August 12, 1985 [Pee-Wee's Big Adventure]

Imagine if Fellini had been asked to direct a children's film--no, wait: What if Salvador Dali had been born a middle-class American '50s kid? Or hold on: Doesn't Pee-Wee look like gross-out camp director John Waters? Then again, isn't Pee-Wee his own self, somehow closer to a cheerful sitcom child--Rusty Williams or Opie Taylor or Richie Petrie--or the Crown Prince himself, Beaver Cleaver--oh, the rollicking sound of his name, like all of them somehow miniature adults who will always reject puberty in favor of one more scoot around the block on the best bike ever?

Pee-Wee knows those boys--and grows down to be just like them, except without any last-minute smiling obedience. No, Pee-Wee's life is action-packed, a persona without a performer--Paul Reubens gone for good beneath his ventriloquist's-dummy disguise--an actor acting in a movie in a movie about movies. Director Tim Burton accepts Pee-Wee with alarming openness and allows the little fellow to sputter and sproing with stiff-limbed grace, the audience laughing or not--and Burton and Pee-Wee don't care, they just want enough pepper gum and plastic dinosaurs to keep things moving (Spencer Gifts their apparent corporate sponsor)--and to keep us guessing about this postmodern Little Tramp wearing just about as much makeup as the original--but again, without the aspirations of adulthood. Pee-Wee insists to Dottie, "I like you! LIKE!" and giggles to himself as he beats a hasty retreat, once more deflecting commitment to one side or the other--child/adult, male/female, human/cartoon. He wears a suit but looks good in a dress, plays with toys but is best portrayed by James Brolin--and treats his drive-in celebrity like a Bonomo Turkish Taffy: something to be smacked on the sidewalk and shared with the other kids.

When I saw the video of his comedy club show, I knew that Pee-Wee understood post-World-War-II America in an important way: shaped by educational film strips and cool toys, sustained by wishes and songs everybody knows--and willing to take itself apart without tearing the slightest corner, each tab and slot intact, just in case it needs to be put back together again some day.


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