marge.  There’s a nightmare later on with evil clowns that is, frankly, too scary for me to watch, but that one was fine for the boys because they like dinosaurs.  It was Large Marge that really knocked them flat, and it remains one of the most inspired and wonderful moments in the movie.  On a writing level, I love that this film has a particular fondness for Americana, whether in the form of the “riding the train with a singing hobo” sequence or the American ghost story that is represented in the Large Marge scene or the truck stop where Pee-Wee meets Simone.  The way the Large Marge scene builds to the reveal is great, but what’s even better is the punchline, often forgotten, when Pee-Wee walks into the diner.  For the kids, that was just as big a moment.  Allen couldn’t get over it, and for about fifteen minutes, he periodically would say, “Daddy, do you remember when the Large Marge lady was a ghost?”  He was incredulous.  Mind blown.  And then by the fourth time he said it, Toshi got the giggles about it, especially when I teased him about the look he had on his own face when Large Marge turned around.  You have to see this movie with people, because it’s so much fun to share a “holy crap” moment like that with someone.

One of the things I’m noticing with Toshi is that he’s paying attention to film music.  He likes to play scores in the car, and he’s got his favorites already.  I can’t tell you how many drives we’ve had that have been entirely underscored by “The Empire Strikes Back,” and disc two in particular.  He commented a few times that he liked the Pee-Wee music, and he asked me after the film if I have it on my computer.  I was a fan of the “Star Wars” scores when I was little, but not many other scores, and certainly not as young as he is now.  I know adults who have admitted to me that they really don’t “hear” film music, that it’s just background to them, and it always baffles me.  I guess that’s how film music works on some people, though.  Toshi’s got a keen interest in it, though, and I’m certainly going to help him follow that interest if he wants.

The biggest laugh of the film for them is the brilliant physical gag that punctuates the “Tequila” dance, when Pee-Wee walks outside with the bikers and they give him a motorcycle and wish him well and he drives away… right through a sign, just before he falls over.  It’s so great, so beautifully timed and shot and staged, and both of the boys fell apart all over again, laughing and laughing.  It’s great when you’re three and you can just laugh like a lunatic with your whole body because jokes are brand-new.  Even the most ancient knock-knock bit is brand-new to Allen, and so when he laughs, it’s just involuntary.  It’s surrender.  He just goes with it, absolutely helpless at times.

As big “Godzilla” fans, they were both delighted to see the “Godzilla” sets during Pee-Wee’s final ride through all the various soundstages.  But that chase didn’t make them laugh anywhere near as much as the fire in the pet store afterwards, which I think might be one of the finest scenes Reubens has ever performed.  I love every single reaction shot as he’s running in and out of the store, deciding which animals to save, dealing with all of them.  The shot of him waving the birds out the front door makes me laugh just as hard as the various shots of him eyeballing the snakes, trying to motivate himself to help them.  And again… a punchline at the end of the scene that pays off everything you’ve just seen, with a hilarious payoff for Reubens.

They also found it especially funny to see Pee-Wee in the movie-within-a-movie, with his dubbed ultra-deep voice.  As much as they’ve introduced “I know you are but what am I?” and “I don’t make monkeys, I just train ’em” into their vocabulary, they’ve also made room for “Paging Mister Herman.”  Toshi said it yesterday in the car on the way back from his basketball game, and he made himself laugh so hard he got the hiccups.  I tried asking them afterwards what they thought of the movie, but they were already recounting favorite punchlines and moments to each other as they headed into the playroom.  Seems like they just added it to their personal pantheon, no hesitation, no questions asked.  It’s not a question of whether or not they “liked” it.  Pee-Wee is part of their pop culture diet, an active ongoing friend to them at this point, and I’m sure this was just the first of many, many, many viewings of this film for them.

Obviously, with me at Sundance starting this Wednesday, we won’t have a Film Nerd 2.0 for a few, but the next one will be up on Monday the 30th.  We’re going to be watching the 1954 Disney version of “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” and I look forward to sharing that with you at that point. 

“Film Nerd 2.0” remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column:

Here’s the moment the series was born, at the tail end of the series of “Star Trek” reviews with Toshi. (9.2.09).

“The Last Starfighter” on Blu-ray (9.7.09)

“Popeye,” empathy, and David Bowie’s codpiece (9.21.09)

Talking Heads, ‘Astro Boy,’ and “Willy Wonka” on Blu-ray (10.26.09)

“The Dark Crystal,” featuring a guest appearance by Toshi’s little brother (12.2.09)

“Help!”, in which Toshi discovers the Beatles, especially Ringo (1.4.10)

‘Last Action Hero” introduces Toshi to Armer Shirtzganoma (1.18.10)

A Tale Of Two Zorros (2.23.10)

“Clash Of The Titans” on Blu-ray (4.2.10)

“Jason And The Argonauts” on Blu-ray and Harryhausen at AMPAS (8.9.10)

“Time Bandits,” “Mars Attacks,” and letting go (9.7.10)

“Toshi and Allen encounter high adventure with ‘The Goonies'” (3.6.11)

“‘Tron’ vs ‘Babe’ on Blu-ray” (4.19.11)

“Toshi and Allen head to Asgard for ‘Thor'” (5.4.11)

“Tim Burton exhibit at LACMA dazzles and disturbs” (6.6.11)

“We kick off a special series with a first viewing of ‘Star Wars’ on Blu-ray” (9.22.11)

“We finally reach The Moment with ‘Empire Strikes Back’ on Blu-ray” (10.3.11)

“We flashback to ‘The Phantom Menace’ as the ‘Star Wars’ series continues” (10.10.11)

“Yoda seals the deal for ‘Attack Of The Clones’ on Blu-ray” (10.18.11)

“‘Revenge Of The Sith’ devastates the kids as Anakin falls from grace (10.23.11)

“We scare the crap out of the kids with ‘Jurassic Park’ on Blu-ray” (10.26.2011)

“The hero’s journey ends with ‘Return Of The Jedi’ on Blu-ray” (11.6.2011)

“Toshi and Kermit and Miss Piggy in the first ever Film Nerd 2.0 interview” (11.16.2011)

“We wrap up 2011 with ‘The Muppet Movie’ and pick our slate for 2012” (1.10.2012)