PopWatch Rewind Week 11: 'It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown'
God might be dead, but the Great Pumpkin will live forever. That’s one of many important life-lessons you learn from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the iconic Peanuts Halloween special in which Linus preaches his suspicious belief system to a community of big-headed skeptics. There is a lot to love about this special — the jazzy score, the gorgeously minimal animation, the lengthy tangent in which Snoopy play-acts a World War I melodrama (complete with an extended piano sequence that can only be described as Lynchian). But there’s one thing thing that sets Great Pumpkin apart from all other Halloween specials: It never tries to be scary. There are no spooky monsters, no shocks, nothing to make you afraid of the dark. There’s just a little boy, alone in a pumpkin patch, trying to fight away the creeping suspicion that humanity is actually alone in the universe. Actually, now that we think about it, that’s really scary. Join us as we read entirely too much into the story of a boy and his best friend: a pumpkin who doesn’t exist.
Darren Franich: This was the third Peanuts special. Personally, I think this blows all the other ones out of the water. (Looking at you, A Charlie Brown Christmas!) It’s fast. It’s funny. And for about seven straight minutes, it suddenly turns into The Adventures of Snoopy in Occupied France.
Keith Staskiewicz: The more I think about it, the less I think the Snoopy storyline is that divergent. Snoopy pretending to fight the Red Baron and Linus’ squash-based god-cult are both about the fine line between imagination and delusion. But while Snoopy’s pretend-time is fun, there’s something about Linus’ utter faith in the Great Pumpkin that is upsetting to the other kids.
DF: You’d think that Linus, out of all the kids, would be the atheist, or at least the agnostic. But in A Charlie Brown Christmas, he brings the lights down to talk about Jesus, and in this he’s a prophet for an absent pumpkin deity.
KS: I disagree. Linus has always been the right combination of sentimental and superstitious. See: his security blanket. That’s kind of what I love about him. He’s the believing rationalist, or the rational believer. Or the relational beaver.
Yup, he looks pretty rational to me.[/caption]
DF: His Great Pumpkin faith is ridiculous, but it’s certainly more admirable than the way the other kids make fun of him. They go out of their way just to make fun of him, twice in one evening. Even Charlie Brown is pretty dismissive of it. And he’s bald!
KS: And he has his own problems with irrational belief. He continually falls for Lucy’s football trick. It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
DF: In Pumpkin, Lucy gives him a signed contract in writing proclaiming that she won’t pull away the football. And Charlie Brown believes it, because it’s a signed contract. Laws! Bureaucracy! Faith in society’s ability to govern! But she fools him: It was never notarized. It’s a classic parliamentary maneuver. Lucy will be the Senate Majority Leader someday.
KS: Charlie Brown’s belief in the system — in rational, societal order — is his undoing. Whereas Linus accepts the irrationality of his beliefs. He justifies it by saying it’s no crazier than believing in Santa Claus, which also retroactively might be used to understand his position on Jesus. For him, the irrational belief has a salubrious effect and he accepts it even though he could easily rationalize it away.
DF: Explain that in layman’s terms, please.
KS: It’s kind of like Albert Camus’ relationship with Christianity. Or Cathy’s relationship with chocolate. Ack!
Here’s the World War I Flying Ace being confronted by the cruel absurdity of existence.[/caption]
DF: I think it’s interesting that we have no idea where Linus even heard about the Great Pumpkin. Presumably he invented it, but he talks about it as if he’s passing along information he received from elsewhere. Did a monastic order of Pumpkinites who absconded with him as a little boy fill his head with their demented belief system? Did he accidentally receive the tormented ravings of a schizophrenic in the mail? Did his parents read him The Stranger while they carved a pumpkin?
KS: Sally, who’s really into Linus, goes with him to the pumpkin patch on an autumn night, under a beautiful abstract animated sky. It should be the most romantic possible setting, but it only irks her, because the Great Pumpkin doesn’t arrive. She’s unable to appreciate what is right in front of her. Perhaps Linus is the opposite. Perhaps he uses the pumpkin as an excuse to commune with himself and nature, and the Great Pumpkin is actually present in every pumpkin in the patch. It’s pumpkin pantheism.
A portrait of religious ecstasy.[/caption]
DF: Well, hold on. Sally can definitely appreciate what’s right in front of her. She’s only there because Linus is there. She believes fervently in what she can see and touch. She’s a sensualist. Meanwhile, Linus is the guy who can’t just enjoy a pumpkin patch because it’s a pumpkin patch. It has to be the most sincere pumpkin patch anywhere. Even Sally’s last big speech is basically, “I missed out on actually living through tonight, because all I was doing was waiting for Godot!”
KS: A good alternate title for this special would be Waiting for Gourd-ot. It’s very Beckettian, like a lot of Peanuts. Useless ritual, speaking rationally about irrationality, dialogue based in repetition. Even Charlie Brown getting a rock instead of candy is existentially absurd. Three houses in a row? It’s the perfect expression of Charlie Brown’s eternal suffering. The universe is set against him. Or, at the very least, the whole neighborhood is.
“Eh, still better than Necco Wafers.”[/caption]
DF: “I got a rock!” One reason why this special is way, way, way better than any other Peanuts special is how perfectly balanced the characters are. You have just the right amount of time to the Big Four (Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy), plus a little bit of Sally. Schroeder plays a song, Violet says something bitchy, and Peppermint Patty is MIA. And best of all, nobody learns anything! It just ends with Linus ranting and raving about how the Great Pumpkin will come next year. It has the structure of one of Luis Buñuel’s later movies, like The Phantom of Liberty or The Milky Way.
KS: The thin line between fantasy and reality, the meandering narrative, the focus on religion … yeah, I can buy that. Now all we need is a bourgeois dinner party and we’re set. So to recap: We have related this 1966 Peanuts special to Camus, Beckett, and Buñuel. Anyone else we should get in? Can the Great Pumpkin be seen as totemic? Is Lucy’s five-cent psychiatric help Freudian…or Jungian?
Here’s the World War I Flying Ace sticking his tongue out to reality.[/caption]
DF: In France, I believe Peanuts is called The Meaninglessness of Contemporary Life. And in Japan, I believe it’s called Much-Hated Bald Boy.
KS: In Germany it’s called Cashews, because existential pain is par for the course, and also they like cashews more than peanuts.
DF: And in England it’s called Oi, Peanuts, Are They, Eh Mary Poppins!?!?!?
KS: That’s racist.
And you thought ‘The Third Man’ ended on a note of grim ambiguity![/caption]
Next Week: On Tuesday, Americans will go to the ballot box for the midterm elections. The balance of power in American politics is at stake. To mentally prepare ourselves, we’ll be watching a movie about a very different election … or at least, we hope it’s different. We set our Rewind thrusters all the way back to 1962 for The Manchurian Candidate (Frank Sinatra, not Denzel Washington) in a very special Election Day edition of PopWatch Rewind!