Saturday, April 28, 2012

Scene Study: Pee-wee's descent into madness!

"Is this something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry?"

Pinky Lee
One of the things which makes Tim Burton's 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure such an enduring classic is its unexpected complexity. You read that correctly. On the surface, this is the featherweight story of a seemingly naive, innocent man-child -- comedian Paul Reubens as the self-described "loner" Pee-wee Herman -- and his quest to recover his beloved stolen bicycle, which has been taken from him by a jealous and spiteful neighbor. And, yes, Pee-wee is supposed to be a fun, happy, lovable character who will appeal to kids in the audience. But, admirably,  the film does not shy away from showing the dark side of both its title character and the world in which he lives. This is a whimsical movie, sure, but it also contains moments of unsettling surrealism and takes some of its visual cues from decidedly-not-for-kids crime and horror films of the past. At times, director Burton seems as influenced by German Expressionism and film noir as he does by the 1950s children's TV hosts (Soupy Sales, Pinky Lee, Buffalo Bob Smith) which spawned the Pee-wee character. Most surprisingly, Pee-wee's Big Adventure does not flinch when it comes to portraying the negative aspects of the title character's personality, particularly his paranoia and bad temper. It could be argued that what allowed Burton and Ruebens to move Pee-wee Herman from the world of sketch comedy where he was born (Ruebens was a member of LA's The Groundlings) into the world of feature films was making the character three-dimensional and complicated. A one-note Pee-wee couldn't sustain a whole movie. But a sometimes-nice, sometimes-not-so-nice Pee-wee can.

An unhinged Pee-wee
Nowhere is the dual nature of this film better reflected than in the justly-beloved "town meeting" scene. In this bizarre sequence, Pee-wee has invited the lovably odd folks of the community -- his completely innocent friends and neighbors -- to confront them with the "evidence" he has collected since the theft of his bike. The crime has brought out the worst in Pee-wee, and the scene is a portrait in extreme paranoia. In a very short span of time, he has ceased to be a harmless, free-spirited eccentric and has become a suspicious, angry, accusatory monster with a tendency toward megalomania. What is shocking is that it took so little to bring such a momentous personality shift. Burton uses lighting very effectively here, casting shadows on Ruebens' face to give him a threatening, unfriendly appearance. Quite often during this scene, Reubens is either partially or completely in shadow. Darkness frequently obscures his facial features, giving him an air of vague menace. And Danny Elfman's score for this scene seems more typical of a tense Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Even Pee-wee's charming, clutter-laden house, seen briefly at the beginning of the scene, looks a little ominous at night. Note, too, that everyone attending this meeting seems to have gotten there on a bicycle.

In this scene, Pee-wee Herman is allowed to act in a manner totally unbecoming the star of a children's film. He yells. He paces. He spouts completely nutty conspiracy theories and keeps his "guests" virtual captives for hours on end in a stuffy basement. Even Pee-wee's little dog, Speck, is afraid of him. Perhaps the most startling moment is when he lashes out verbally at Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), the adorable bike shop employee who is the closest thing the film has to a romantic interest. It took real guts on the part of Reubens and Burton to allow their hero to be portrayed so negatively at this early stage in the film. A more timid film might have worried about alienating the audience, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure gives us more credit than that. Besides, the filmmakers must have rightly figured that audiences would go along with this scene simply because it was so funny. The dialogue throughout this sequence is hilarious. Nearly every line is quotable, so I'll limit myself to excerpting this unhinged monologue, the best of its kind outside of Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre:
"When you've gone over something again and again and again and again like I have, certain questions get answered. Others spring up! The mind plays tricks on you. You play tricks back! It's like you're unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and kitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting!"
Oliver Stone, eat your heart out. This is the greatest "conspiracy monologue" of all time.

"Why? What's the significance? I DON'T KNOW!"


  1. As much as I've fallen out of love with Tim Burton, I will forever love Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and you know, that dark undercurrent is a huge reason why. It comes up in Pee-Wee's Playhouse quite often, but yes: Pee-Wee is kind of a dick. We forgive him because he lives a life of childlike hedonism we'd all love, but a buddy or gosh forbid, boyfriend, he ain't ideal.

  2. Pee-wee, as he exists in this film, is kind of an enigma. We accept him immediately because he seems to derive so much pleasure from life and lives in a world which we would also like to inhabit. But this scene makes us think, "Wait, who is this guy anyway?" In the scene which has Pee-wee visiting the psychic, he actually hisses at people and bares his teeth like a vampire. So there's a definite undercurrent to this film.

    I understand and -- to an extent sympathize with -- the widespread anti-Burton sentiments out there. But looking over his directing resume, I see too many films I've enjoyed to dismiss him forever -- including one (Ed Wood) which is in my Top 10 of all time. As recently as 2007, his Sweeney Todd would have landed on my Top 5 list for the year in a very competitive field. (I know that many Sondheim purists think otherwise.) I didn't love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, but I'm not sorry I saw them. Charlie, especially, has moments of great humor and visual flair. I avoided Planet of the Apes entirely. I'm certainly willing to give Dark Shadows a day in court.

  3. Oh, Ed Wood is easily in my top 20, and Pee-Wee and Edward Scissorhands will never fail me. I actually like what he did with Charlie in terms of sticking to the spirit of Raul (sic) Dahl but creating a very specific and interesting world of his own.

    Sweeney Todd might actually be where I started to realize how done I was though. Here was a movie that shouldn't have failed for me: a Sondheim horror musical with a wonderful score. And yet it just fell completely flat for me. Johnny Depp, who is a great actor in the right hands and a mediocre one in the wrong ones, just gave nothing, and I fully blame Burton for that. I don't think they bring anything out of each other anymore. They're too used to each other, and while the relationship has indeed given way to the best work of both of their careers, I just don't think it can happen anymore.

    I watched about 15 minutes of Alice and realized I couldn't do it. I was bored AND annoyed, and I had no desire to watch Depp do what he thought was cool, Burton just throw big Hot Topic visuals around him, and them both make millions from doing it. Granted, had the film bombed, I probably would have been a tad easier on it, but its success just irked me. Dark Shadows could indeed be good, as it's a passion project for both, but I

  4. "I bought this pen one hour before my bike was stolen. Why? What's the significance? I DON'T KNOW!!!"