Friday, October 21, 2011

Notes while watching "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" for the xxth time since childhood

It's a seasonal perennial at our house. In fact, it has been for me since I was a kid and the Peanuts holiday specials came to TV sponsored by Dolly Madison snack cakes. Now I have It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown on DVD, and the attendant snacks have changed significantly, but otherwise the annual ritual remains undiminished. Those two holidays just don't feel complete without them, with autumn (my favorite season) and Halloween invariably heralded by the warm oranges and reds contrasting with the cool nighttime azures and cobalts of Great Pumpkin. Two months later, December feels only half-done for this sentimental secularist if I don't make a point to watch Merry Christmas at least once, its sublime Vince Guaraldi score in constant rotation on my iPod's large Christmas playlist.

And certainly I'm not the same kid I was back in the Dolly Madison days. I'm older and more observant, which changes how I view the hallmarks of childhood. To this shifting perspective Great Pumpkin is not immune, and this year I noted how it has changed over the decades as I watch it with a gimlet eye. Or possibly it's the effects of the well-stirred gimlet that has replaced those Dolly Madison snack cakes. Something.

For instance, I have come to realize that poor Linus's obdurate plight taught me the follies of religious fundamentalism at an early age. The program is one of the great treatises on the subject. His arc tracks the classic cycle of fervent belief in a mysterious and unseen external agent, entreaties through prayer, proselytizing the dogma (Sally is a willing acolyte until the manifest disillusionment), reinforcement through sectarian hymns ("Have you come to sing pumpkin carols?"), a grand display of abstentious devotion to the mysterious and unseen external agent, the test of faith, the existential crisis, and finally a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face leading to obstinate, indignation-fueled doubling-down on those counterfactual beliefs, buttressed by a self-justifying misapprehension that the mysterious and unseen external agent will conform to the proselytized dogma next time. Linus, otherwise the most rational and philosophical of the Peanuts gang, captures the cankerous blight of the Southern Baptist zealotry I observed growing up in the small Southern town I've alluded to elsewhere.

Was it Charles M. Schulz that made me, a Bible Belt kid, an atheist? I'll thank him in the afterlife.

"Tonight the Great Pumpkin will rise out of the pumpkin patch. He flies through the air and brings toys to all the children of the world."
"I'm doomed. One little slip like that could cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by. Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?"
"You kept me up all night waiting for the Great Pumpkin, and all that came was a beagle."
"I'll see the Great Pumpkin. I'll SEE the Great Pumpkin! Just you wait, Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin will appear and I'll be waiting for him."

Of course, I must admit that Sally doesn't acquit herself by her default resort to kneejerk victimhood, self-centered material consumerism, and the call for redress for imagined wrongs. "What a fool I was! I could have had candy apples and gum and cookies and money and all sorts of things, but no, I had to listen to you. You blockhead.... YOU OWE ME RESTITUTION!"

So much for Linus's demeaning outdated tenet that "little girls always believed everything that was told to them. I thought little girls were innocent and trusting." Good on you, Sally, but the choice was always yours, kiddo.

And then there's how every-freakin'-body treats Charlie Brown — even the presumed adults who answer the trick-or-treat doorbell. "I got a rock" indeed. THREE TIMES. What a cruddy 'hood, coldly taunting the round-headed kid like that. No wonder the parents never show their faces.

Even his ostensible friends call him "Charlie Brown," his full name, even in casual conversation with all the supercilious formality of a call to the principal's office. In the Peanuts canon, Peppermint Patty calls him "Chuck" most of the time, while her friend Marcie usually uses "Charles"; in 1979 they admitted to each other that each probably has a crush on him, explaining the familiarity. Years later that's an eventual three-way that will likely, alas, end in tears.

Speaking of the adults, not even Linus's parents notice that their boy is shivering from exposure in the pumpkin patch at 4 AM. Where are they at that hour, huh? It's as if off-screen there's this endless absentee-adults-only debauched revelry followed by prolonged blackouts across town. Might as well re-purpose the scene to portray Linus in the grip of malaria in a special called It's a Jungle Out There, Charlie Brown. Meanwhile his parents are off with Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice (or George, Martha, Nick, and Honey) swilling highballs and placing their carkeys in the orange ceramic Coupe "key party" bowl on someone's coffee table.

At least Snoopy's fantasies are immersive and full-sensory hallucinations, and possibly harmless. Although the fact that they are entirely enactments of personal hostility, warfare, machine-gunfire, desperate battles that always end in defeat, escape and displacement behind "enemy lines" — well, that leaves me wondering when he'll finally snap and turn on his owner. And who's that? Why, Charlie Brown, of course, the picked-on, laughed-at kid with the bag of rocks. That won't end well either.

And then there's Lucy — face it, the girl's got disturbing sociopathic issues and a tendency toward capricious violence coupled with the mind of a criminal genius. "Peculiar thing about this contract — it was never notarized." But in the end she shows that she loves her brother when she brings Linus in from the pre-dawn cold of the pumpkin patch. (She set her alarm clock for 4 AM, evidently predicting that their parents wouldn't be returning all night; how long has this neglect been going on that she at her age is the de facto stand-in parent?) Still, that ongoing scheme with the football (notice her glee at her recurrent success in playing everyman Charlie Brown for a sucker), not to mention her quest for recognition and power (in two months she'll insist on being the "Christmas Queen") — she's on her way to becoming Michael Corleone's consigliere by the time she's 35, after causing her therapist to give up the profession.

Yes, the great Charles M. Schulz taught an entire generation that the world is angry, petty, unfair, unsupervised, invidiously judgmental, and (if Pigpen is any indicator) unhygienic and possibly disease-ridden.

And for that I thank him every year.

Of course, like all enduring religions, even the Great Pumpkin has its own Apocrypha:

Music: Esperanza Spalding
Near at hand: Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman