The birth of camp: Unpacking Pee-wee's Big Adventure 

Pee-wee's Big Adventure is the story of an adult man who is pathologically whimsical. A literal 98-pound weakling who wears a gray suit and red bow tie every day, he experiences his life as a performance for himself. He lives alone. In the morning, a Rube Goldberg machine makes his breakfast while he pretends to struggle to lift hand weights, laughing at himself; brushes his teeth with an oversize novelty toothbrush, laughing at himself; makes faces in the mirror, laughing at himself; and finally animates his own pancakes and bacon, laughing at himself.

The conceit of the film is that people find this behavior endearing. Although Pee-wee seems to have no family or close friends, his acquaintances love him: the guy who owns the joke shop, for example, and the proprietor of the bicycle store. Not coincidentally, these are people with whom Pee-wee has consumer relationships. Particularly in the context of Tim Burton's future career—Pee-wee's Big Adventure was his feature-length debut—the film can be read as commentary on the spiritual emptiness of middle-class life in the 1980s.

Except there are all those scenes where Pee-wee resists other characters' romantic and sexual advances. The plot is a picaresque: Pee-wee sets off on a cross-country adventure to recover his stolen bicycle. The motif that recurs from scene to scene, however, is that someone treats him like an adult capable of adult desires, and he has to get out of there.

It happens with his friend Dottie. It happens with the convict Mickey, who sees Pee-wee in a new light after he dresses up as a woman and pretends to be Mickey's wife. In the scene where Pee-wee angers a bar full of bikers, what pushes him to desperate action is not their threat to stomp him to death, but a virago biker-lady's demand that they hand him over to her first. Throughout the film, the only motivation that seems comparably powerful to Pee-wee's desire for his bicycle is his desire to remain asexual.

click to enlarge Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
  • Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

That makes what happened to Paul Reubens, the comedian who developed and portrayed Pee-wee, kind of ironic. In 1991, after a second film and four years on Saturday-morning television, Reubens was arrested for masturbating in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida. The incident wrecked his career. Audiences of 25 years ago were not as jaded toward pornography or celebrity scandal as they are today. They could not handle the dissonance between Pee-wee the man-child and Reubens the misdemeanor sex criminal—which is frankly unfair, since the whole appeal of Pee-wee is watching the creator peek through the performance.

The Pee-wee character is not that funny. He is weird, and most of the pleasure in Big Adventure comes from Reubens' total commitment to the performance. The film is profoundly Brechtian, in that it regularly reminds us we are watching a movie—through stylized set pieces, stagey effects and the deus ex machina ending, in which a Hollywood executive decides to make a film of Pee-wee's story and we watch Pee-wee attend that movie. This character lives in a world of imagination that he will do anything to preserve. His obsession with not breaking the spell keeps reminding us that what we are watching is fake.

Burton and Reuben's ability to turn our suspension of disbelief into a high-wire act probably accounts for the success of the film. Along with Clue, also released in 1985, it constitutes the first intrusion of high camp into mainstream movie theaters. The pleasure is not in seeing the world that Pee-wee lives in, which is frankly obnoxious. It's imagining the world that Reubens and Burton must have lived in to make the film, and seeing it peek through around the edges.

The Roxy Theater screens Pee-wee's Big Adventure Saturday, Sept. 23, in the parking lot of the Missoula Senior Center.

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