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Friends & Neighbors
Pee-wee Herman, Siskel & Ebert, and a Harlem shuffler walk into a bar...
I wrote last week about the annual ritual of “U-Haul Season” here in New Haven, and the trucks have kept coming and going this week — including for friends/readers Hirsh S. and Anjali W. and their children. Fortunately, they didn’t leave town, they merely moved about 1,000 feet down the street.
My comments followed in the great and storied tradition of “U-Haul Season” literature, a genre that was invented by friend/reader Lary B. Or as the ritual is less popularly (but more amusingly) known, “The International Festival of U‑Haul Trucks, Trailers and Pods and a Penske or Two.” (You can check out Lary’s insights about it in the New Haven Independent at that link.)
As it happens, Hirsh and Anjali now live right across the street from Lary and his wife Sue — four people from different parts of the world, united by their love of culture and teaching English, whose lives have brought them to the same speck of dust on this crazy, mixed-up planet of ours.
I’m lucky to have them all as friends and neighbors. Maybe one of these days, I’ll even get around to introducing them to each other.
…Movie I Re-Watched This Week
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) — Directed by Tim Burton
Available for rent on all the usual streaming suspects
I was born at the perfect time for the Saturday morning TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It premiered in September 1986, when I was seven, and ran until November 1990, when I was 11. These were great years to be introduced to a comedic sensibility that didn’t really exist on other shows for kids.
Pee-wee Herman’s world was singular. It was anarchic, surreal, joyful, inclusive, whimsical, silly, and warm. Also funny. Pee-wee was a walking, talking piece of performance art.
I’m sure that when I first discovered him, my 7-year-old brain didn’t understand that Pee-wee was a character played by a performer named Paul Reubens. He just seemed like a real person who acted like an adult-sized version of a child.
Reubens’s death two weeks ago at age 70 set off a national wave of Pee-wee nostalgia, and I was not immune. So I fired up Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the first of his films to grace the big screen in 1985.
The movie held up exactly as I thought, as a wacky, sweet glimpse into Pee-wee’s world as he tries to track down his stolen bicycle. Along the way, he encounters an array of eccentrics and weirdos, including a jealous giant, a terrifying trucker (the infamous Large Marge), and… comedy legend Milton Berle.
I didn’t realize until this week that it was director Tim Burton’s feature debut, and watching it today, you can see early indications of the visual creativity he would bring to Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and many other (mostly cult) films.
A few more Pee-wee’s Big Adventure notes:
If you were alive in the mid-eighties, you undoubtedly remember the revival of the 1958 song “Tequila” by The Champs, which Pee-wee brought back to prominence thanks to his biker bar dance performance.
Whenever anyone mentions the Alamo (or Alamo Rent a Car or the Alamo Bowl), I think to myself, “There’s no basement at the Alamo.”
And this really blew my mind during my re-watch. The movie’s antagonist is a fellow man-boy named Francis Buxton, who orchestrates the theft of Pee-wee’s bike. The character is played by actor Mark Holton, who later was the “Hey! It’s Enrico Palazzo!” guy in The Naked Gun. (Also in that clip: Nancy Marchand aka Livia Soprano.)
RIP Paul and Pee-wee.
…Opening Title Sequence I Saw This Week
“Guilty Pleasures” — Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, 1987
I was curious to see what critic Roger Ebert thought about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, so I did a little internet research. Turns out, he didn’t see it when it first came out, so he didn’t review it. But his TV partner and crosstown rival Gene Siskel did and hated it.
However, Ebert later lauded the film in a “Guilty Pleasures” episode of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies that aired in 1987.
But that’s not why I’ve linked to this episode of their show. No, I wanted to draw attention to the opening title sequence, which is possibly the most 1980s piece of television ever created. I got a huge kick out of it.
On our now-dormant podcast, The Throwback Show, Aaron Cohen, Matt Stroup, and I used to do a segment called “Old Shit,” in which we discussed the bygone items and references that popped up in whichever ’80s or ’90s movie we were talking about that day. We would’ve had a great “Old Shit” segment discussing this Siskel & Ebert open.
…Book I Read This Week
Harlem Shuffle (Penguin Random House, 2021) — By Colson Whitehead
After taking on weighty subjects in The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) — both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — I can understand why author Colson Whitehead wanted to veer off into genre storytelling.
He did so with the crime stories in Harlem Shuffle, which came out in 2021. This novel, split into three parts (set in 1959, ’61, and ’64), concerns itself with the exploits of protagonist Ray Carney. In the light of day, Carney is the owner of a Harlem furniture store, a loving husband and father of two young kids. But in the darker hours, he is a “fence,” operating as a middleman in the buying and selling of stolen goods.
As the epigraph to the first part tells us, “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” Herein lies the foundation of Whitehead’s tension — is Carney a solid citizen, a family man, a pillar of the Harlem business community or is he a crook? The answer unfolds as he embarks on a series of heists, capers, and misadventures, not entirely of his own volition. (Whenever Carney gets sucked into some unfortunate situation by his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie, I thought of Dante from Clerks: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”)
While Harlem Shuffle may be more “fun” than some of Whitehead’s previous novels, it is not a simple genre exercise. He takes on themes of class and power disparities, racial inequality, police corruption, and gentrification, and he creates a vivid portrait of Harlem life during a tumultuous period in New York City’s history — with echoes of recent times as well.
A sequel, Crook Manifesto, was released last month and continues the Carney saga in the 1970s. And Whitehead says he will round out the trilogy with a book set in the 1980s. In that final installment, is it too much to ask for Carney to cross paths with Pee-wee Herman?