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Review by Joshua Gibbs
“Show, don’t tell” is the oldest law of storytelling, that thing which frustrated short fiction profs shout, mutter, whisper, beg and plead over and again in student workshops. “Don’t tell me Pat is angry. Show me. Did he lower his voice? Did he take deep breaths and shake his head? What?” And yet, the oldest law of telling myths is different. “Show one thing, but tell another.” Does Odysseus want to go back to Ithaka or doesn’t he? Is Tristan faithful to Iseult or not? Is Jesus divine or human? A conundrum which cannot be resolved through ordinary logic rests at the center of every myth.
Was Charles Schulz in the business of myth making? If you asked him, I wager he would say not. And yet, in Schulz’s mind, children were adults and adults were infants. In a television drama like, say, Mad Men, Betty Draper gives birth to a child and then the child disappears. A thousand other shows cop the same routine after the addition of an infant. No nap schedule. No diapers to change. No possibility of mastitis. Nobody’s life is rearranged. In Peanuts, adults give birth to children and then the adults disappear. On the rare occasion an adult shows up, it speaks in a gibberish even less meaningful than the mutterings of the unweaned. Charlie Brown never mentions his mother and father, but neither do any of the other children. Linus and Lucy and Charles see one another often, and pass in and out of conversation with a host of others (Marcy, Schroeder, Pig Pen), and yet, on another front, the children all seem deeply and profoundly alone, isolated, and helplessly cut off from the world. More often than not, one of the characters encounters another character alone, the two speak, and the scene ends with one of the characters silenced, shocked or saddened by the comments of the other. While Charlie Brown is often represented on greeting cards as a smiling, contented person of mild and caring affectation, he rarely appears this way in the Peanuts television programs until the final moment, and never at all this way during the comic strip. In this way, Peanuts television specials are bizarrely different than Peanuts in print; in print, Charlie Brown always loses (the Trix Rabbit who wants only to eat a small portion of self-esteem), and on TV, he often unexpectedly wins in the last. The Peanuts world is mythically rife with contradictions, then.
Let me see if I recall the plot of the first Peanuts TV special…
A man often becomes depressed around Christmas, and so one December afternoon, he visits his psychiatrist, who advises he dispel his sadness by throwing himself into some arduous and time-consuming labor. He should direct a play, claims the mental health professional. The man takes up said directorial duties, but finds the cast interested only in revelry, mockery, vanity and dissension. He scolds, he encourages, and yet finds them unresponsive and the mood of the production falters. Will the show go on? To raise their spirits, the depressed director sets off to buy a Christmas tree with his only confidant. The lot of trees is full of glorious, splendid false idols, but also a single, meek and lowly sapling, which the director buys in defiant protest of the rest. Returning to the hoi polloi, the director is derided for his lack of taste. Begging the aid of a watching cosmos, the director demands to know the hidden and esoteric meaning of God’s incarnation. His only friend quotes a short passage from a sacred text, but this only depresses the director who carries his tree like a cross back home, where he finds his materialistic, lecherous and fame obsessed roommate has festooned the place with garish accoutrements. Nearly too heartbroken to go on, yet the director summons a moment of courage and attempts to decorate his own cross with something festive, and yet the oppressive weight of just a single decoration destroys the fledging, childlike life of the director’s tree. “I’ve killed it,” bellows the director, who then exits silently, stoically, presumably to take his own life. Whilst in the thralls of a roving bacchanal, the cast of the play unwittingly discovers the corpse of the director’s tree and is suddenly moved to clown the dead thing with glittering vulgarities the lecherous roommate had used to lampoon the Christ. Awed by the spectacle, the abomination of something real become something false, the horde begins singing, at first quietly, a sacred and venerable hymn of the Galilean tradition. On the precipice of the act of suicide, the director hears the paean sung softly and quits his death chamber to discover the secret of its origin before departing for the next world. Bowled over by the absurd spectacle of his cross blasphemed as though an idol of the flesh, the director inexplicably surrenders to the sad and irrational zeitgeist (did the sphinx not also take its own life once defeated?) and begins singing the hymn, as well. Le fin.
Have I overstated the sinister, existentialist qualities of the plot? See the film again, by all means. Until this year, I had never watched a Peanuts movie while children were present, although my four year old daughter and I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas this past December and I found myself constantly warning her against the viciousness and pettiness of the characters. In the event you’ve never seen the very first Peanuts comic strip, it recalls well the first few verses of the book of Job, wherein all is (quite briefly) right with the world.
The first strip is atypical of every strip which followed it for fifty years only inasmuch as Charlie Brown would never, ever pass through a whole four panels with that kind of smile ever again. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz grew up Lutheran, and passed through the Church of God and the United Methodist Church as an adult, although in an authorized biography published later in his life, Schulz claimed, “I do not go to church anymore... I guess you might say I've come around to secular humanism, an obligation I believe all humans have to others and the world we live in.” One of my only experiences with Schulz’s work outside of Peanuts is a book of single slide cartoons published in 1989 entitled I Take My Religion Seriously, which features a hand drawn sketch of a preacher before a congregation, saying, “I take my religion seriously. I get into arguments almost every day.”
Of course, all that came a good deal after A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired in 1965, and has been replayed every year since then. The unwritten blue law of sentimental tradition alone allows the infamous quotation of seven whole verses of Scripture on national television (probably more in a row than you’ll ever hear on CBN, or a whole year listening to K-Love), although if the cigarette was edited from Paul Simon’s fingers for the cover of Old Friends, who knows what they’ll do next? I suppose a good deal of how thorough-goingly Christian the movie seems depends quite a bit on how much weight is given to the short passage wherein Linus repeats the angelic message to the shepherds and then claims, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” I would be lying if I didn’t say I find the moment quite stunning in its simplicity and directness. Herod and the Holy Innocents get their due: Linus delivers his lines of hope in the midst of a night made for despair.
If it seems too thick to suggest Charlie Brown goes off to take his own life after finding Snoopy’s gaudy tree has won first place in a neighborhood contest, recall that when parents who saw the ’65 special air live were only teenagers, they watched George Bailey abandon his wife and four children and try to drown himself on Christmas Eve. At times, A Charlie Brown Christmas seems like it might have been adapted out of a lost scene from the third act of It’s A Wonderful Life. Both films, after all, resolve in a similar fashion. The hero walks in to a suddenly generous crowd singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Vince Guaraldi’s score keeps Charlie Brown unnaturally light, though. Just another one of those jarring discrepancies between tone and plot that keep your subconscious flickering. If John Barry had scored the thing (he was working in 1965, oddly enough), you might have never seen another Peanuts TV special ever again.
The protest against the commercialization of Christmas is one of the classic 20th century American protests, and perhaps the one which has accomplished the least. Charlie Brown is ascetic, really. The film opens with Charlie Brown claiming to Linus, “I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” The sensual, celebratory mood he encounters everywhere come December conflicts with the penitence and contemplation appropriate for a fast, and so while millions of Americans gorge themselves as they watch the film, the film speaks to a spiritual naiveté and bloatedness from which the viewer suffers, while yet undiagnosed. Charlie Brown is not a rebel by nature, though, and is troubled by the fact his innermost feelings conflict with what he sees in his friends. “I know I should be happy during Christmas, but I can’t seem to manage it,” he tells his shrink, although the film doesn’t take place “during Christmas,” but Advent. The tone of the film is too anticipatory, too tense, too painful to be festal, anyhow.
Despite the humanoid dog, A Charlie Brown Christmas moves through simple, straightforward plot developments (on unadorned sets, and with nonprofessional actors) which ought to have pleased a Truffaut, Rohmer or the Dogme 95 Brethren. Until the ending, that is, when the cast of Charlie Brown’s play go searching for him and find Linus venerating the tree purchased earlier in the evening. Linus’s act of love is an epiphany, and the cast, with unreasonable speed and agility, relocate the decorations adorning Snoopy’s doghouse to the upturned branch Charlie thought suitable. Is this truly an act of love? A thoughtful love, or merely good intention? Were we not supposed to intuit that Snoopy’s decorations were garish, given that they inspire such malaise and dread in Charlie Brown? In addition to standard lights and colored balls, Snoopy’s house is decorating with a bike chain, an air horn and some manner of golden arrow with a propeller for a head. While the arrow and air horn are not taken by the children, oddly enough, the chain is visible on Charlie’s redecorated tree.
At least for Schulz’s part, nothing was intended by the chain. The original script called for an overbearing narrator to chime in every few minutes and explain the action of the plot, as well as the themes, for anyone who had not been paying attention. The loss of the narrator allowed for a host of ambiguities and complexities to emerge in the narrative which would have been quashed otherwise. Often enough, the key to tapping into the mythic is knowing when to be silent, when to leave the audience to try to sort things out.