Friday, October 31, 2014

This is Halloween: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

 Angry, bruised clouds smeared across a sky filled with strange stars look down upon a bombed-out wasteland. A dog scrambles from one pile of rubble to another in the wreckage looking for a haven, while elsewhere, children flee from dark spirits pursuing them across a nightmare-scape. The world is empty of adults; the children are left to fend for themselves, forcing them to take on adult roles and grapple with concepts beyond their years. On paper, it seems yet another dystopic tale; in execution, it's one of the most beloved, gentlest Halloween tales ever produced.

There's at least a small bit of irony that one of the truly iconic Halloween stories, at least here in the US, is also one of the least terrifying.
Peanuts goes meta: Lucy pores through a TV Guide issue with a familiar figure on the cover.
Following up on the success of the previous December(of 1965)'s A Charlie Brown ChristmasIt's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, first aired in October 1966, drawn from a running series of Halloween-themed strips from the daily Peanuts comics. Starting in 1959, Charles Schulz began using a gag that was rather slight in premise, but which made him laugh: a kid who has mistaken Halloween for Christmas, and waits to be rewarded for his faith in the titular Santa Claus analog. Linus' letter to the Great Pumpkin encapsulates the entire concept, including an interesting notion about faith:

This is a different Linus than who appeared in A Charlie Brown Christmas. In that earlier story, Linus is a steady, faithful friend to Charlie Brown, level-headed and spiritually enlightened. As was often true in the daily comics, in the Christmas special Linus was one of the few Peanuts characters who did not ridicule or insult Charlie Brown. There, he accompanied Charlie Brown on his quest for a tree, and even defended the choice later when all the others had scorned it. Here, though, is a Linus who seems slightly befuddled and more quick to lash out, even at Charlie Brown.

Plus, he also catches serious air as he enjoys Charlie Brown's and Snoopy's leaf-raking handiwork...

...which provokes a rare show of fury by Charlie.

This is a fittingly odd cartoon all around. Many of the familiar faces act slightly out-of-character here, in keeping with the holiday that has so much to do with changing faces.

"A person should always choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality." - Charles Schulz is having fun here with one of his strongest characters.
The narrative is almost leisurely, going off on tangents, yet somehow tying the threads back together. It is more a mood piece than a plot-driven story.

The moodiest and strangest sequence is Snoopy's World War I "flying ace" fantasy. Here he performs a pre-flight check on his "Sopwith Camel"...

...before going up and at 'em to engage von Richtofen's Flying Circus...
...almost immediately having to dodge furious flak barrages...
...and subsequently taunting and laughing at his opponents' lack of success...
...which is only a brief respite before he's raked by gunfire in a harrowing dogfight with the infamous Red Baron.
He is shot down...
...and miraculously survives a crash-landing...
...yet still has enough fighting spirit to curse his airborne opponent.
He scrambles across the French countryside...
...braving abandoned trenches in search of cover...
...until he chances upon a battered farmhouse that offers some shelter.
Clambering into a lighted window...
...he  slides down a curtain during the height of the Peanuts' Halloween party...
...before gazing impishly at the viewer.

The show evokes a mood that is decidedly different than its newspaper counterpart. In that regard, the "Big Three" of Peanuts holiday specials - A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - distinguish themselves as separate entities from, and, in some ways, transcend the comic strips. Distilling concepts and ideas from years' worth of daily strips and melding them into one (semi)coherent narrative, lends the specials a kind of gravitas that the strips alone could rarely match.

And let's not forget Sally Brown's brilliant disillusioned rant after missing out on "tricks and treats" because she chose to believe in Linus' assertions: "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. What a fool I was." I really dig the structure of this monologue.
It seems strange, even to me, to use a word like "gravitas" for Peanuts cartoons, but it is appropriate. These specials deal with profound truths, even if they bury them in silliness and non sequiturs. Here, it is about faith in the face of adversity. Linus sticks to his beliefs even as he misses "tricks or treats," and is roundly laughed at, including, and uncharacteristically, by Charlie Brown.

Of course, Charlie Brown receives a good dose of instant karmic justice for this.
Even when his hopes are finally and conclusively dashed, Linus sees it not as the nonexistence of the Great Pumpkin, but rather as an indication that his faith has not been strong enough, that he chose the wrong pumpkin patch in which to await the arrival of the phantom gift-giver. It's a surprisingly complex concept for a kids' cartoon special.

Of course, even the most devout may make a Freudian slip that expresses an inner doubt.
I also wanted to mention another sequence that is unexpected in its tenderness, in which we see a character wearing yet another unaccustomed face.

Lucy awakens as the clock strikes 4AM.

She finds her brother's room empty.

Geared up against the early November chill, she finds Linus shivering in the pumpkin patch. This is one of the few instances I can recall of her face showing concern.
She leads the not-quite-conscious Linus home...
...where she lovingly readies him for bed...
...and tucks him in.
Her task over, the customary scowl returns.

It's a sweet, quiet moment for a character not known for being either sweet or quiet.

For me and many others I know, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is an indispensable part of the Halloween tradition. There is no real hint of the supernatural, no real scares, yet somehow the spirit of the Halloween season is captured. It's a nice contrast to the increasingly hyperviolent and mega-gory takes on the season and holiday seen in TV, movies, and prefabricated "haunted houses."

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This is Halloween: Something Wicked This Way Comes

The gray, glowering skies of late October have arrived, along with sharp winds and falling leaves. The far-off rattle and thump of a high school band floats through the night, signifying a football game being battled out. Flyers and billboards flog a multitude of haunted houses horrifying their willing victims. Leering pumpkins, grinning scarecrows, and moldering zombies frozen mid-lurch haunt the yards of the suburbs. Still, cold nights have the faint, furtive sounds of leaves falling in darkened woods, evoking thoughts of skulking spirits. No other time of the year so readily offers such sinister imagery.

Few books I've ever read truly capture the mood of this time of year as thoroughly as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Much of this comes from Bradbury's style: lush, moody, and evocative. He conjures a world of idyllic innocence, into which shadows creep almost unnoticed. Those shadows come from within, though, seeping up out of the depths of our souls, hidden fears and suppressed wishes that can be drawn forth by those who know, instinctively, our weaknesses that we dwell upon in the dark hours. They know them because they also have them, embracing them and gazing directly at them, becoming warped and hateful and manipulative, thriving on the negative energy that radiates forth. This is Bradbury's power, the ability to plumb the murk of nightmares and existential terror, while still retaining a faith in our essential strengths.

Bradbury's writing in this book clutches at my heart. It's like looking back at my own youth, viewing the past through nostalgia's soft-focus lens, with a darkening of that lens casting a sinister light on memories. I've read the book a few times throughout my life, the first time when I was the age of the two protagonists, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, and most recently as I now approach the age of Will's father. While my perspective has changed, the same sense of melancholy, the same feeling of fighting, at best, a holding action against time, has persisted with each reading, growing more acute and clear as I've aged. Bradbury was able to touch upon something even more terrifying than the undead and unstoppable slashers: the unavoidable and ever-approaching reality of our mortality.

This is a story of life and aging. Will and Jim, born minutes apart, with Will born just before Halloween, and Jim born just after it had arrived, are polar opposites. Will is the light and Jim the dark. Jim is always looking to the future, wishing away his years to gain an adulthood he most desires to experience. Will is content to live his years as they are given him, experiencing the now, perhaps in order to create memories, but most importantly, to live life as it is meant to be lived: in the present. Charles Halloway, Will's father, lives in the past, longing for the youth his son owns now, prowling the library at which he is a custodian, searching among the stacks for some bit of wisdom that forever eludes him. It is the story of the eternal conflict within us all: when young, we race to get older, to finally become the adult we know will finally unlock the secrets we felt were hidden from us; when older, we reach for the youth we once had, finally realizing that the secrets were never really secret, but held within us all along.

The plot here is of secondary importance. A dark carnival train arrives in a small Illinois town in the middle of the night, just prior to Halloween. Jim and Will begin to see the truth of the traveling show as more and more people fall prey to the promising lies of Dark and Cooger, owners of the carnival. There is a swirl of nightmares made manifest, with unsettling parades and chilling sideshow performers and an evilly enticing midway drawing in more and more townsfolk. Mr. Dark is a menacing presence, with a hidden fury barely suppressed as he threatens Jim and Will and Will's father. Dark is, essentially, a bully, intimidating those who allow themselves to be intimidated...much like the real dark. The struggle here is with our own doubts and fears, our propensity to surrender to false hopes in order to stave off the always-encroaching ultimate darkness.

This is a book that is experienced more than it is read. Bradbury's lyrical prose leads us down an evening path, his words like guiding stars, a comforting beauty through a looming horror laying just at the edge of our awareness. This is Halloween to me, a more adult, somber Halloween, that sits with me long after the book is read and the day has passed.