Revival Bin Blues: To Our Memories and Beyond

by on February 22, 2012

Essays Issue 2 Nonfiction
Revival Bin Blues

It is late November in lower Manhattan, three days before Thanksgiving. At the Urban Outfitters in SoHo, beyond an entranceway strategically crackled with confetti, past a greeter, gaunt and sparkling from sleek beret top to sequined peep-toe shoe, a center table is crushed beneath the weight of holiday décor. Santa suit beer cozies, pooping reindeer candy dispensers, and jewel-encrusted dreidels pile into makeshift pyramids beside walls of tinsel-strung Polaroid cameras, $15 Wayfayers, and ornamental 80s kitsch. I stride quickly across the lower foyer, past the mustache-molded lollipops and faux-record player iPod docks, only to halt, pull back, and pause. On a table full of regurgitated culture, a new addition rests: Linus’s blue blanket.

“Cute,” I think, disenchantment softening. The classic Peanuts image of Linus wrapping his prized blanket around Charlie Brown’s devastated Christmas tree makes me think of my younger sister—a blanket baby turned blanket kid.

She still sleeps beneath its deteriorating blue fabric, I discovered on a recent trip home, her blonde curls spilling beneath its ragged pills like a sleep-flushed Holly Golightly filtering out the morning sun. I flash back to the little girl who once carried a basket of newborn birds to school, sheltering them with her original baby blanket because she thought they had been abandoned and wanted to keep them safe. Now a young woman who rotates a nine-to-five position at a dermatology clinic with a hospital graveyard shift, she constantly shows signs of self-sufficiency and maturity, and yet the sleep-worn scrap has endured—a familiar nest for her own quiet fragility.

With this glimpse of Linus’s fluffy blue blanket, I was reminded how timeless the need for nostalgia, and comfort, can be. Across Urban, through constantly restocked retro gifts and repackaged revival gear, this pull towards the familiarity of the past pervades our present in different forms each season. But somewhere between the towering displays of Kermit dolls, the recently rereleased Atari game sets, and the ironic iPhone housing 80s cell phone cases, I began to see a larger question about the cultural imprint of my entire generation, when seemingly every item freshly minted for us—from blockbuster films to mannequin merch—looks so retroactively familiar.

 

I.

It is October 2, 1950. In a straightforward, ink-set comic appearing in seven syndicated newspapers, Shermy and Patty sit at the edge of their neighborhood curb: “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!/ Good ol’ Charlie Brown…Yes, Sir!/ Good Ol’ Charlie Brown…/ How I hate him!” Shermy scowls.

Charles “Sparky” Schulz will later question the acerbic quality of this statement, unable to remember why he wrote the young Shermy so darkly. “I would never have drawn that now,” he said in a 1985 interview with The Washington Post’s Cynthia Gorney. Thirty-five years later, he could still recall a letter he received from a Lutheran minister about the early comic: “Don’t we have enough hatred on the front page without having it in the comic section?” the minister asked.

At the time, though, Schulz was a gangling cartoonist living with his father in a tiny St. Paul apartment and teaching at a Minneapolis correspondence school similar to the one that had taught him to draw by mail. The cartoon made its debut with moderate attention in seven newspapers, under the name Peanuts.

“What an ugly word it is,” Schulz spent much of his life professing. “I can’t even stand to write it,” he told Barnaby Conrad in a 1967 interview for The New York Times Magazine. His original title, Li’l Folks, spoke more to his appreciation for the clean musicality of word pairings—sounds like “Peppermint Patty” (a character created exclusively to utilize this name) and Schroeder’s Beethoven (because while Brahms may have been Schulz’s preferred composer, Brahms “isn’t a funny word”).

Somewhere between the sprightly beat of Schulz’s language, the liveliness-meets-melancholy realism of his characters, and his translation of childhood memories like blackboard embarrassments and playground exchanges into clean, four-paneled comic strips, exists the emotional totality of Peanuts. Universal enough, according to Conrad, “to touch chords that remind us of things and homely events we thought we had forgotten”; iconic enough to endure.

Once an eighth-grade academic failure, Schulz would rate as one of the nation’s ten richest entertainers by 1988, alongside Stephen Spielberg, Bill Cosby, Sylvester Stallone, and Michael Jackson. By the time he retired for health reasons in 1999, Peanuts appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries; Charlie Brown’s afflicted shrub and Linus’s closely slung blanket had become renowned.

While I’ve never been an overwhelming Peanuts fan, the legacy of the cartoon and the humility of Schulz—a man more interested in his budding existentialism and his daily cartooning routine than the financial success of his product—always impressed me. When I saw the Linus blanket showcased at Urban Outfitters, I assumed, in ignorance, it was a byproduct of these straightforward cartoons’ enduring appeal. It wasn’t until I caught the Peanuts gang revived in the 2011 holiday special Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, that several synaptic light bulbs burst.

Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich, a self-proclaimed “serious Peanuts aficionado,” recently reviewed the film for EW.com in an article called, “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown is terrible. Will kids care?” The title itself speaks to my own brimming question about the good ol’ Peanuts gang I saw at Urban Outfitters, and the extent to which a generation raised on SpongeBob and Hannah Montana can relate to Snoopy’s Red Baron-inspired adventures, or Schroeder’s unilateral insistence on perfecting Beethoven.

In the article, Franich enthusiastically confesses to his deep, primordial love for Charlie Brown—how growing up watching Peanuts specials morphed into local library visits and high school speeches devoted to the gang. He also cites the original televised specials’ energy, creative iconography, and jazzy rendition of Schulz’s more wry comic strip (due greatly to the stylistic vision of animator Bill Melendez) as reasons for the agony ignited by the new lackluster performance, and why the question of it mattering, matters.

The new film, produced by Charlie Brown newcomers W!LDBRAIN, attempts to bridge this gap with a frame-for-frame algorithm of early Peanuts storylines designed to elicit a pre-established emotional response. Unfortunately, as the first Peanuts special that has nothing to do with either Schulz or Melendez, who have both now passed on, the result seems more contingent on familiar sound bites (Good grief!) than on substance or authentic Schulzian musings. The film’s overarching story centers on Linus’s need to rid himself of his “blanket habit” in anticipation of a visit from his grandmother, who detests that he is her only remaining grandchild still carrying one. Interjected into this weak, socially confused plot are fragments lifted directly from Schulz’s cartoon strip, though without the necessary set-up to give them significance.

Some clips, mainly those featuring Charlie Brown, succeed at evoking familiar laughter over the eternally bumbling but well-meaning character’s efforts at simple tasks, like flying a kite. But most clips, taken out of context, make for disjointed, spiritless montages with little cohesive resolution. By weaving these sound bites into the larger story, W!LDBRAIN creates a fumbled marriage of old and new. In one scene, Sally awkwardly—and anachronistically—professes, “Linus, I really like you—you’re my sweet baboo—but I’d like you even more if you give up your blanket.” In a later scene, Linus receives word that his blanket has been found via telegram—not a text message, kids, not even mail, but telegram, making for an allusion of yore certain to boggle young minds to no end.

The result is flat, oftentimes oddly vitriolic, and generally disappointing. Stitching together Schulz clips leaves out the writer’s linguistic rhythm and completely undercuts his knack for turning downtrodden events into uplifting endings. The characters—now with adult talent voicing children, rather than actual children—scowl more often than they laugh, and the flaws that once might have been used comically now venomously take center stage. Linus’s hallmark monologue, rather than inspiring collaborative action from his friends (as is historically the case), rails them, one-by-one, for their own faults and insecurities, concluding with the message, “I need this blanket. It’s the only real security I have.”

If Schulz thought Shermy was unnecessarily biting (in a scene that interestingly enough makes a cameo in this generally jaded film), he’s nothing compared to the new, blanket-jonesing Linus. Rather than finding comfort in the new adventures of a familiar cast, I felt duped. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown was made to sell blankets, I realized with remorse. Despite the film’s attempts to replicate Schulz’s creative achievement, little of Schulz’s original spirit remains.

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