Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Well, according to my own loosely-enforced traditions, Tuesdays are the days for me to suggest new DVD releases. The problem is, the most interesting new discs out today I haven't seen. Chances are, the double bill of Peter Watkins' The War Game and Culloden is really great, and I'm sure Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale could make strong men weep. But I haven't seen them. Oh, we do have three reissues from Eurotrash auteur Jesus Franco, including the wonderfully-titled Kiss Me, Monster, which I have seen...but I can't remember a thing about it.

So instead I'll steer you towards two of my all-time favorites. They have nothing in common, but both effortlessly manage to do one of the hardest things for any movie: find a perfect tone and sustain it all the way through.

First up: Pee Wee's Big Adventure. This is one of the best comedies ever made, and that's due, I think, almost entirely to the perfect direction of Tim Burton. True, Paul Reubens' Pee Wee Herman is a wonderful comic creation, and Reubens and his co-writers (Michael Varhol and the late Phil Hartman) crafted a funny, sweet script about Pee Wee's efforts to retrieve his stolen bike.

But it was up to Burton to make it work, to create a world in which a tight-suited man-child like Pee Wee could plausibly exist. So reality here is heightened, but we're not in the crazy world of Pee Wee's TV show, with its dime store surrealism. Instead we take a road trip through an imagined American southwest and meet some broken, eccentric dreamers. The key is the tone: this is a genuinely sweet-natured movie. True, there are some dirty jokes, but it's an eight year old's idea of naughtiness. A lot of movies these days seem to be aimed at kids, but this is a rare movie that assumes kids are intelligent.

The other movie to talk about is Meet Me In St. Louis. Produced in 1944, this is the type of thing I ordinarily hate: an idealized portrait of small town life, with a cozy period setting and an affirmation of traditional values. When MGM produced it, they were probably envisioning something along the lines of an upscale Andy Hardy picture.

Fortunately Vincente Minnelli was assigned to direct, and that made all the difference. He fought with studio brass to put more money into it, supervised rewrites of the script and assembled a superb cast. And of course, he brought his astonishing visual sense to every aspect of the film's physical production--I think this might actually be the most beautiful movie (in a visual sense) ever made.

Most importantly, Minnelli hits the right tone from the beginning, and never loses it. The material is the stuff of a thousand family melodramas, the sort of thing that could sink into formula or tip into sentiment, but Minnelli keeps the characterizations, the emotions, believable and true. Whatever the people onscreen are feeling, we feel, too.

For what it's worth, Pee Wee's Big Adventure was Tim Burton's first feature film, Meet Me In St. Louis was Vincente Minnelli's third. Burton's career is still ongoing, of course, and Minnelli's was long and (mostly) distinguished, and both of them would make movies far more ambitious than these early efforts, but never anything quite as good.When you achieve perfection early in your career, it's hard to top it later.