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Striking the right note with a Charlie Brown Christmas

It has been said that the genius of jazz legend Miles Davis was that he played silences the way that other people played notes. He allowed space to come into his music, and it was into this emptiness that an unmistakable melancholy often settled.

I was struck by this observation while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is entirely unique in the genre of animated Christmas specials. The first oddity is the jazz soundtrack. Composed by Vince Guaraldi, the score is so integral to the show’s mood and tone, that it’s practically a character. There’s a thoughtful, adult quality to it, one that suggests art rather than commerce, and although the show was released in 1965, it has a pre-modern, almost rural feel to it.

Although Linus and Lucy (the signature piece of music to which all the Peanuts famously danced) doesn’t appear until about halfway through the special, it became so culturally embedded that it was used as the theme song for all subsequent specials.

However, it’s not this piece of music that starts A Charlie Brown Christmas, but another Guaraldi composition. Wistful and contemplative, this music is in no rush, nor does it try too hard to sell you anything, be it a mood or a new song for your iPod.

As this music plays, the cartoon opens with a slow, 10-second pan. We move languorously across the winter landscape to watch the Peanuts skating on a frozen lake. With implacable faces, they glide about the ice. Instead of jubilantly playing as a group, as most children would, they seem indifferent to one another. Content to do their own thing, they seem lost in their own world. While this is slowly unfolding, we hear children’s voices, slightly out of tune, singing Christmas Time is Here. This has to be the most sombre, even mournful, Christmas carol ever.

Of course, the music isn’t the only thing that’s disarming about A Charlie Brown Christmas. The voices of the Peanuts and the rhythms of their speech have always seemed a little bit weird to me. There’s a choppy, almost breathless quality to the way they deliver their lines, and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the actors who voiced the Peanuts were indeed children.

Typically, when we’re watching a cartoon like The Simpsons, we’re hearing adult actors performing the voices of the children. This adds all sorts of polish and depth to the delivery. The actors furnish their lines with the knowing maturity of adults who understand exactly what the writing team intended.

In the case of the Peanuts, the children used for the voices were sometimes too young to know how to read, and their lines were fed to them, half a line at a time, and then spliced together.

For this reason, there’s an unusual pace and innocence in the way the characters speak.

It’s as if the words were translated from an adult language to a child’s language, making it simultaneously alien and familiar. Sometimes, it’s like the kids don’t even really understand what they’re saying.

It’s all very strange and dislocating, but it has the ring of truth to it.

At any rate, the plot moves forward and Charlie Brown is not in the Christmas spirit. He attempts to direct the school pageant, but proves a failure at that. He then bungles the task of picking out a tree, choosing one that’s little more than an emaciated sprig of parsley. However, after Linus delivers the epiphanic Gospel of Luke, in which the true meaning of Christmas is revealed, things take a turn for the better. The tree, attended to by the Peanuts gang, fulfils its beautiful potential, and we’re left with the image of everybody, Charlie Brown included, singing beneath an immense night sky as snow falls.

Charlie Brown, a square peg in a world of round holes, always has an uncertain frown, as if drawn by somebody with a shaky hand, on his face. The jangly lines of an insomniac circle his eyes, and despite his very best efforts to be like the effortlessly confident and graceful Snoopy, things just never work out for him. The melancholic, depressive glaze of the Peanuts is unmistakable, and that’s one of the reasons that I think it makes for such a strange and compelling Christmas special.

I suppose there are many people who relate to Charlie Brown at this time of year. With manufactured Christmas muzak bombarding us at the shopping malls, many of us feel pressured to be happy and to confront obligations, both financial and social, that we really want no part of. Often, the absences in our lives feel amplified at this time, and it’s easy to fall through the cracks and feel blue, like an outsider, like Charlie Brown.

Each year, the eccentric Peanuts special returns and washes over us like a Miles Davis performance. A Charlie Brown Christmas comes at a different tempo, giving the audience the opportunity to fill the space between the notes that have been struck, and hopefully, like Charlie Brown, find some solace in a restive moment of grace and innocence.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. David McFarlane #

    Michael,

    This is a beautiful riff on a beautiful theme. I’ll always remember an interview with Carlos Jobim, samba, he claimed, was born of the sound of “the space between the waves”. I’m not exactly sure why but your article reminded me of a crazy-beautiful documentary my brother-in-law made: Rien sans pennes (A Falconer’s Chronicle).

    http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/7017/A-Falconer-s-Chronicle–Rien-Sans-Pennes-

    January 17, 2015

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