May 26, 2010

Midnight Pee Wee

Last Saturday night I experienced Midnight Madness.

By 11:30 PM on a Saturday night, downtown Royal Oak is usually filled with hundreds of drunks stumbling down the sidewalks in packs, a bunch of Sex & the City wannabe chicks and their AXE body spray-soaked boyfriends. Also, at this point on a Saturday night in Royal Oak, a few fat, lonely middle aged cat ladies wander the streets looking to escape their claustrophobic lives. There are also several frayed and grey-haired hipsters, stinking of leather and the early '80s, stalking the city as if looking for an impromptu Lou Reed concert to start.

And amidst them all are the hipster kids, the nerds, the zoom-dweebies, the dorks and punks, all of them from the high school band geeks to the twenty-something slackers, shoulders slumped, skinny jeans, cigarettes and funky black-rimmed glasses dangling on their faces, all of them hanging on street corners, loitering around the town like River Cuomo's locust army. All of them in line to see the midnight showing of PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE.

I sort of loath them and yet, I guess, I am kinda one of them. These are my people.

I buy a ticket and get change for the meter and before I know it I'm sitting in an old fashioned movie theater with a velvet curtain over the big screen and no stadium seating in sight.

The place smells of B.O. and lingering cigarette smoke and salty popcorn. There's a good sized crowd, but it's not a sold out house. I don't know why I was expecting a sold out house. I mean, it's Pee Wee, right? This is cinematic genius at its best. (And no, I'm really not kidding. Keep reading.)

The lights dim, the curtain parts, and the crackle of celluloid fills the screen.

First trailer was typical indie movie bullshit of the 2010 era. Lesbians. Sperm donor. Coming of age story. Strummy strum alt-rock guitar playing on the soundtrack. A-list actors trying for some artistic cred and a Spirit Awards nomination. It's a testament to how artistically bankrupt this type of American "indie" cinema really is. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT -- bleh. How dare they steal the name of such a righteous song for their shitty movie.

I love the quote: "It charms audiences into a state of enlightenment." Wha? Thanks Lisa Schwartzbaum for that bit of inanity. A film like this one is middlebrow pap for the New York/L.A. elite. I'm annoyed already and dread the other trailers that must be coming. Can't we just get to Pee Wee already?

I came for a midnight Pee Wee. I want my midnight Pee Wee. This is supposed to be a midnight movie, dang it!

Midnight movies... the midnight movies at my local suburban indie theater are a helluva lot more shocking, daring, and "independent" in spirit than THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. (It pains me to see those words associated with something as dumb as this new movie. Must go watch the real THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT -- THE WHO! -- to scrub my brain clean of Annette Bening and her dowdy-dyke haircut.)

I mean, the Main Art is probably as pretentious and annoying as any "indie" theater could be -- and they'll be showing this new crap movie soon enough, I'm sure -- but at least the Main Art's got spirit enough to schedule a summer Midnight Movie festival with some real fucking movies.

Consider: PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, THE BLUES BROTHERS, THE GOONIES, EVIL DEAD, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, THE WARRIORS, SPACEBALLS, THE BIG LEBOWSKI. These are the movies scheduled for the Main Art's Midnight Movie Fest. None of these films were made in this decade. With the exceptions of EVIL DEAD and CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, all of these films were major studio releases. Hollywood movies. Crowd pleasers. Mindless entertainments. And yet each one of these movies is more interesting and more vital than the lesbian sperm donor coming of age strummy guitar movie.

And to prove my point, the next trailer up is CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. The atmosphere of the theater is now grindhouse. I've never been to a grindhouse theater before (kinda before my time and/or not possible in upper-middle class suburban metro Detroit). Can I just say... I love it. It's slightly thrilling and it makes a wimp like me feel dangerous. Living on the edge, man. Watching an old trailer for some Terry Gilliam knock-off at a midnight show in Royal Oak. I feel like a loner, Dottie, a rebel.

The print snaps, crackles, and pops -- obviously old and used up. To make a current day reference, it has the feel of watching a Dharma Initiative film strip, some long-forgotten now-discovered forbidden treasure, a relic, a sacred and scary thing unearthed simply to give suburban hipsters like me a chance to feel special -- and it works. I do feel special. A member of a secret club, a secret cinema club of kino-eyed kids, secretly sharing cinematic ecstasies. It's a secret club for nerds. Really, who doesn't love a secret club for nerds? Jocks, that's who. Bastards. Secret clubs are one of the essentials of childhood and also what I've been looking for since seventh grade.

And to find it here, watching a bunch of '80s trailers at a midnight show. It almost makes me wish the theater was dirtier, maybe with a little bit of a pee smell, just to complete the scene.

Next up is the trailer for EVIL DEAD. I think it warms the heart of everyone in the theater just to see the work of Sam Raimi up on screen. "Hey, he's one of ours!" we all seem to shout in our heads. A native son. Every hipster in the crowd feels proud and rightly so and then a fake head explodes bloody claymation and the trailer is over. That was scarier than every horror porn movie ever made.

The theater is muggy. But isn't that just what you'd expect at this point in time, in this place, with these movies? Of course.

The trailer for THE GOONIES consists of logos. Logos for every movie Steven Speilberg's ever breathed on. Everything Speilberg's ever done, so that must mean this "Goonies" picture is gonna be aces, right?

Yes, yes it does. THE GOONIES is incredible entertainment. My inner 10 year old says so. The movies we see as children we love irrationally. GOONIES also happens to be playing next weekend at the Midnight Festival, so I know where I'll be the Sunday before Memorial Day.

Finally, to complete my joy, we get some old concessions stand advertisement, with cartoon penguins and a sassy cartoon... crow? I'm not sure, but it's some kind of black bird. I WILL LOVE THIS CONCESSIONS STAND COMMERCIAL FOREVER! It's every '80s sugar cereal commercial rolled into one, only they are selling hot buttered popcorn (REAL BUTTER!) and blue slushies. The crow extols the virtues of the pop machine and the wonders of rainbow colored candies and he practically changes the penguins' lives with this high sodium food of the gods. Suitably filled up on the sweet and salty nectar of life, the penguins drive away over the rolling red hills, into the orange and yellow horizon, to live out a life of movie theater junk food bliss. Youtube is irrelevant and unfun because they do not have this advertisement anywhere on their website. Shit, I don't even need to see PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE at this point. My midnight movie-going experience is complete.

No it's not. I lied. As soon as the chugging rhythms and carnival orchestrations of Danny Elfman's greatest musical score fade in over the soundtrack, I am suddenly reminded why I drank seven diet Pepsis at eleven o'clock tonight to be here.

I'm not ashamed to say it: PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is a Great Movie. It might just be Tim Burton's best. I've told people before that PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is in my all time top 25 and they either laugh, like, I'm joking or something (note: I am not), or they just stare at me for twelve seconds before saying, "Huh?"

Yeah, whatever, if the Marx Brothers get to be called Great (note: they are great), then Pee Wee Herman is also Great. And PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is as much a classic anarchical comedy as anything from the Marx Brothers. It's the ultimate in sneering adolescent Id.

The character of Pee Wee and the surreal road movie journey he goes on are part of the great American misanthropic tradition. "I know you are but what am I?" should be on the lips of every U.S. diplomat who has ever heard America get accused of shit by the UN or some wimpy EU country. Wouldn't we all love to see Ahmadinejad confronted with a good "I know you are but what am I? INFINITY!" when he spouts off some crep about American imperialism? I have a feeling somewhere in some lost reel of DUCK SOUP Groucho used that same line on Margaret Dumont.

But enough with world affairs.

PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is just funny. Plain, straight-up, silly-as-can-be, funny. It's a comedy. A comedy's job is to make people laugh and PEE WEE makes people laugh. It's masterful at what it's supposed to do. Plot, character, making sense -- these things are for the Drama to master. The comedy is supposed to make us laugh and leave us with iconic lines we can repeat over and over again with our friends when we're drunk.

This, PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE most certainly achieves.

I know there's talk of movie theaters becoming obsolete and how everything will be watched on DVD or Blu-Ray or downloaded right into our iBrains one day in the near future and we'll never have to see a movie with an audience again or be burdened with the inability to hit pause when it's bathroom time or Grandma calls to chat, but shit son, I can't believe it will ever happen. I can't believe we'll ever give up the movie theater. As long as there are experiences like the midnight movie, there will always be movie theaters. I have to believe it. I've seen PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE a thousand times on home video and TV. I've rewound the Large Marge animation countless times on my old VHS and run it in slow motion just to laugh and overcome my fears of her hideous claymation face. I've seen the movie so many times it's become part of my genetic code.

And yet... and yet...

Seeing it in a theater, with a real, live audience? Nothing compares to that. Nothing. For the first time ever, I was laughing at all the antics of Pee Wee & Co and a hundred people were laughing with me. I felt a tinge of fear during the movie (i.e.: the evil clowns, Large Marge, Madame Ruby's rundown fortune teller's shop) for the first time since I was a kid. And I don't care how big your flat screen is, movies on the big screen -- the REAL big screen -- are simply overwhelming in their power. You get sucked into the film in a way that is just NOT POSSIBLE when you're at home on your couch, even if that couch does have built-in cup holders. There's an energy happening at a midnight show that can't be replicated in your living room.

For all you doubters and haters out there:

Experiment: Go to a midnight cult movie and then tell me that this great institution, the Movie Theater, should ever die.

And when you get to the theater, tell 'em Large Marge sent ya.

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