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Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

Yesterday I explored the Christmas theme in The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Today I want to do the same with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of Christmas and Halloween, birth and death, in these two films.

Great Pumpkin opens with Linus and Lucy going out to the pumpkin patch to select a pumpkin.  Once they bring it inside, Lucy dives right in to carving it.  Linus bursts into tears, “You didn’t tell me you were gonna kill it!”

After Lucy plays an old gag on Charlie Brown, we witness Linus writing a letter to the Great Pumpkin, with the same formula that would be expected in a letter to Santa.  All his friends laugh at him, and say “the Great Pumpkin is a fake!”  Linus concludes his letter: “Everyone tells me you are a fake, but I believe in you.  P.S. If you really are a fake, don’t tell me.  I don’t want to know.”

Linus’ description of the Great Pumpkin closely parallels the Santa Claus mythology.  “On Halloween night the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch, then flies through the air to bring toys to all the good little children everywhere.”  But the Great Pumpkin doesn’t rise out of every pumpkin patch – the Great Pumpkin only chooses the one that is “most sincere”.

Linus seems to be fixated on the idea of “sincerity” and refuses to dress up and go out trick-or-treating.  Lucy is horribly embarrassed by her brother’s belief in the Great Pumpkin.  She heads up the group going out for “tricks or treats” announcing her costume philosophy that “a person should choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality.”  She then ironically pulls a witch mask over her face.  Meanwhile, Snoopy has been out reenacting a World War I Flying Ace who has been shot down and is forced to make his way through the countryside.

While the others are out trick-or-treating, Linus camps out in the pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arrive.  Sally abandons trick-or-treating to stay with him, but it is not because of her own faith in the Great Pumpkin.  She stays for Linus, with whom she is utterly smitten.  She listens attentively cooing, “you say the cutest things”, but it is clear that she doesn’t really hear what he is saying.

When the long-awaited moment comes, there’s a rustling in the leaves, and a figure rises up amongst the pumpkins.  Linus faints, initially thinking he “missed” the Great Pumpkin’s arrival, unaware that it was only Snoopy whose play-acting has led him to the pumpkin patch.  When he comes to, Sally leaves him, angry that she’s wasted her whole evening waiting in a pumpkin patch for nothing, “missing out” on trick-or-treating.

Linus spends the night in the pumpkin patch.  In a surprising act of kindness and compassion, Lucy wakes up, notices her brother is not in bed and goes out to find him shivering under his blanket.  She brings him home and tucks him into bed, never having seen the Great Pumpkin.

The next day, Charlie Brown and Linus are talking about their disappointing experiences of Halloween night.  When Linus tells him that the Great Pumpkin never came he says, “don’t take it too hard, Linus, I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, too”, perhaps referring to going trick-or-treating only to end up with a bag or rocks.  Neither of them got what they’d hoped for on Halloween.  Linus, however, is resilient in his faith in the Great Pumpkin.  He declares that next year will be the year, he’ll find a pumpkin patch that’s “real sincere”, and the Great Pumpkin will come.

There is no omniscient narrator to tell us why the Great Pumpkin never comes or if he did come once Linus fell asleep.  We don’t even know if in the world of the Peanuts characters the Great Pumpkin really exists or not.  I’m tempted to think that Linus has invented the Great Pumpkin mythology himself.  It is interesting to examine the popular heroes of a culture, and to ask what these heroes are being asked to do or to be that is missing from that culture.  For Linus, it is “sincerity”, and I can’t help but wonder if he is looking for sincerity amid all the candy, costumes and parties (or maybe that’s just what I’m looking for in my hero).

Both Jack and Linus borrow (sometimes wholesale) familiar traditions from Christmas to infuse Halloween with new meaning.  And it makes me wonder what it is about Halloween that leaves them craving something more, and what it is about Christmas that they find inspiring enough to bring back to Halloween.  Jack wants to know “what does it mean?” while Linus shouts “sincerity!”  Maybe that is the question, and also the answer.

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How I would have carved a pumpkin this year.

Every year, as Halloween approaches, I look forward to watching The Nightmare Before Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  For a person who doesn’t like Halloween, that seems rather odd – or is it?

For clarification, what I don’t like about Halloween is what I perceive is the main emphasis: fear.  I don’t like being scared.  In fact, it makes me angry if someone intentionally scares me, somehow thinking it is “fun”.  I realize that being scared is fun for others, and I am genuinely interested in learning about why that is.  But I don’t like it.  At all.

And yet, I find something truly compelling about Nightmare, and adore Great Pumpkin.  It is interesting that both these films have in common themes not just from Halloween and death, but from Christmas and new life as well.  It makes me wonder what else they may have in common.

According to the opening song of Nightmare, it’s their job to make you scream, but they’re not “mean”.  It’s an important distinction in Halloween Town.  It’s all meant to be “fun”.  Jack, the skeleton Pumpkin King, has become dissatisfied with just being scary.  He wants something more.  In his own song he sings, “I grow so weary of the sound of screams.”  He’s “empty”.  It could be that anything always done in the same way, year after year, can become dull and meaningless.  But maybe there’s something more to it.

As Jack wanders away from Halloween Town, mulling over his emptiness, he stumbles into Christmas Town.  The song “What’s This?” captures all the wonder and amazement so frequently associated with Christmas lights and smells.  It’s brighter and more vivid.  There’s something new here that fills him, “in my bones I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside.”  By the end of the song he decides, “I want it for my own.”

When Jack returns to Halloween Town, he calls a town meeting to tell everyone about his experience.  But they don’t really get it.  They haven’t experienced the life of Christmas Town for themselves they way that Jack has.  They don’t understand presents that don’t involve “tricks”. They are, however, dazzled.  In his exasperation, Jack plays into their ignorance and turns Santa Claus into a scary “Sandy Claws” to get them on board.

Next, Jack needs to figure how just how to “make Christmas.”  “There’s got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing.”  His approach is scientific.  He conducts a series of experiments on traditional Christmas decorations and gifts – holly berries, paper snowflakes, teddy bears, tree ornaments – putting them under a microscope, cutting into them, trying to figure out what exactly Christmas is all about.  Even after trying to use formulas and equations he’s left wondering “But what does it mean?”  Finally, he comes to the place familiar to many believers – “just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it.”

The inhabitants of Halloween Town set about making Christmas their own.  By the time Christmas Eve rolls around Jack is ready to play the part of Santa, bringing presents and toys to the children of the world – made in Halloween Town.  As Jack flies through the air, the screams that Jack found so tiresome at Halloween ring out.  People call the police to report being attacked by Christmas toys.  Everything has been distorted, twisted, and perverted.  News reporters announce that an imposter is “mocking and mangling” Christmas.  Military personnel are called in, unbeknownst to Jack, to shoot him down.  He falls in flames, landing in the arms of an angelic statue in a graveyard, his red costume charred and shredded.  The Sandy Claus persona is dead.

It is only after the disaster of Christmas that Jack is able to come to terms with who he is.  This gives him fresh inspiration and excitement for Halloween.  He is, after all, not Santa Claus, but the Pumpkin King.

The mockery that Halloween Town makes of Christmas makes me wonder what Halloween Town is all about in the first place – in a sense, what they and Jack do best.  It strikes me that this may in fact be the best approach to Halloween, and to death, that I can imagine for someone like me.  As a Christian, I can’t help but think that Halloween might just be the time and occasion most appropriate and well-suited for mocking death.  “Where, O Death, is now Thy sting?”

For Jack, the thrill of scaring people is gone.  In order to feel something again, he either needs to escalate into “meanness” (which Halloween Town does not espouse), or find a new way to feel.  I wonder what would happen if, instead of turning on each other and using each other to feel something — even as so much of the media and entertainment industries threaten to desensitize us — what would happen if we turned on Death itself, and made it the butt of the joke?

to be continued…

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Harvey

Harvey, is a ‘pooka’ in the form of a white rabbit, over six feet tall, as described by his best friend, Elwood P. Dowd, played by James Stewart in the 1950 film Harvey directed by Henry Koster and based on a play of the same name written by Mary Chase.  I checked this film out from my local public library the other day.  I’d never heard of it, but I have been making my way through some of the classics and have seen a number of other James Stewart films.  I’m so glad I picked it up.

Elwood P. Dowd is a well-off bachelor, who has inherited everything from his deceased mother.  Because they have been left with nothing, his sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae live with him.  Elwood is extremely amiable, introduces himself to everyone who comes across his path, and indiscriminately hands out his card and invites folks over for dinner.  This horrifies his sister who is trying to introduce her daughter into good society, and of course, to find her a husband.  When Elwood comes home unexpectedly, interrupting a party of high society ladies, Veta decides she has had enough.

She takes Elwood out to Chumley’s Rest, the local sanitarium, and plans to have him committed.  However, when describing the situation to the doctor, she admits that she sees Harvey sometimes, too, which convinces the doctor that she in fact is the one who needs to be committed and lets Elwood go.  The mistake is realized too late, and the characters spend the evening trying to track him down and bring him back to the sanitarium to give him an injection which will “shock him back to reality”.

The subject of Elwood’s alleged alcoholism is a much discussed topic in film reviews.  He does frequent the local bars, and often invites others to have a drink with him and Harvey.  He always orders a drink for both of them.  He even has a bottle hidden behind some books in the library.  But we never actual see him indulging, or see the affects of a drunkard in his actions.  Perhaps those implications were enough in the era during which the film was made.  But it’s curious that Dr. Sanderson, when telling Elwood that he’s having Veta committed, cites alcoholism as the root of her problems, when it’s a known fact that she doesn’t drink at all.  And since we know that Harvey does in fact “exist” within the context of the film, I can’t help wondering if alcoholism isn’t just a convenient label that gets put onto anyone who isn’t considered “normal”.

But none of that is what I really want to talk about here.  That’s just the context for what I see as the real beauty and depth of the film.  If we were to call Elwood’s ‘philosophy on life’ his ‘spirituality’ instead, it would be exactly what I would strive for in my own life.

Early on in the film, in the very scene in the library in which Elwood retrieves the hidden bottle of booze, the book he takes down from the shelf is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  Readers familiar with Austen’s book about two sisters, one who gets carried away with her romantic sensibilities and the other who is always governed by good sense, may sense the direction of the film and the choices that will be presented to the characters, especially the two siblings.  But I suggest that Harvey turns that expectation on its head.

One of Veta’s chief complaints about Elwood’s behavior is that he’s always “bringing home riffraff, people you never heard of”.  For my notions of hospitality, that’s one of the most beautiful aspects of the movie.  He invites folks for dinner, “the least of these” (Matthew 25), who likely couldn’t return the favor, and certainly not to the same extent.  Those same qualities of care for the other, equanimity, and amiability enable him to disarm conflict by putting others into relationship with one another.  His habit of introducing himself to everyone leads him to introduce strangers to each other as well, who now being no longer nameless, have a difficult time maintaining their hostile stances.

Toward the end of the movie, the theme of ‘reality’ becomes key to understanding Elwood’s singular attitude and posture toward life.  Veta is ashamed because she does sometimes see Harvey, and inadvertently acknowledges his presence.  Ironically, the more she fights the ‘reality’ of Harvey, the crazier she herself feels.  Dr. Sanderson insists, “We all must face reality, Dowd, sooner or later”.  Elwood replies with his signature candor and grace “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I’ve finally won out over it.”  Finally, Elwood articulates his ‘philosophy on life’ to Dr. Chumley (who also sees Harvey): “My mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood… you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant.  You may quote me.”  Elwood P. Dowd transforms the world around him with his pleasantness.

The genius of this movie is in its light-hearted simplicity.  Most of us aren’t going to be very quick to believe in Harvey the pooka.  But we suspend our disbelief and accept the constructed world of the story, along with all of its assumptions and presuppositions.  This acceptance is absolutely necessary for the miracle of transformation, because it disarms us and allows us to truly enter into the story, and the story to truly enter into us.  That is why truth is often so much more powerful than fact.  Facts are liable to be disseminated in informative ways, whereby we learn things and gain knowledge.  But unless we take something into our very selves and let it touch us there, it can never lead to growth or transformation.

In the end, there isn’t a single character in Harvey that isn’t touched in a deep and profound way by their relationship and interactions with Elwood.  I can only strive to live my life in such a way that those whom I encounter might be able to say the same about me someday.

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