Three Perfect Loops: Rewatchable Moments in Raiders, Pee Wee, and Naked Gun
The best part of Raiders of the Lost Ark is when the Nazis melt at the end. Well, a couple of them melt, most are shot through the chest by some kind of energy and one has his head explode. When you watch the sequence over and over again, you notice the exploding one has these rubber glove hands that flap around and shake as his face detonates, like the Ark of the Covenant has both blown him up and given him a terrible case of Parkinson's. I know how his hands look because I rewound that VHS tape a hundred times. I watched Indiana Jones have an adventure and then I settled the movie into a locked groove, trapping everybody in the film in special effects hell. Nations' worth of Nazis have fallen apart so I could admire how cool it all looked. Fuck 'em.
I've always loved rewinding and instantly rewatching moments in movies, creating loops that instantly annoy everybody else in the room. Yes, I know you want to let the movie keep going, and I'm sorry, but I need to see the action play out paused frame by paused frame to fully appreciate what's happening. I need to stretch four seconds into ten minutes.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was not the movie I did this most with. Raiders is a more famous film, the ark opening a more iconic moment, but the true gem of 80s special effects freak-outs was the three or four seconds of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure where we saw Large Marge's crash face. The claymation, the way it was both shocking and goofy, the sound effect-- it all worked for me. It was surprising when other kids would later tell me this scene was too scary and they had to look away or turn off the TV during this scene because it was too scary. I assume they also threw out their dessert after eating dinner. I watched the Nazis in Raiders melt because the scene terrified me. I watched Large Marge scare Pee-Wee because it fascinated me.
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure never made me feel uncomfortable, even at its Large Margest. It takes place in the perfect environment. Pee-Wee solves the movie's big problem by dressing up like a nun and sneaking onto a Hollywood film set, an escaped convict turns out to be one of the nicest characters we run into and the most dangerous situation in the movie is deflated when Pee-Wee dances to "Tequila." I could live in any four seconds of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
The level of detail in Large Marge's face is incredible for the brief time it's on screen, but, really, that level of detail never goes down, because Pee-Wee's is a parallel universe. The laws of our world don't apply in his. What I mean by this is the majority of the jokes in this movie are completely contrived-- Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman weren't riffing on daily life when they wrote the script, they were creating bizarre situations and then finding bizarre ways for characters to deal with them. When Pee-Wee yells "Is there something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry," and a mohawked, middle-aged man we've never met and will never see again looks at Pee-Wee with a mix of shame and terror, it isn't playing on anything you or I could ever be familiar with. There are certainly situations in the movie that reflect the real world (Jan Hooks' brilliant portrayal of an unaware tour guide at the Alamo comes to mind), but even the most grounded of those goes somewhere unexpected (In the Jan Hooks scene, upon hearing that Pee-Wee is looking for the non-existent basement of the Alamo, she laughs at him, the tourists laugh at him and a child is so amused by Pee-Wee's mistake that he jumps in and takes a picture of confused, sad Pee-Wee). The magic and bike shops at the beginning of the movie aren't as flashy as Large Marge's face, but you can tell they were built carefully, piece by piece, detail by detail.
I like "real" movies as much as anybody-- I don't mean documentaries here, but movies that try to base their fiction in well-thought-out simulations of reality. I don't mind yelling "Oh come on, how did she survive falling off a waterfall?" at an action movie, but it's also nice when by disbelief doesn't have to be suspended. I also wish there were more films like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure that operate by their own rules. And moreover, I wish there were more films like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure that can both operate by their own rules and use those rules to create comfort.
My favorite film of the past few years is Jeremy Saulnier's unbelievably brutal Green Room; had it or something just like it come out in 1985, I'd probably love it just as much, but I wouldn't have made sure to always have a copy with me the way I have with Pee-Wee. I wouldn't have turned to it during low points or excitedly shown it to friends who somehow hadn't seen it. I don't go to movies or books or really any kind of media for escape. But the more I think about it, the more I realize my ideal movie has endured with me as long as it has because it provides that perfect trap door out of the real world. It is 90 minutes of endlessly re-watchable detail. I don't want to be coddled by art but I also don't mind retreating to a truly weird utopia like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
My third loop is the only one that needs context before I can start it, and it isn't a loop I've ever entered as long as I've been in Raiders or Pee-Wee. I don't enter it because it's visually dazzling, I enter it because it makes me laugh so hard I need to hit rewind a few times to fully appreciate it.
I tried for a long time to explain here that my favorite joke of all time is the moment in The Naked Gun where a man yells "Hey, it's Enrico Pollazo" at a character who is not named Enrico Pollazo. I tried to explain that understanding this joke requires running through the set-ups and punchlines of a bunch of other jokes, and I tried to explain that none of them would work any better on paper than "Hey, it's Enrico Pollazo" does. Some art is too pure to explained. (This joke is, coincidentally, delivered by Mark Holton, who plays spoiled brat Francis Buxton in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. History will remember Holton as an unknown legend. Our children will Bing him, see that his IMDb page has long stretches of nothing and throw their holo-iPhone 11s (Apple will dramatically slow down the introduction of new iPhone versions in the future) on the ground in disgust at an industry that would let such a treasure go unappreciated. His delivery is a major reason I always have to hit rewind.)
The Naked Gun has more incredible jokes than any other movie. They hide in the background as other jokes are delivered in the foreground, they come so quickly you know you missed a few, they build on each other until Leslie Nielsen is catching falling ceramics in a burning building as a player piano gives him a peppy silent movie score. There are jokes I can explain (Leslie Nielsen says he can't see anything out of a microscope and his coworker tells him that he has to use his open eye. We learn Leslie had his closed eye up to the glass.) and jokes that make me laugh out loud for reasons I just cannot articulate (George Kennedy eats increasingly large foods). Toward the end of the film there is an inexplicably funny arm movement I have spent my entire life failing to replicate.
Many of Naked Gun's best moments are as contrived as anything in Pee-Wee, but most are parodies of police story tropes. One of my favorite jokes is so specific as to be a direct take-off of a piece of Dirty Harry's dialogue.
The Naked Gun's grounded jokes are not based in reality, they're based in tropes. The most 'real" The Naked Gun gets is when it mocks the verisimilitude of its more serious forebears. "Hey, it's Enrico Pollazzo" is neither real nor unreal. It's the culmination of a couple of earlier real and unreal moments, falling like dominoes. It is too funny a punchline to just exist for the few moments it's spoken. It's too perfect a movie to only last 90 minutes.