There’s a scene in the Paul Reubens-starrer Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that finds its titular character setting off on a vagabond adventure. He hops aboard a train to sit side-by-side with a grizzled, toothless man known as Hobo Jack, and they sing camp songs until Pee-Wee suddenly sours on the moment. The disgust radiates from his face and he makes a rash decision to jump off the moving train and tumble into the dirt below. The scene lasts all of 53 seconds.
“It’s such a committed, incredibly short joke that takes so much effort and I think that that has embedded somewhere deep inside me,” Greta Gerwig explained from the podium inside TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday night while introducing a screening of Tim Burton’s 1985 film as part of AFI Fest. The blockbuster Barbie director turned up as part of her guest directing duties for the Los Angeles-based festival, which tapped her to curate a selection of films to screen this year.
Those five films include Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange and Ann Reinking, Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire starring Bruno Ganz, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure starring Reubens who passed away on July 31.
Gerwig introduced both A Matter of Life and Death and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure tonight. Dressed in a red devoré-velvet set by Gucci in monogramed jacquard print, Gerwig called the train scene “brilliant” before revealing that her relationship to the film is a personal one. “As a writer and director, when you go back and look at the things that you loved and then you realize that it was always great. It’s so funny, special and inventive that it makes you believe in comedy and cinema and how profound this kind of silliness is.”
Her showing at the festival marked a homecoming after having screened her previous films Lady Bird and Little Women there in years past. Gerwig also served on the shorts jury in 2010. But her appearance this year has special significance as she’s coming off the massive success of Barbie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. The Warner Bros. release has become a cultural phenomenon and grossed north of $1.4 billion.
She did mention Barbie during her introduction, saying that when she set out to make the film, she thought about “those wonderful comedic confections” on display in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and how it allows “you to access something that’s not available.” She said she loved the film as a kid without understanding all the reasons why.
“I didn’t know anything about why it was so brilliant, why it was so beautiful. I just loved it and it gave me joy and it made me feel free,” Gerwig continued. “And it was something that gave me permission to experience the truth that you can only reach when you move into the ridiculous, which is what Paul knew as a performer. And he knew it in the same way that Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton knew it.”
She called both Reubens and Burton “geniuses” and the film “a stone cold classic.” Gerwig was welcomed to the podium by AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, who noted the significance of showing the film inside the TCL Chinese as the iconic theater played host to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure world premiere back in 1985.
“Also making this a most special evening,” Gazzale continued as he revealed that three members of the film’s creative team were in the theater including co-writer Michael Varhol, an actor who played Kid #2 on a bike, Brett Fellman, and “the one and only” Diane Salinger who plays Simone. She received an enthusiastic applause and as it wound down, she said that she knew Reubens was looking down on the festivities tonight.
After her remarks, Gerwig, who was introduced by AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, moved on to another theater in the complex to introduce A Matter of Life and Death. The 1946 movie, from filmmaking team of Powell and Pressburger, centers on a British wartime aviator who cheats death and then must argue for his life before a celestial court.
Gerwig’s comments in that theater centered less on the ridiculous and more on the power of cinema. “They give me a sense of freedom, she said of the feeling she gets while watching their films. “I feel like whenever I watch a Powell and Pressburger movie, it’s a shot of adrenaline and a reminder that movies can be anything you want them to be, and you can do anything you want. When the lights go down, anything’s possible.”