Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hyperreality as Quest

Part three in my series where I dig up an old essay I wrote for a class I took over ten years ago and post it as a blog entry. As usual, this one has dated references, plus all sorts of pretension. Here goes.

Hyperreality as Quest:
California and Pee-wee's Big Adventure

Where else does the historical quest end if not in Hollywood? In America you are no one unless you are either a star or are played by a star. If martyrdom for Scotland's independence isn't enough, at least Mel Gibson will play you in the film, and you can live forever on celluloid. Didn't the actual Titanic win the Oscar by staging such a dramatic sinking? (It even played itself very convincingly in an underwater cameo at the beginning of the film.) When Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa played themselves in a television movie of their own lives it appeared to be the ultimate triumph of stardom. Too bad it wasn't on the big screen. The quest in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985) is initially for a child's (or pseudo child's) bike, but the quest leads, like all American adventures, to stardom, California-style. Pee-wee's adventure is made into a movie, both an unreal one and the real one we as audience are viewing, for indeed, Pee-wee is not credited as Paul Reubens, the "real" name of the actor behind the man-child, but is credited "as himself" at the close of the film. This charade is carried over into the promotional interviews that Paul Reubens, in the character of Pee-wee, would give for the film. But the idea implicit in such a stunt, the blurring of the real and the fake, is most noticeably and artfully rendered in the landscape of the film itself, the terrain of the hyperreal outside of the play-house that Pee-wee traverses to attain his goal.

Much has been written about the character of Pee-wee Herman, in particular the ways in which he represents elements of sexual difference on his children's television show Pee-wee's Playhouse, and there is no doubt that that sensibility carries throughout Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Pee-wee's relationship to the world, alternately puerile and malignant, sexual and non-sexual (or bi-sexual or homo-sexual) is defined by Constance Penley in her article "The Cabinet of Dr. Pee-wee: Consumerism and Sexual Terror" as "an overall aesthetic, a camp sensibility, one in which everything is entirely on the surface" (Penley, p. 134). This includes, of course, allusions to sexuality, and massive allusions to popular culture. Ian Balfour, in his article "The Playhouse of the Signifier: Reading Pee-wee Herman," writes that "the rhetoric of sexual difference that permeates Pee-wee's Playhouse is inscribed in a more encompassing text of cultural difference," and also notes that "the network of citations, as it were, is usually quite medium-specific in Pee-wee's work: that is to say, the TV show is replete with TV references, whereas the film Pee-wee's Big Adventure is a parody and pastiche of a dozen film genres" (Penley, p. 149). Pee-wee himself is such an eccentric and singular personality that his sensibility either permeates or entirely creates (as is the case of his TV show) the space he inhabits. With that said I would like to separate Pee-wee out from the landscape of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and discuss the road itself, fully aware that Pee-wee's aura, in part, created that road. I say "in part" because I believe that the sensibilities of director Tim Burton, in particular his vision of childhood as nightmare and his self-conscious imaginative locales, infuse the landscape once Pee-wee leaves the playfulness of his house. But most of all it is a landscape of the hyperreal, where what is rendered fake is rendered all the more cinematically authentic.

The Road movie is the representation of freedom either in its good form -- love in
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) -- or its bad form -- violence in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), the ultimate Road movie, was about both. In either case, good or bad, the Road movie is about the opposite of domestic comfort (even though, ironically, Road movies are viewed in the domestic comfort of local theaters and living rooms). Pee-wee's Big Adventure opens in the comfort of Pee-wee's house. He awakens from a pleasant dream (in which a phallic Pee-wee is about to have a large, round crown lowered down onto him) into his even more pleasant house, full of Rube Goldberg-style contraptions and kitsch decorating. The house itself, like the Rube Goldberg designs, may look complicated but the outcome is predictable. The unpredictable only happens later in the film when Pee Wee's beloved bike, like a 1950's Schwinn remade to accommodate James Bond, is stolen from the local shopping-mall parking-lot. With Pee-wee's increased anxiety over the theft the film itself transforms from Pee-wee's world into a more recognizable and stylized cinematic world of the thriller. Danny Elfman's carnival-style score suddenly begins to parody Bernard Herrman's scores for countless Hitchcock films as Pee-wee's dementia grows. The only relief comes when Pee-wee learns from a deceitful fortune-teller that his bike is in the basement of the Alamo. Revitalized, Pee-wee dons the boy's tale signifier of life on the road -- the red bundle tied to the end of the stick -- and goes hitch-hiking (albeit with a large plastic thumb). In his journey through Texas to California he encounters the pure cinema of the road through myriad representations of movie clichés, parodic riffs that emphasize how life in American imitates its own essential art form.

Jean Baudrillard in his book America reflects on the experience of the road, its cinematic quality possessed only in this country:

It is not the least of America's charms that even outside
the movie theatres the whole country is cinematic. The
desert you pass through is like the set of a Western,
the city a screen of signs and formulas.
(Baudrillard, p. 56)

Pee-wee's encounters with the cinematic landscape of the outside world are both parodies and subversions of movie-clichés. When Pee-wee helps Mickey, the escaped con, through a road-block by donning a dress and playing Mickey's wife he continues to wear the dress even when the disguise is no longer needed. Simone, the lonely diner waitress who dreams of going to Paris, actually attains her dream. The malicious Hell's Angels are won over by Pee-wee's last request -- to dance in platform shoes on top of the bar. And so on. Pee-wee's adventure is familiar, both to him and to us, since we have viewed such stock characters and situations from the comfort of our own domestic zone. America and its roads are the stuff that movies are made of, and its renderings (and histories) are as fake as film itself.

Pee-wee attains his original goal by arriving at the Alamo just as a tour is being presented. Pee-wee must anxiously wait through the tour as the guide (Jan Hooks in the best performance of a tour-guide I've ever seen) presents a series of fake panoramas in an equally fake (and saccharine) voice. If California represents the entertainment industry, the collective dream of stardom, then Texas in
Pee-wee's Big Adventure represents the historical landscape, but one that is equally hyperreal. Umberto Eco, in his essay "Travels in Hyperreality," confronts the American landscape with its obsession with fake representations of reality. "This is the reason for this journey into hyperreality," he writes, "in search of instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake" (Eco, p. 8). Pee-wee is the only member of the tour group at the Alamo not gripped by the fake panoramas because he is waiting to visit the basement. After he discovers there is no basement he wistfully admits to Dotty (Elizabeth Daily) over the phone that "they don't tell you that stuff in school -- just something you have to experience." The fake Alamo, with its scenes of "our Mexican-American friends" enjoying tortillas -- "Can you say tortilla?" -- has impressed Pee-wee with its reality, a reality he needed to experience. In that same phone call Dotty questions that Pee-wee is really in Texas; Pee-wee, always competitive, counters with, "I'll prove it to you," then sings "The stars at night are big and bright..." prompting a variety of hat-clad pedestrians to stop, clap four times in unison, and all sing, "Deep in the heart of Texas." It's a great joke, but also reinforces the kitsch qualities -- the singing cowboys, the Alamo tour -- that have come to be regarded as proof of a reality.

The skewing of the real and the fake is most apparent when the film reflects on film itself. The apex of that self-reflexivity occurs mainly toward the climax of the film, as Pee-wee becomes a Hollywood star, but there are two critical instances that occur prior to the film's final moments that signify the film-makers' subtle but brilliant nods toward the hyperreal. The first moment occurs early in the film when Pee-wee locks his bike to the laughing animatronic clown outside of the shopping-center. Pee-wee opens the bike's side carry-all and begins to extract a length of chain from the small compartment. Pee-wee pulls and pulls, producing a ridiculous amount of chain. At one point during the gag, the camera goes to a wide full-shot of Pee-wee and in that shot the audience can clearly see the chain being pulled up and through the fake bottom of the bike's container. In a movie full of tricks and carnival references, the text is acknowledging one of its own. Later, when Pee-wee is driving Mickey's car late at night on the road a series of signs going by represent the passage of time. The shots of the signs are double lit, one light drawing the your eyes to the sign itself, careening through the frame, and the other light, aimed low, that shows the sign being pulled along a track on a studio floor. It is as if the film-maker is saying to the audience: Do not suppose for a moment that we expect you to really believe that Pee-wee is inhabiting a real road in a real car -- look closely and see how it is done. But does such a stunt make the film more fake or more real than other narrative films that hide their tricks in pursuit of reality? The answer, of course, would be that it emerges more real than real, hyperreal, just as the Alamo with its mannequins is "real" history and Texas is demarcated "real" because it appears real when, in fact, it is clearly Southern California. As Eco points out, "to speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The 'completely real' becomes identified with the 'completely faked'" (Eco, p. 7). That is why the American road, so infused by cinema, has become cinema itself, because it is constantly presenting the fake as real.

Thus, it is no surprise when Pee-wee, watching television from a hospital bed, discovers the true location of his bike, in Hollywood, at the Warner Brothers studio. Arriving at the studio -- he sneaks in by pretending to be a member of Milton Berle's entourage -- Pee-wee is giddy with the scene he finds. It is like a city from Italo Calvino's
Invisible Cities, a city where nothing is what it seems, even underneath the costumes. Asking directions from a space alien, the mask is revealed to show a handsome actor who has a female voice. Chiming in to help with directions is a woman in an outrageous show-girls outfit, who speaks in a man's deep baritone. Pee-wee giggles as though he had found his true home, and when he must steal his bike away from a movie set (where the cute kid on screen is in reality a monster) Pee-wee dresses as a nun, a pure nod to camp sensibility, in order to do it.

According to Baudrillard the studios themselves present "the degeneration of the cinematogaphic illusion, its mockery, just as what is offered in Disneyland is a parody of the world of the imagination," (Baudrillard, p. 55) but in the world of
Pee-wee's Big Adventure the studio is the ultimate space, both because it mimics Pee-wee's own playhouse aesthetic, and because the film, which has all been done in reality in the studio, can finally present the studio for what it is. Pee-wee steals the bike and the chase that ensues encompasses a rapidly accumulating collage of stock movie imagery as Pee-wee leads his pursuers through film-set after film-set -- Beach Party movie to Christmas special to Rock video, etcetera -- but such a progression is really just a continuation of the entire arc of the film and the idea that you cannot escape the movies. Indeed, when Pee-wee actually escapes the studio with his bike he immediately comes across another Hollywood convention, the burning pet-store and, like the boy-hero of the cinema that he is, he must liberate the animals (saving the snakes for last). Captured by the police, Pee-wee is ultimately pardoned by the Hollywood system in exchange for his agreement that they can turn his story into a movie. This is the premise of another Road movie parody, National Lampoon's Vacation (Harold Ramis, 1983) where the quest for California is made both more explicit and more empty. When the Griswold family, numb and beaten by their experience on the road -- "only two hundred miles to the world's largest ball of string" -- attain their goal, the imaginary Wally World, it is closed for repairs. Its emptiness is too much to bear and Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) forces a security guard at gun-point to open the park. That action, however, ensures their safety in the capitalist world of entertainment, as they agree to allow their story to be used as promotional material. Pee-wee sells himself for promotion as well and the quest is over, having achieved both the bike and stardom. The promise of California is fulfilled.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure concludes at the ultimate intersection of American and cinematic landscape -- the drive-in. Warner Brothers is premiering their version of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and not surprisingly, it in no way resembles the "real" adventure we have just witnessed. Pee-wee (now monikered P.W.) is played by macho star James Brolin and Dotty is played by Morgan Fairchild, and the bike itself is called the X1, its disappearance connected to the Soviets. Pee-wee himself has a cameo in the film as a bell-hop, albeit with a dubbed voice. None of this, of course, makes Pee-wee cynical, and before the film is finished he asks Dotty to leave the premiere. She says, "But don't you want to watch the movie, Pee-wee," and he replies, "I don't have to see it, Dotty, I lived it." The final shot is Pee-wee's silhouette crossing the drive-in screen, back on the road again. Who needs movies when you have experience (read: America), or conversely, who needs America when you have the movies?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean (trans. Chris Turner). America. London: Verso, 1988.

Eco, Umberto (trans. William Weaver). Travels in Hyperreality. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1983.

Penley, Constance & Sharon Willis, editors. Male Trouble. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

1 comment:

  1. This is the most excellent piece of criticism I've read all year. Thanks!