Sunday, July 13, 2008

Everything that ever happened to me (abridged), Part 2

To refresh your memory, Part 1 can be found here. On to the timely follow-up, har-dee-har!

The initial idea for that post was a recollection of the first night I realized movies could be something I loved. I got sidetracked, and the post turned into something else entirely, which is perfectly OK and something I welcome. I feel like telling that initial story now. However, the possibility that I will get sidetracked again remains. Don't worry. It won't devolve into another hectoring screed about how you shouldn't see the new Indiana Jones movie. (By the way, I completely failed to get across my real point, which was that the people going to see that film with "low expectations" seemed utterly dejected about having to see the movie. Low expectations aren't anything to be ashamed about if you're also going into the movie with an explorer's attitude of what- the-fuckitude/I'm just there to find out whether it's good or not. But these people approached seeing The Crystal Sanitary Napkin as if they were attending a funeral or on-the-job training or a juvenile court date. A horrible chore that must be done out of a sense of cheerless obligation. Attendance at summer movies as capitalist public service. The free market as stern authority figure. How can you not see this movie? It is your duty as a citizen. Full disclosure: I saw Hellboy II today, with SLIGHTLY DIMINISHED EXPECTATIONS.)

Summer 1985. My parents are still married. Not only that, but happily married. My dad's dad is still alive. My mom's mom is still alive. My aunt is still alive, and she hasn't started drinking yet. My cousin is not yet married to a guy who builds McMansions in Colorado. My dad is not yet married to a manipulative psychopath. My disinterest in sports and weightlifting has not yet become an absolute turnoff to every girl I find attractive. I've still got three years of happy childhood before adolescence starts and brings on a decade of unhappiness, frustration, awkwardness, cynicism, and negativity. I'm still several years away from having to fill out a job application. John Cassavetes, D. Boon, and Kurt Vonnegut are still alive, though those names don't mean anything to me yet. My hometown seems like an open, welcoming, happy little world of possibilities instead of the limited shithole full of ignorant cowards it mostly is. My mind is open, alert, naive, silly, and ready to be blown. Thank god for the mainstream success of Pee Wee Herman.

When VHS rentals first became widespread, every business hopped on the bandwagon. Every convenience store, pizza place, gas station, etc. had a shelf of videos for rent. I remember my mother and I (and maybe my brother or sister) picking up some root beer and ice cream to make root beer floats at the convenience store on a Friday night. This particular store had just begun carrying VHS tapes for rental. I noticed a copy of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and I asked my mother if we could rent it. She said yes, and one of the most memorable nights of my young life began. Even in stupid-little-kid world, my aesthetic was remarkably similar to my aesthetic now. I liked character, atmosphere, mood, and images more than plot. Prior to this particular evening, I enjoyed movies as entertainment, but I didn't think of them in the same way as I thought of music or books. I've been a music addict since I was three, and a lover of books since I learned to read at age 5, but movies always followed the same pattern. I loved the first half hour or so, then I got bored when the plot machinations took over. I knew every movie was going to end with all the characters in the same location fighting or yelling. Since I grew up in a small town and only Hollywood blockbusters were available, I was pretty much right in that observation.
Everything changed when I saw Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. First of all, I was simultaneously thrilled and confused, which thrilled and confused me. Pee Wee acted like a kid, but he was clearly a grown man. His house was full of kid stuff, and his bike was clearly a kid's bike, but he had no parents. His rival, Francis, was another grown man, but he also acted like a kid, and lived with his father, who was an old man. Like I already said, this thrilled and confused me. I remember clearly going over these opposing feelings in my mind. Heretofore, when I was confused, I felt bad or angry. But here I was, confused and thrilled. How could this be? Why did I like what was happening onscreen even though I had no explanation for it and clearly wanted an explanation? Later, after Pee-Wee's bike is stolen and he interrogates everyone in his neighborhood, I noticed that an old man in the crowd had a multi-colored mohawk and was referred to by Pee-Wee as Amazing Larry. This blew my fucking mind! "What is going on here," I remember thinking. "I have no idea, but I think I love it." Shortly thereafter, Pee-Wee goes on the road to find his stolen bicycle, which was a riff on the common American road movie genre. However, this was my first ever exposure to the American road movie, and I loved it. I still love road movies, even the shitty ones, probably because I love characters and character actors. The first character Pee-Wee meets on the road is an escaped convict, on the run for tearing the tag off a mattress. The two get past a police roadblock by impersonating a husband and wife, with Pee Wee in drag as the wife. This scene seriously disturbed me and made me feel dirty on that initial viewing. Another seemingly incongruous conflict in my young mind. I felt disturbed and uncomfortable while still feeling completely excited by the movie. How could that be possible? I remember thinking long and hard about that while watching the movie. I was confused, again, by my contradictory feelings, but I was also starting to learn what movies could do when they weren't constrained by genre or studio interference or audience expectation. Later, when the Large Marge scene changes tone from comedy to horror, and Marge's face turns into the crazy 3-D animated jump-out-and-get-you shock scene, I felt this overwhelming feeling of exhilaration. "Oh my god," I remember thinking. "Movies are capable of anything. Why aren't there more movies like this?" It was an important, and fun, lesson to learn, and it started me on my lifelong fascination with the movies. Later, when my love of Beetlejuice led me to discover that Tim Burton made both of these films, I started to get interested in directors, too. I learned that paying attention to directors' credits led to better choices at the video store and the theater and let me know what mediocre, boring schlock to avoid. I had a similar revelation a few years later when Pee-Wee's Playhouse debuted on Saturday morning TV. Goddamn, I love Pee Wee Herman and everything he's done to make loner, misfit kids feel great. From Pee Wee Herman, I learned that anything is possible. Maybe not in life, but at least in art.

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