I’ve been away for so long … Here’s a holiday classic to re-inaugurate the site.
Fifty two years later, Bill Melendez’s first television special adaptation of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic strip remains not only the most unshakably apprehensive, despondent animation in the entire series but the most unmediated, direct transmission from Schultz’ famously depressing comics so palpably informed by middle-age anti-nostalgia. Critics are extremely fond of slippery-slopes about “adult” Christmas cinema. They turn every minute flicker of violence or filigree of naughty language into a claim that their favored Christmas adaptation is the one that truly harbors darker thoughts about the holiday spirit lurking around the corners of its thought. They defend everything form Die Hard to Gremlins to Lethal Weapon – seemingly every circumstantially-Christmas-set film released in the ‘80s – as emblematic of a more perverse Christmas sensibility of merry travesty. This curdled, nasty sentiment that uses Christmas as a victim to beat with its own candy canes has since blossomed further into a typically cringe-inducing glut known as Christmas horror cinema and more overtly bad-tempered lumps of coal like Bad Santa.
But most “mature” Christmas films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are still devoutly traditional, almost dogmatically adherent to normative ideologies and classical precepts in other ways. Namely, if the ‘80s were dark times for economic possibility in the US, these conservative films hold fast to the wreckage of self-sovereign “achievement” narratives where overcoming adversity through masculine competence keeps you afloat from crippling, emasculating debt and threats to patriarchal male agency. These films “challenge” the traditions of Christmas cinema only by conforming to neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideologies in other ways. However, loosely sketched around Charlie Brown’s “attempts” to lead the local schoolchildren in a nativity play, the structure of this trim but never cramped special denies audiences this narrative root in personal agency and achievement so central to how most films stabilize their morality. It does not seek safe refuge in self-actualizing violence, prurient language, or bromides about “fulfilling one’s personal narrative” in service of its meditative, self-reflective critique of blasé “happiness” in good-natured Christmas cinema. In place of the virile male thrill of final success, this short admits, entertains, and respects the value of failure. A 25 minute “children’s” Christmas short, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a far more rebellious, pensive persona than these other notionally “mature” Christmas films.
No other film so eloquently capitalizes on Christmas woe while not banalizing genuine warmth and nostalgic Christmas cheer in service of a (supposedly) more astringent, adult sensibility. The only real comparison to A Charlie Brown Christmas is It’s a Wonderful Life, willfully misread for decades as Capracorn in explicit opposition to the soul-petrifying unease at the heart of the tale and the beautifully chilly, alienating mise-en-scene of the film. While other works condition maturity on “hard-hitting” narrative conflict that still catalyzes personal achievement and thus satisfies our need for “completion” or “resolution,” A Charlie Brown Christmas does not purify its despondency by bathing in the waters of eventual-success. This for-children short does conclude joyously, but the spirit of its joy is not an ethos of “achievement”. Instead, A Charlie Brown Christmas’ conclusion is wonderfully arbitrary: the other children, in a split-second epiphany, happen to realize that people should not be judged for failing, but the special’s moment of clarity does not imply that this was ever preordained or destined to happen. Or that anything will be different when the next holiday comes to call.
And the rest of the special is bracingly sardonic, a near-acid-carved imaging of childhood as an emotional free-for-all and a democracy gone awry with no governing body to mitigate the invective of other children. We find little safety net from the free-fall of failure other than the hopeful but uncertain compassion of others. Without ever once playing into the arrogant, presumptuous solemnity that not only characterizes but codifies much “mature” cinema, this unassuming, humanistically humble short mobilizes extraordinarily limited animation and near-unfinished voice-work for an experiential sketch of childhood as a pile-up of slips, slaps, cuts, bruises, scrapes, and soul-bearing emptiness. All of which, incidentally, is expressed not through dramatic elephantiasis – obviously tragic events, character-shaking depression – but a near-silent attention to emotional inaction. Charlie Brown is a portrait of depression not as emotional low but as emotional lack.
Charlie Brown’s anti-screwball antics also reflect the moral opposite of a caustic prankster like Christmas Vacation. That latter film revels in its protagonists’ misfortune only to double-back, somewhat cheaply, to don the Santa Suit of a moral plea for good-will-toward-humankind. Although frequently hilarious, A Charlie Brown Christmas approaches its characters with the sage wisdom of a beyond-its-years, prematurely- wisened child, in contrast to Vacation’s emotionally-stunted adult protagonist who just wishes to be a kid again. The most despondent line of dialogue, delivered in a mildly-terrifying flat monotone by Charlie Brown, suggests, almost unthinkingly and with no dramatic emphasis, the banalization of alienation: “Rats. Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Much more brutal Christmas fare than “Now I have a machine-gun, ho, ho, ho.”
Other lines are equally pointed concerning children who catch premonitions of capitalism and seem frighteningly willing to entertain corporatism as a banal, pre-programmed, unalterable fact of existence rather than a genuine worry: “Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know” is especially cutting in the moment. But Charlie Brown Christmas’ primary x-factor is the tired, worn-down quality of its made-for-TV animation. With almost no money to its name, it marshals the economic vulnerability of its production and its spendthrift ways as a vanguard for children’s entertainment, ultimately equating the visually malnourished and stylistically under-populated with a tale of emotional weariness and minimalism. There’s nothing pretty about Charlie Brown Christmas, visually or emotionally. Even the signature jazz tunes maintain an aura of wistful longing for possibility.
Compare this to the very maudlin, usually forced, showily-depressive A Very Murray Christmas Special. While fine, that special also tries to insulate itself from criticism with its calculated aura of ironic detachment in a way the endearingly-pathetic, candid gloom of A Charlie Brown Christmas never resorts to. It’s too low-budget to show off the same way as the fifty-years-later production. It has no resources to gild its depression in ostentatious images and playfully melancholy sounds. Rather than attractively-mounted sadness, A Charlie Brown Christmas’ monochromatic, painfully unchanging images – nearly crumpling under their bare-bones lack of detail – are genuinely unvarnished and terrifyingly incapable of suggesting human motion and thus “success”. It’s a story of constantly-looming tragedy that avoids the trauma of full-blown emotional catastrophe only because the feeling of sorrow and emptiness, the inability to even set-in-motion a bulwark against catastrophe, is already so sunken-in.