Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Charlie Brown Christmas & It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown!

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Charlie Brown Christmas & It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown!

Admittedly, it isn't exactly "Christmastime again." Not even if you count all twelve days (I think they start after, not before, the 25th, right?). I had originally hoped to get this post in under the Yuletide gun but eventually let the festive dancing of Fred and Ginger (that's a Christmas-sounding name, isn't it?) suffice as my last official post of the year. But as I like to review new additions to my home DVD collection, I only put my thoughts on the Charlie Brown twofer (which I bought on the eve of Christmas Eve) on the backburner, instead of in the trash. Now that The Dancing Image is sputtering back to life after a long holiday-inspired break, the time has come to put pen to paper, so to speak. If Charlie Brown's original Christmas is your thing (and it is for all of us) check out these three good write-ups on the 1965 TV special: Screen Savour's historical, Filmicability's personal, and Bright Lights After Dark's religio-cultural. As for myself, what fascinated me most about my new DVD was the contrast between the classic '65 special and the rather paltry "sequel", which was aired in 1992.

The differences between the two films are not only aesthetic and thematic but cultural-historical, personal (as far as Charles Schulz is concerned), and even musical. First, the music. Vince Guaraldi is credited with the score for both holiday specials, but the '92 music was recorded and arranged by David Benoit, whose taste seems to run more in the smooth jazz direction. Whereas Guaraldi's original soundtrack (which may be both the best original soundtrack and best Christmas album of all time) was spare, melancholy, lightly joyful, and quietly warm, Benoit ladles on the sax styling and keyboard backdrop and the result is more akin to a jaunt through the shopping mall, muzak playing on the sound system, than it is to hovering around the stage in a beat-up little jazz club in a small, sleeping city on the eve of Christmas (the effect of the original). 

Of course, to be fair, the nostalgic value of the synthetic former for someone like me (who was about 8 when this special came out) should not be underestimated. Children can mysticize almost anything, and even crowded malls seemed like exciting places when I was four feet tall (and hoping for bundles of Christmas presents). But it's obviously the effect of the original music, and ultimately the original special, which lingers while the artificial charms of the follow-up quickly disintegrate like snowflakes on the tongue, leaving a watery aftertaste which is not at all satisfying.

The music sets the tone, but it is entirely indicative of the other differences between the two specials. Whereas "A Charlie Brown Christmas" takes place mostly at night, its setting spare and lonely, its starkly delineated color scheme echoing Guaraldi, "Christmastime Again" is all warm and fuzzy, its characters placed against bright blue skies, its interiors cheery and colorful. The original has a slightly shabby, desolate feel - the dozen or so kids are the only characters we see, and they gather on a threadbare wooden stage to rehearse a Christmas pageant we will never see performed. The follow-up has a far more widespread cast, the infamous offscreen blaring adult voices, and its Christmas pageant is performed in front of a packed auditorium (looking out the open door we see an inviting, sunlit street corner). The garish tree farm of 1965 is replaced with a gleaming, appealing shopping mall circa early 90s.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is not only more minimalist, it's edgier, and not only because Charlie bemoans the commercialization of the holiday (egregious product placements for Coca-Cola were later axed, killing a potent discrepancy). The kids' voices have an appealingly rough tenor, as if the juvenile actors (many nonprofessionals) could barely get out their lines. The roughness adds to the charm, complementing director Bill Melendez's peculiar aesthetic, which echoes the comic strip form by cutting in for wordless close-ups. And Snoopy is more aggressive, leaner, more of the phallic Id, so the rounder, softer dog of 25 years later feels comparatively and disappointingly tamed. (Meanwhile the smoother voice talent lacks the slurring, lisping, halting appeal of the original cast.)

Charlie Brown, the precociously depressed boy we all know and love, is not really the focus in 1992. Attention is spread over the whole Peanuts gang, which lends the proceedings a rather diffuse and half-hearted air (more on that in a moment). When Charlie is onscreen, he seems of a healthier mind than in his previous incarnation. He does get doors slammed in his face as he sells a wreath, and the gloves he buys for the red-headed girl go to waste when she runs into him with a new pair already on her hands. But at the same time, she's friendly towards him and is even referred to as Charlie's "girlfriend." This is all nice for him, but not so nice for us; we miss our neurotic poster child. At one point, with Peppermint Patty talking his ear off on the phone, Charlie turns to the audience and moans, "Why can't I ever be a wrong number?" Would the old Charlie ever have griped about being popular? Would the old Charlie ever have been popular?

The changes in the main character and the show's aesthetic are due to any number of causes. For one thing, if biographies are to be believed, Charles Schulz himself had changed in the three decades since penning "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Back then, trapped in a difficult marriage, he was a somewhat repressed family man, who fed off a sense of insecurity and frustration (though he was, of course, already a millionaire). But since then he had divorced, married a different woman, and loosened up his personal style. This is not to say his demons had disappeared, but one biographical documentary theorized that if the morose Charlie Brown was the focus of Peanuts in the 60s, the playful Snoopy was grabbing more attention by the 80s and 90s (admittedly the mostly Snoopy-free special does not bear out this thesis, but the thesis does correspond more generally to the new mood of "Christmastime Again.")

Culturally, the differences make sense as well. American pop culture of the mid 60s, not yet fully embracing the youthful energy of the adolescent baby boomers, was still in thrall to the minimalism of the late 50s, of the Beats and cool jazz and modern art and the "clean line" style of design. In a few years this would be swept away by psychedelia, followed by a kind of tacky cultural decadence in the 70s, and then the slick, big, crowded (but often somewhat shallow) look and feel of the 80s. "Christmastime Again" very much corresponds to the mood of cartoons and television and pop culture as I remember it when I was a kid. Upon watching it, I could immediately place it in the late 80s/early 90s (I erred closer to the Reagan era, but still). This difference between 1965 and 1992 is, I think, especially noticeable in children's media: look at a cartoon from the sixties vs. a cartoon from the early 90s, or a children's book from the era of Vietnam and the Great Society against one written around the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I should note that I have a fondness, even a preference, for the later style. This is partly for aforementioned nostalgic reasons, partly because of the richness inherent in a broader-ranging aesthetic (probably brought by boomers as they entered children's entertainment in the 70s and 80s). But that brings me to my final point: the second Charlie Brown Christmas is ultimately not strangled by its approach, which could provide an interesting, if ultimately inferior, contrast to the classic original. Its Achilles heel is rather a creative laziness: the story appears to be a series of recycled comic strips, non sequitur with punchline followed by non sequitur with punchline. The focus is on gags rather than mood, and the special suffers as a result. While some of these ideas might be amusing on the page, strewn out over the course of a half-hour TV special, they become aimless and redundant.

Ultimately, the two programs' conclusions are telling. At the end of "It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown," in one of the special's best scenes (perhaps because it's the most honest) Linus reminds Lucy of how just yesterday, sitting under the tree on Christmas morning, she wished the Christmas spirit could go on forever. Unswayed, she continues to tease and torment him, noting that the holiday is passed and there are no lingering feelings of goodwill towards men (let alone little brothers). Meanwhile, we move across the decades to that sad little cartoon (whose idiosyncratic slow style, slurred voices, and melancholy tunes, perhaps too indicative of the postwar zeitgeist, frightened the network execs). The children, after mercilessly mocking Charlie (there's nothing remotely like this in the later special), gather around his pathetic little tree and decorate it, before calling out in joyous unison, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" and, pointing skyward the gaping black holes of their pink little globes (no Franklin as of yet), launch into, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

Couched in darkness and melancholy, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" ultimately ends with a confirmation of the Christmas spirit. "It's Christmastime, Charlie Brown," comfortably numb, regarding its own lineage from the vantage point of the 20th century's conclusion, shrugs off that goodwill as yesterday's news and settles down in the beanbag for some more television. The original is a small, spindly little Christmas tree, beaten-down, rough around the edges, but authentic. The sequel is one of those pink trees from the lot, the years having slicked over its garish artificiality, yet just as synthetic as ever.

Good grief, did Charlie Brown go commercial?

6 comments:

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I think the primary thing to consider is that "Christmastime Again" is not so much an entry in the Peanuts special canon as it is an extension of the Peanuts franchise. The original Christmas special was the BIRTH of the franchise -- it couldn't help but be genuine, as Schultz, Guaraldi and the gang saw it as a one-shot-deal. In my opinion the spiritual/cultural ambiguity of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has never been matched in children's entertainment; "Christmastime Again," on the other hand, hardly jibes with my notion that the appeal of Peanuts springs from their unflinching depiction of human suffering. Charlie Brown just seemed whiny in 1992. You might even look at the networks -- 1965 saw the Peanuts gang on CBS, 1992 saw them on ABC. But think about it: who would pay for a single dvd of "Christmastime Again"? It has to be packaged with the original to receive any kind of distribution.

One small point. I'm not as hard on Benoit because Guaraldi's jazz was not exactly groundbreaking for its time, either (just endlessly charming). Guaraldi was primarily known in the 60's for penning the jazz/pop standard "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," which listeners of Ornette Coleman and Oliver Nelson blew modal raspberries at. Guaraldi would have languished as a wanna-be Brubeck, churning out jazz novelty albums, were it not for the sublime inspiration of Peanuts. In fact, Guaraldi might be considered one of the precursors to modern smooth jazz, so to me the progression feels more organic (although admittedly I love Guaraldi and scoff at Benoit from a purely aesthetic perspective).

And geez -- you were 8 in 1992? Damn, that would make you roughly the same age as me. I was secretly hoping you were at least a few years my senior, as your prose is significantly more polished than mine. But I digress...

MovieMan0283 said...

Jon,

As I'm in no way a jazz connoiseur (I have bought and burned a few jazz albums, most by Miles Davis), I'll take your word on Guaraldi's standing vis a vis Benoit. In terms of their contribution to the Peanuts franchise though, I think we can agree there's no comparison.

As for the "polish" of your or my prose, it's all relative - though I've grown more comfortable with my writing over my months in the blogosphere, I generally have the same reaction you did - in response to your writing and others' (for the first few weeks or so, this embarrassment was pretty constant). I suppose this is better than being TOO pleased with one's own work...

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

MM,

Of course agreed re: the music, and I have several Guaraldi albums in my iTunes (including the Charlie Brown Soundtrack). I merely wanted to point out that replacing Guaraldi with Benoit makes more sense than a lot of people think -- no matter who took the job, though, they would have gotten flack. The only more suitable successor I can suggest is Brad Mehldau, or maybe a subdued McCoy Tyner.

Thanks for the other comments as well... Indeed, we are very (mis-)fortunate to be writing about film in an age where so many knowledgeable thinkers are self-publishing their trenchant prose. If nothing else, it's keepin' me on my toes...

T.S. said...

Thanks for the shout-out. I confess I've never seen "Christmastime Again," although, like Jon, we were about the same age at the time it premiered. This is quite a wonderful assessment of both films, though, from as many angles as one could imagine.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Interesting, TS...

What's with all these youngsters getting cerebral on cinema? Where the hell were you two when I was getting the shit kicked out of me in High School for trying to start conversations about Buñuel and Carol Reed? (I know that sounds fabricated, but it's actually not much of a stretch...the locker rooms at my public HS were like something out of "Brute Force".) Ah, well, enough of my angst-ridden drivel...

MovieMan0283 said...

"Where the hell were you two when I was getting the shit kicked out of me in High School for trying to start conversations about Buñuel and Carol Reed"

That was you? Shit, man, that was just my way of expressing a preference for David Lean...

T.S.,

Glad you liked. You can probably get all you need to get out of Christmastime Again by reading this review, sadly; that said, if you're bored and flipping through the channels and it's on it should fulfill any light Peanuts craving (it is based on Schulz's amusing strips, after all).