Where in the hell do you start with a movie like Pee-wees Big Adventure? With Tim Burton in his feature debut, displaying a B-movie zeal so old-school it looks brand new? Or Danny Elfman in his star turn, delighting listeners with an irresistible fusion of Carl Stalling and carnival jingles and video game bleeps and whoops? And lets not forget cowriter Phil Hartman, muse of the Groundlings and SNL before he became a great deadpan actor in his own right -- one of the few men who can play both halves of a double entendre for a laugh. Or Elizabeth Daily as Dottie or Diane Salinger as Simone or -- Oh! My! God! -- Jan Hooks as the saccharine Alamo tour guide, whose two minutes of screen time are pants-wettingly hilarious. But even with all this talent and energy and, lets face it, good luck going for it (I mean, Burton and Elfman and Hartman, all on a $6 million budget), Pee-wees Big Adventure is still pretty much all about -- um, duh -- Pee-wee Herman, a.k.a. Paul Reubens, who, like his friend Cassandra Peterson* (blink and youll miss her boobs in the biker scene), wound up more or less subsumed by his most famous creation.
Twenty years after he first taunted Francis Buxton with that most existential of comebacks, I know you are, but what am I? the movie seems as fresh as ever -- more human than Airplane, less kitschy than Ghostbusters, a whole lot better than Porkys. Like those movies, Big Adventure is essentially a series of sketches and improvs (Pee-wee in the toy shop, Pee-wee at the rodeo, Pee-wee on the soundstage) held together by the thinnest of plots: Boy goes in search of -- what else? -- his beloved stolen bicycle. But unlike the latest incarnation of the form, the Scary/Epic/Date Movie franchise, Big Adventure reaches deeper than last weeks box office for its subject, lovingly resurrecting a fantasy of 50s Americana and allowing its own absurdity to provide the humor. Call it navet, call it innocence, but in this era of Girls Gone Wild and DudesNude.com and rainbow parties (oral sex orgies) and the hundred thousand other outlets for the sexual energy we once sublimated into healthy capitalist activities like art-making and housekeeping, Big Adventure has a charm sadly missing from most contemporary comedies, where the only commodity is sex, the only meaning paranoia. At a recent midnight showing, during which half the audience responded on cue to The Yellow Rose of Texas and Tequila! I found myself squinting at the screen, waiting expectantly for Reubens to pull off the mask, to snarl Suck my cock! or, better yet, whip it out of his pants and smack it in someones face. Want a foot-long, Mickey? Pee-wees got one just for you!
But isnt that how we always watched him? Looking back, it almost seems like a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first: the thin, lipsticked pout sneering, Theres a lot of things about me that you dont know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldnt understand. Things you couldnt understand. Things you shouldnt understand, or the long-haired goateed loner dropping into the South Trail adult theater for a little afternoon relief during a visit to his parents in Sarasota, Fla.? Reubens has copped to the fact that the precursor to Big Adventure, a late-night act called The Pee-wee Herman Show, was more risqu than its prime-time or daytime incarnations, but he also points out that by todays standards, even for childrens entertainment, it doesnt seem risqu at all. This reasoning is prescient of Reubenss defense when he was arrested a second time, in 2001, this time for the more serious charge of possessing child pornography, which turned out to be vintage 20th-century physique magazines and photographs, some of which depicted minors. It seems so innocent to me, Reubens told Dateline NBC in 2004. You would immediately look at that collection and be able to tell very, very, very quickly this is not a collection of child pornography. The Los Angeles D.A.s office apparently agreed with him, dropping the charges, although Reubens felt compelled to plead guilty to the misdemeanor offence of possessing obscene images of minors rather than risk going to trial. Were living in a very scary time, Reubens told Dateline. Do we let the legal system decide in a courtroom whats obscene and whats not obscene? I didnt want to be in a situation where there was a possibility I could go to jail for something thats that material.
An ex post facto revelation, but one that speaks to the core of what we saw when we looked at Pee-wee: on the one hand, a paragon/parody of 50s childhood, mischievous but harmless, middle-class but gifted, with toys that all the money in the world couldnt buy; on the other, a 30-something actor sublimating the last shreds of the cult of the child into a surreal, quasi-masturbatory fantasy. Howdy Doody, in other words, a wooden puppet whose smile was permanently painted on his face, but also Buffalo Bob Smith, a grown man who always had his hand up a little boys pants. It was this tension that made Pee-wee so compelling: We all knew the repressed sexual tension was going to burst out eventually. To say it burst out of Reubens is to miss the point, namely, that it burst out of America as well. Lest we forget: Pee-wee came to fame at the same time as a series of child sex scandals swept across the country, from Kern County, Calif., to Dade County, Fla., from Wee Care Nursery School to Little Rascals Day Care, and of course the McMartin Preschool affair, which started with one boys painful bowel movement and ended in the longest and costliest trial in U.S. history. Americas children, once protected by two parents (of different genders, natch), wide tracts of green lawn, and the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, were suddenly under threat by forces that were already inside the country, inside the school, inside the home.
With the veil stripped from our eyes, we saw Reubens for what hed always been: a grown man in a little boys body, not just metaphorically but literally. But where this once generated giggles it now produced sniggers and nervous laughter. Sex had seemed conspicuously absent in Big Adventure. Now it was everywhere present, from Dotties desire to go to the drive-in to Pee-wees turn in drag when he helps Mickey evade the police to the transformation of Pee-wee and Dottie into James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild in the big-screen adaptation of Pee-wees life. The same pedophiliac subtext was equally pervasive in the real world: from child beauty pageants to Howard Sterns Olsen twins countdown to the recent revelation that one in four girls contract an STD before they graduate high school. Britney Spears dressed up as a Catholic schoolgirl for Baby One More Time (suggesting shed done it before); American Apparel rejects sweatshops but has nothing against a little kiddie porn chic. It wasnt Reubens who couldnt keep it in his pants, in other words. It was us. To twist his catchphrase: We always knew what he was, but we still havent acknowledged the truth about ourselves.