I have always been drawn to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Tim Burton’s debut feature was a fixture of my childhood. Taped from television onto a VHS tape, I watched the film countless times growing up. And, as an adult, I have never stopped watching it. It is the one film I can watch without exhaustion; watching it to its conclusion every time with renewed appreciation. Sharing this fact, others often give me a bemused look, as if a film scholar of “serious” cinema should surely know better than to watch, let alone appreciate, something as trifling as a Pee-Wee Herman vehicle. In thinking about Pee-Wee this week, I too have been puzzled myself why the film—this film—has enraptured me for so long.
Perhaps it is simply that “Pee-Wee Herman” was marketed to kids during the 1980s and 1990s. But I hardly count nostalgia as a rewarding or constructive activity. Any number of cinematic elements might serve to answer this question: Danny Elfman’s score, Phil Hartman’s script, Paul Reuben’s performance, Burton’s mise-en-scene, or the odd (really odd!) cameos of Morgan Fairchild, James Brolin, Dee Snider, and Milton Berle. Or maybe it is the undeniable fact that the film is the most sincere and imaginative homage to post-War Italian cinema ever made—allusions to Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica abound.
Rewatching the film’s opening though, I get the sense that my fixation is rooted in something more substantial, more disquieting. The film opens with a dream sequence. Pee-Wee, the puer aeternus boy wonder, on his bike racing to victory in Le Tour de France. The dream ends suddenly, Pee-Wee’s eyes closed, waiting to be crowned champion, only to wake up in a scene even more fantastical than the dream itself—his own home.
What strikes me as so poignant here is how Pee-Wee’s imagination runs seamlessly from his unconscious to conscious states. That is, there is no difference between Pee-Wee’s “real” world and “dream” world, until his bike is stolen and he must learn to deal with the harsh realities of life: loss, deception, and humiliation. Growing up means, in part, learning to come to terms with the irreparable rift within us; that the world of our dreams and the real world are forever separate. But learning from Pee-Wee means learning that our dreams can help prepare us to engage the rift. Our dreams can, ultimately, empower us to see through the dominion of the practical good in order to pursue another good: the good of playful-living.