Thursday, March 24, 2016

The best thing about Pee-wee's Big Holiday is that it will introduce a new generation of viewers to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

"You ever been in a fight?," wonders Joe Manganiello--who stars as himself in the new Netflix original movie Pee-wee's Big Holiday--to Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), the Magic Mike star's new best friend, as Joe realizes Pee-wee has never left his hometown of Fairville and has basically lived an uneventful life.

"No," replies Pee-wee.

"You ever broken a rule?"


"You ever had two women fight over you?"

But this time Pee-wee has to pause for a couple of beats to try to remember. If you've been down with Pee-wee since the classic 1985 Tim Burton movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure (or maybe even as far back as The Pee-wee Herman Show, Reubens' early '80s L.A. stage show at the Roxy, which the Groundlings alum revived on Broadway to much success in 2010), you might recall that the bow-tied man-child had to choose between the affections of a really hot Italian trapeze artist played by Valeria Golino--her hotness is the most rewatchable part of 1988's poorly received Big Top Pee-wee, the last Pee-wee flick--and a schoolteacher played by Penelope Ann Miller during Big Top. In this age of meta-humor permeating everything from Rick and Morty to Deadpool, you'd expect Pee-wee to break the fourth wall, wink at the audience and make a reference to that love triangle from 28 years ago.

But Pee-wee doesn't do so. He instead replies with "Have I? No." Or maybe Reubens is indeed referencing the last movie, and the brief pause is his way of saying, "Yeah, the public was right: Big Top Pee-wee was kind of a mistake. But enough about that movie!"

Whatever the case, Pee-wee movies aren't known for being constantly self-aware and meta like the Muppet movies. Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which centers on Pee-wee's cross-country odyssey to attend Joe's star-studded birthday party at his Manhattan penthouse, doesn't really acknowledge any of the events from the prior Pee-wee movies because it actually takes place in its own separate continuity, just like how the Randal Kleiser-directed Big Top doesn't take place in the same continuity as Pee-wee's Big Adventure's. Certain traits of Pee-wee's will always remain constant--the red bow tie, the too-small gray suit, the white shoes, the mischievous giggling, the Rube Goldberg gadgets, the weird animal sidekicks (whether they're puppets or actual animals)--but Reubens has interestingly always rebooted his own character in each Pee-wee project, including the beloved and timeless Pee-wee's Playhouse. Even after 38 years of man-child antics, Pee-wee's basically still a work-in-progress.

You know the amiable Pee-wee who hosted a Saturday morning kids' show that was meant for all ages--aside from an occasional double entendre related to Miss Yvonne, the most beautiful woman in Puppetland, or an L.A. Law-era Jimmy Smits cameoing as a repairman who catches Miss Yvonne's eye and suggestively talks about his "tools" and knowing how to use them? That Pee-wee was quite different from the more devilish Pee-wee who attached mirrors to his shoes to peek at girls' panties in the not-for-kids Pee-wee Herman Show, which was a parody of the type of old-fashioned, Howdy Doody-ish kids' show Pee-wee's Playhouse would later channel in a much less parodic fashion that was also still somehow subversive, due mostly to the presence of then-unprecedented-on-American-TV characters like a black cowboy and an animated Latino superhero who speaks only in unsubtitled Spanish.

One of the funniest running jokes in Pee-wee's Big Adventure centers on Pee-wee's obliviousness to how much Dottie (future legendary voice actor E.G. Daily), the pretty bike shop employee who tries to cajole him into taking her out to the drive-in, is in love with him. He's more in love with his bike. It's a riff on the weird behavior of little boys who think the opposite sex is yucky and haven't quite figured out yet that the opposite sex--or whatever sex they'll later become attracted to--isn't really so yucky. In another bit of soft rebooting way before the term existed, Big Top rebooted the "Ew, girls are gross" Pee-wee as a slightly more mature Pee-wee who juggles two women and gets laid off-screen.

Big Top turned Pee-wee into yet another conventional rom-com lead, and it wasn't what the public wanted from Reubens at the time. They weren't interested in a more sensitive and lovey-dovey Pee-wee (they also clearly wanted to see the playhouse itself make the jump to the big screen, not Pee-wee in some '50s circus movie). The public was right: Big Top's elimination of one of Big Adventure's best running jokes ended up sapping Pee-wee of a lot of the comic anarchy that made Big Adventure so enjoyable and endlessly rewatchable.

But Reubens' refusal to repeat himself in Big Top, even when it results in artistic failure, is also one of the most admirable things about the Pee-wee movies as a comedy franchise in a world of comedy franchises that misguidedly believe that constantly rehashing jokes is a wise creative move. When the audience wanted Pee-wee to remain asexual, Reubens pushed against that. Or when the audience was itching for the immensely popular likes of Chairy, Pterri and Conky 2000 to share the big screen with Pee-wee, Reubens gave them a talking pig instead.

In Pee-wee's Big Holiday, the 60-something Reubens has mellowed a bit and appears to be slightly more open to fanservice. So he's returned to the road-movie structure that resulted in so much comedy gold during Big Adventure, and he's even brought back past collaborators like frequent Pee-wee's Playhouse composer Mark Mothersbaugh and a few performers from both Big Adventure and Playhouse. But those actors aren't reprising their previous roles (Lynne Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne and appeared in Big Adventure as a frustrated Warner Bros. studio actor who gets chewed out by a spoiled child star, is completely unrecognizable in Big Holiday as a tough and rumpled-looking snake farm owner). Better yet, Reubens' refusal to repeat himself continues in the ways that he, Love star Paul Rust, the film's co-writer, and director Paul Lee of Wonder Showzen fame have come up with amusing gags that aren't mere rehashes of gags from Big Adventure and Big Top (my favorite new gag: Fairville is so old-timey that an old man in a Colonel Sanders bow tie sits beside the town limits sign just to update its population tally whenever a resident leaves).

Reubens reboots his own character again as a sort of agoraphobic and timid Pee-wee who's neither the wanna-be daredevil bicyclist who tries to impress other kids with his stunts at the start of Big Adventure nor the genius farmer/scientist/circus performer who was the bold (but rather bland) hero of Big Top. At the start of Big Holiday, Pee-wee is afraid to leave the frozen-in-the-'50s Fairville because an accident during a botched trip to Salt Lake City resulted in a metal plate in his head. It's up to the brawny but kindly Joe Manganiello, who makes a quick stop in Fairville for a chocolate shake while embarking on a solo cross-country motorcycle trip right before his birthday, to shake--no pun intended--Pee-wee out of his dull small-town routines as both a short-order cook/soda jerk and a voracious reader of adventure novels who prefers to read about the high sea rather than experiencing it, via the library books recommended to him by Emily (Katherine VanderLinden), a young blond librarian who dotes on Pee-wee just like Dottie did in Big Adventure.

Oh yeah, Pee-wee is back to being "Ew, girls are gross" Pee-wee again. It's no surprise that Big Holiday was co-produced by the former master of "Ew, girls are gross," Judd Apatow, who, in the last few years, has responded to criticisms that his films are way too male-centric by producing Girls, directing Trainwreck and shifting to focusing more often on female leads. "A lot of people wrote, 'Pee-wee doesn't seem to like his girlfriend [in Big Adventure],' and so I thought, 'Okay, I'll show you. I'll have two girlfriends in my next movie,'" recalled Reubens in an interview the A.V. Club posted earlier this week. In the movie after Big Top, Reubens tinkers with Pee-wee's sexuality once again and presents the complete opposite of the libidinous Pee-wee we saw in Big Top. He has his character recoil at the very thought of kissy-face with not just Emily, but nine other women.

At one point in Big Holiday, Pee-wee winds up as a guest at the home of an old farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) and a bevy of daughters who come in all shapes and sizes and are all attracted to a very weirded-out Pee-wee (one of the nine farmer's daughters is played by Alexandra Ella, a.k.a. Clara, the secretary to Pete and later Ken on Mad Men). Pee-wee is much more comfortable around the presence of Joe, whom he bonds with over their shared love for both root beer barrel candy and building miniature models of their hometowns. This results in Big Holiday turning into the most homoerotic Apatow production since director David Gordon Green's Pineapple Express, which had both Craig Robinson pining for James Franco and Danny McBride mending fences with his frenemy Franco by telling him, "I wanna be inside you, homes."

Reubens further stirs up all the old talk about his character's sexual ambiguity with a treehouse scene where Pee-wee and Manganiello--whose skill for tinging his chiseled male-model looks with impeccable comic timing was best previously exemplified by his funny guest shots as a dude-bro-type lawyer on How I Met Your Mother--look like they're about to kiss, but they never do. He's never been the kind of comedian who goes for the easy joke of ridiculing homosexuality. His shtick, whether it would involve himself, Tito Larriva's Pee-wee Herman Show character Hammy or the villainous Francis Buxton camping it up in a blue speedsuit that must have been one of many inspirations for Dr. Venture's blue speedsuit on The Venture Bros., has always been more about the silliness of little boys who are too unaware--or simply too little--to notice the gayness of their behavior (Pee-wee was basically a live-action precursor to the animated likes of Bobby Hill, Gene Belcher and the much less innocent and much less likable Cartman, who's fond of dismissively saying, "That's gay," while being too clueless to realize how gay he is). The absence of that shtick in Big Top is mainly why it's a less interesting movie than Big Adventure or Big Holiday.

The world of Pee-wee has always tended to be quietly inclusive, whether sexually or racially. That's why it kind of bugs me when The Atlantic's Megan Garber lumps in both Pee-wee, whose Christmas special was famously populated with gay icons and whose playhouse was a racially progressive crib, and his new movie with the kind of retrograde comedy she's criticized in her takedowns of the badly dated brand of humor represented by recent stereotype-ridden Adam Sandler fiascos like Netflix's The Ridiculous 6.

But as someone who's not gay, gayness was never why I regularly watched Pee-wee's Playhouse as a kid. I simply dug the irreverence of the show and the way it would constantly and seamlessly shift back and forth between live action and stop-motion animation, and I admired anything that would disgust my sword-and-sorcery-genre-worshiping older brother, whether it was Pee-wee's Playhouse, The Young Ones, the earlier seasons of The Simpsons or the archery-related violence of The Road Warrior. At the time of Playhouse's run on CBS, I was heavily into the irreverence of both that show and the less popular CBS cult favorite Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, particularly whenever the Mighty Mouse crew would make mincemeat out of either a lesser animated show like Alvin and the Chipmunks or the extreme datedness of Scooby-Doo in syndication. However, when I took a UC Santa Cruz film course taught by Playhouse fan Harry M. Benshoff and I was, at about the same time, starting to reject the homophobia that was unfortunately part of my homophobic and socially conservative Filipino upbringing, the same kind of upbringing Filipino American GQ writer Chris Gayomali sharply looked back at with some disdain in his February piece "Goddammit, Manny," Benshoff's praise of Playhouse as a reaction against the conservatism of the Reagan/Bush/Moral Majority era made me start to see the show in a whole new light. I realized that the show helped gay kids feel a little less alone during that era, and that made me appreciate Playhouse a little more.

So while Big Holiday is similarly progressive, one unexpected drawback slightly mars the new movie--other than the drawback of Big Holiday having been made in a slightly lesser comedy world where neither Phil Hartman nor Jan Hooks are no longer alive--and it's the fact that it doesn't have enough of the visual inventiveness of Playhouse and Big Adventure. The cinematography in Big Adventure, which was done by Dog Day Afternoon cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, wasn't extraordinary, but it occasionally resulted in distinctive imagery like the beautiful nighttime shots of the neon-colored Cabazon dinosaurs that surrounded Pee-wee and his waitress friend Simone (Diane Salinger, who appears in Big Holiday as a Katharine Hepburn-style socialite who attempts to drive Pee-wee to New York in an experimental flying car she built).

Big Holiday's cinematographer is Pineapple Express cinematographer Tim Orr, who happens to be the Pineapple Express director's regular cinematographer, and my favorite credit of Orr's remains his visually radiant work on DGG's 2000 indie breakthrough George Washington. Back in 2001, I wrote that Orr and DGG's "decision to shoot in color and CinemaScope is a welcome departure from the anemic aesthetic approaches of most indie directors: too many of them come from the tiresome 'my technique is to have no technique' school of filmmaking. (And don't get me started on all those directors who tout the pleasures of digital video, which, though economical and easy to work with, just looks ugly on the big screen.)" For Big Holiday, Orr opted to do the opposite of George Washington and not shoot on film--he admitted in 2012 that he's started to come to grips with the shift from film stock to digital--but he hasn't completely mastered digital cinematography yet, so Big Holiday winds up with a largely drab '90s ABC movie-of-the-week look that pales in comparison to Kemper's work on Big Adventure.

I also didn't expect Pepper (newcomer Jessica Pohly), Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz) and Bella (Alia Shawkat), the bank robbers Pee-wee crosses paths with a couple of times in Big Holiday, to briefly steal--no pun intended--the movie just like Large Marge and Godzilla briefly do in Big Adventure. When Pee-wee's being chased by Warner Bros. studio security through a Godzilla movie shoot, Big Adventure makes the filming of a Godzilla flick look like the absolute most fun thing in the world, even though the cameo by Twisted Sister right after Godzilla's cameo actually ended up receiving the most applause from the audience when I rewatched Big Adventure at an outdoor nighttime screening right outside my apartment building in downtown San Jose many years ago.

If Big Adventure's studio chase sequence causes some folks in the audience to revisit or sample some Godzilla movies, then the antics of the girl gang in Big Holiday will make younger viewers want to check out the Russ Meyer estate's new (and rather expensive) Blu-ray of the film the girl gang is a reference to: the 1965 Meyer indie flick Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a gutsy little thriller about a crime spree by a crew of murderous female thieves who work as go-go dancers on the side. Everyone from John Waters to red-blooded males loves Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and it's a film I was totally unaware of for a long time, due mainly to its longtime unavailability on disc in America, until I saw it for the first time on TCM several years ago and fell in love with it as well. Pepper is clearly based on Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! star Tura Satana, whose quick-witted gang leader character's name in Faster, Pussycat! is Varla, while Bella isn't modeled after anybody from Faster, Pussycat! and Freckles is basically Lori Williams' Faster, Pussycat! character.

Beatriz, who's so great as the grim-faced, husky-voiced Detective Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, plays against type as an enthusiastic, almost Harley Quinn-like criminal. Her bit part as Freckles is one of the few times you get to hear Beatriz's actual speaking voice outside of interviews, where you're always thrown off by how high an octave Beatriz speaks in off-camera (her voice is, in real life, closer to Maria Bamford's). She's basically been doing her version of a Batman voice on Brooklyn Nine-Nine this whole time.

Played by Alia Shawkat, whose Broad City guest shot as Ilana's doppelgänger helped make "Coat Check" become one of the most genuinely erotically-charged episodes of a half-hour comedy ever, Bella was clearly modeled after photos of Gina Lollobrigida in angora sweaters.

The girl gang scenes in Pee-wee's Big Holiday are what you would get if you crossed Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! with that old SNL child star crime spree sketch that starred Michael J. Fox as Danny Bonaduce and Jan Hooks as Drew Barrymore.

As the innocuous, Pleasantville-type movie Pee-wee emerges from basically brushes up against Faster, Pussycat!, you wish at times that John Lee, whose Wonder Showzen was often way stranger than the weirdest stuff Reubens could ever imagine for Playhouse or even his not-for-kids stage show, just said "Fuck it" and decided to think about entertaining only the all-adult Wonder Showzen fans who were attuned to the MTV kids' show spoof's surreality, so that he could go full-tilt crazy while juxtaposing Pee-wee with Faster, Pussycat! Part of me wishes Pee-wee stopped everything in the middle of his cross-country journey to New York--or totally developed Stockholm syndrome while the girls held him captive in their motel room--and just went along with the girl gang for the rest of the movie.

While some critics find Pepper, Freckles and Bella--they're women out of time, just like how their temporary criminal accomplice Pee-wee is a man-child out of time--to be inconsequential as characters in Big Holiday, I find them to be the most unexpectedly compelling side characters during Pee-wee's trek to NYC, simply because of their connection to Faster, Pussycat! That's how powerful an impact Faster, Pussycat! leaves on you as a viewer. It's such a great little cult flick that every time some other movie or show alludes to it, that movie or show becomes 80 percent more intriguing. You also take one look at Meyer's movie, and you immediately think to yourself, "There's no way this was made in 1965. It's too contemporary. A woman of color is the lead, and she's not playing a racial stereotype."

(Photo source: The Oak Drive-In)

(Photo source: The Oak Drive-In)

(Photo source: The Oak Drive-In)

(Photo source: The Oak Drive-In)

Meyer's twisted sense of humor in Faster, Pussycat! feels too modern. How was the rather stodgy Hollywood of the pre-Bonnie and Clyde '60s even capable of putting at the center of a movie a strong-willed and physically intimidating woman like Satana? She's so intimidating she'd make someone like Barbara Stanwyck immediately curl up into a fetal position.

As you watch Varla kick the shit out of some guy, you think to yourself, "This all has to be a fake B-movie like Black Dynamite or Planet Terror. Come on outta there, Robert Rodriguez!"

But it's not a fake B-movie. It's the kind of oddity only Meyer, the same director behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a deadpan Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy way before such a thing even existed, could be capable of in the '60s.

Playwright and YOMYOMF blogger Philip W. Chung, another Faster, Pussycat! fan, is right about Faster, Pussycat! containing "the best kickass lead performance by an Asian American woman ever committed to celluloid" (let's face it: the late Satana never got to play another role as juicy as Varla because of racism). Satana was, in fact, in her own words during a San Francisco Bay Guardian interview she did when she was alive, "half Japanese and Chinese, a little Filipino, Scotch Irish and Cheyenne Indian."

A burlesque dancer who dated Elvis Presley in the '50s and actually turned him down when he proposed to her (if you ever peep archived photos of Priscilla Presley when she married Elvis, notice how he clearly Vertigoed his bride into making herself look more like his ex), Satana lived a fascinating, biopic-worthy life that would shock even the PG-rated crooks Pee-wee encounters in Big Adventure and Big Holiday. During World War II, she, her brother and their Japanese father were interned at Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp. Then when she was only nine years old, she was the victim of a racially motivated gang rape, so her father taught her martial arts to defend herself.

The father of one of her rapists used his wealth to bribe a judge into getting his son and the other rapists off. According to Chung, Satana spent the next 15 years perfecting her martial arts training--the same kind of fighting moves she would later put to use in Faster, Pussycat!--and tracking down each of her acquitted rapists. She proceeded to beat each of them up. It's no wonder Chung and the YOMYOMF folks are Satana worshipers.

Perhaps the craziest part of Chung's 2011 post about Satana is when he recalls taking an Asian American studies course at the exact same university I attended many years after he did so. The T.A. at Chung's class asked the students for examples of pioneering Asian American women in the arts. Chung tossed out Satana's name, and the T.A. responded to Chung's pick with the following: "A whore is not a pioneer. A pioneer is someone like Amy Tan who actually did something worthwhile besides lying on her back."

Chung adds that when he got the opportunity to meet Meyer, he told the filmmaker about the T.A.'s bizarre bit of slut-shaming, and Meyer said, "That T.A. was an ignorant bitch." He then pointed out to Meyer that the T.A. was actually male.

"Like I said, he was an ignorant bitch. Tura was very proud of being Asian and talked about it all the time. I think she was always a little sad that her own community never really accepted her," replied Meyer to Chung.

But Satana also had the last laugh.

"I know of several little girls named either Tura or Varla. I'm flattered. I think it's because the character I play in that film empowered women so much. Varla was a person who was looking to get her own thrills at that time in her life," said Satana to the Bay Guardian.

Now that I think about it, Satana got into fights and broke plenty of rules. I don't know if two men ever fought over her, but she definitely broke Elvis' heart. She lived the exact kind of life Joe Manganiello urges Pee-wee to go out and experience on the open road.

It's remarkable how in his 60s, Reubens hasn't lost a lot of the comic energy or spark he previously brought to Pee-wee, even after surviving a box-office flop, burnout from working on his hit TV show, an indecent exposure scandal and the mediocre writing on Gotham. But his performance actually isn't the best thing about Big Holiday.

The best thing about Reubens' new movie reminds me of what the King of Cartoons used to always do on Playhouse, and that would be any time he introduced '80s kids who suffered through terrible '80s half-hour toy commercials to the nicer pleasures of much older and higher-quality cartoons. In a similar fashion, Big Holiday is bound to persuade more viewers who are unfamiliar with Faster, Pussycat! to go discover the Meyer cult classic and have an even wilder time than during the family-friendly Big Holiday, as they examine closely the way that, as the Faster, Pussycat! narrator puts it, "violence doesn't only destroy, it creates and molds as well" and they become acquainted with a "rapacious new breed" of woman that "prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, any time, anywhere and with anybody."

Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor's receptionist or a robber in a Pee-wee movie!

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