Losing My Imagination

Curator's Note

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.



Adam I have appreciated reading your contributions to the previous excellent posts, along with your own curatorial addition. Like you, my enjoyment of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is insatiable. One of the most curious moments of the film for me is the final sequence in which all the characters come together at the Drive-In to watch the premiere of Pee-Wee's story adapted into a film. It is. as you mention, a joyous homage to Fellini's 8 1/2 (Rowan Atkinson's charming film Mr Bean's Holiday is similarly full of nods to postwar European art cinema). Pee-Wee's cameo and one line in the film-within-the-film has his voice dubbed over (more Italian cinema playfulness?) so that the child-like squeakiness of Pee Wee is replaced by a smooth, albeit generic, male baritone. Meanwhile the role of Pee Wee is assumed by the manly James Brolin and the bicycle is replaced with a hi-tech motorbike. Here Paul Ruben and Tim Burton seem to be critiquing the type of contemporary mainstream cinema that sensationalises stories based on true events, reducing them to bland box office fodder. In the process, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure manages to marginalise mainstream cinema by normalising queer. The Brolin version of Pee Wee is dull in comparison to the real deal. Your comments concerning the rift between the real and our dreams are compelling and aptly applies to Pee-Wee's advice to Simone ("everyone has a big but") to pursue her dreams. The chasm between the real and dreams, childhood and adulthood reminds me of another film that plays with similar themes, Big, starring Tom Hanks. Like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Hanks' Josh in Big gets to have his cake and eat it, too, albeit briefly. Effortlessly infiltrating the world of adults, Josh scores an executive role in a toy company with the sole task of playing with toys and determining their entertainment value. It's a short-lived episode as he soon embraces the complexities of adulthood, threatening to leave behind his carefree child self entirely until he determines to return to his child's body. I mention Big because the sequence in which Hanks as Josh moves into an apartment and furnishes it with toys and games a la Pee-Wee are some of the most enjoyable moments in the film. Unlike Josh, who ultimately can only be one or the other, man or child, Pee-Wee gets to unapologetically have the best of both worlds all the time, which includes never having to take anything seriously, seeing the best in others and encouraging them to see it also, and always finding a way out of any problem (including how to cook breakfast!). A question: what do you make of the character of Francis (played by Mark Hotton)? Pee-Wee's altercations with Francis are some of the funniest moments in the film. Francis strikes me as being Pee-Wee's alter-ego. He is like Pee-Wee in many respects except that he is moody, brattish, selfish and still lives at home with his wealthy indulgent father. I get the sense that Francis wants to be Pee-Wee and in this sense, Francis represents how child audiences might view Pee-Wee as the childish fantasy of adulthood in which grown ups can do anything they like, accomplish anything they set their minds to and be anything they want to be. Pee-Wee is independent yet care-free, and Francis' desire to "be" Pee-Wee is what motivates the bicycle theft. Francis is the child who doesn't grow up because it is his father who keeps him in a state of arrested development, indulging his every whim. He is incapable of taking any pleasure in life or applying his imagination, while this is all Pee-Wee does. Indeed, Pee-Wee, like a child, takes pleasure in seeing the world through innocent, fun-loving eyes and encourages others to look through the same lens.

Craig, thanks for your thoughtful response. I hadn't considered the dubbing or the drive-in premiere in that context, but I couldn't agree more after considering it. The commercial film "Pee-Wee" we see at the end also seems to me to parody the Reagan era action thrillers concerned with anxieties over the Cold War and alternative culture more generally. Obviously there is a strong statement being made here concerning commercial storytelling/filmmaking that squares with what we would learn only later about Burton and Reubens. As Pee-Wee says to Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) toward the end, "I don't need to see it [the movie] Dottie, I lived it." I'm glad you brought up Francis though, as I think he is often too easily overlooked in this film. I agree that we do see the other side of the coin here, so to speak, as it concerns motivation and desire. Part of what seems to separate the two, for me, is that Francis' jealousy appears to be predicated on Pee-Wee's authenticity. That is, Pee-Wee has made his world of play where Francis' world was paid for by his father. Francis says to Pee-Wee upon their first meeting in the film concerning his proposition to purchase the bike: "My father says 'everything's negotiable,' Pee-Wee." Here, we have two figures who appear to be equals, whether we want to call them children or adults. But the difference is that Pee-Wee plays within the limits of childhood, where Francis seems very much to be a child leveraging the power of adulthood. One reason Pee-Wee doesn't take the money is that money has no meaning to him, whereas Francis' entire life is designed to be run by it. Even when he steals the bike, he pays a hired thug to do his dirty work for him. Ultimately, if I had the chance to expand this piece into something longer, I'd suggest that the very question concerning imagination hinges on the commercial nature of art, dreams, and play we see unfold throughout Burton's first feature effort.

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