Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas

Santa Claus conquers the Martians

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Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

Like most households, my family has a set of traditions that we like to observe during the holiday season. A vinyl copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas spends most of December on our record player, and I never feel as if I’m really in the spirit of things until I’ve listened to Kokomo Jo’s Caribbean Christmas—a staple of my own childhood—and The Ventures’ Christmas Album. My wife and I have started watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Santa Claus, not to be confused with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, on an annual basis: it’s one of the best episodes that the show ever did, and I’m still tickled by it after close to a dozen viewings. (My favorite line, as Santa deploys a massive surveillance system to spy on the world’s children: “Increasingly paranoid, Santa’s obsession with security begins to hinder everyday operations.”) But my most beloved holiday mainstay is the book Santa Claus and His Elves by the cartoonist and children’s author Mauri Kunnas. If you aren’t Finnish, you probably haven’t heard of it, and readers from other countries might be momentarily bemused by its national loyalties: Santa’s workshop is explicitly located on Mount Korvatunturi in Lapland. As Kunnas writes: “So far away from human habitation is this village that no one is known to have seen it, except for a couple of old Lapps who stumbled across it by accident on their travels.”

I’ve been fascinated by this book ever since I was a child, and I was saddened when it inexplicably went missing for years, probably stashed away in a Christmas box in my parents’ garage. When my mother bought me a new copy, I was overjoyed, and as I began to read it to my own daughter, I was relieved to find that it holds up as well as always. The appeal of Kunnas’s book lies in its marvelous specificity: it treats Santa’s village as a massive industrial operation, complete with print shops, factories, and a fleet of airplanes. Santa Claus himself barely figures in the story at all. The focus is much more on the elves: where they work and sleep, their schools, their hobbies, and above all how they coordinate the immense task of tracking wish lists, making toys, and delivering presents. (Looking at Kunnas’s lovingly detailed illustrations of their warehouses and machine rooms, it’s hard not to be reminded of an Amazon fulfillment center—and although Jeff Bezos comes closer than anyone in history to realizing Santa’s workshop for real, complete with proposed deliveries by air, I’d like to think that the elves get better benefits.) As you leaf through the book, Santa’s operation starts to feel weirdly plausible, and everything from the “strong liniment” that he puts on his back to the sauna that he and the elves enjoy on their return adds up to a picture that could convince even the most skeptical adult.

Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

The result is nothing less than a beautiful piece of speculative fiction, enriched by the tricks that all such writers use: the methodical working out of a seemingly impossible premise, governed by perfect internal logic and countless persuasive details. Kunnas pulls it off admirably. In the classic study Pilgrims Through Space and Time, J.O. Bailey has an entire section titled “Probability Devices,” in which he states: “The greatest technical problem facing the writer of science fiction is that of securing belief…The oldest and perhaps the soundest method for securing suspension of disbelief is that of embedding the strange event in realistic detail about normal, everyday events.” He continues:

[Jules] Verne, likewise, offers minute details. Five Weeks in a Balloon, for instance, figures every pound of hydrogen and every pound of air displaced by it in the filling of the balloon, lists every article packed into the car, and states every detail of date, time (to the minute), and topography.

Elsewhere, I’ve noted that this sort of careful elaboration of hardware is what allows the reader to accept the more farfetched notions that govern the story as a whole—which might be the only thing that my suspense fiction and my short science fiction have in common. Filling out the world I’ve invented with small, accurate touches might be my single favorite part of being a writer, and the availability of such material often makes the difference between a finished story and one that never leaves the conceptual stage.

And when I look back, I wonder if I might not have imbibed much of this from the Santa Claus story, and in particular from Kunnas. Santa, in a way, is one of the first exposures to speculative fiction that any child gets: it inherently strains credulity, but you can’t argue with the gifts that appear under the tree on Christmas Day, and reconciling the implausibility of that story with the concrete evidence requires a true leap of imagination. Speculating that it might be the result of an organized conspiracy of adults is, if anything, an even bigger stretch—just as maintaining secrecy about a faked moon landing for decades would have been a greater achievement than going to the moon for real. Santa Claus, oddly enough, has rarely been a popular subject in science fiction, the Robot Santa on Futurama aside. As Gary Westfahl notes in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: “As a literature dedicated by its very nature to breaking new ground, perhaps, science fiction is not well suited as a vehicle for ancient time-honored sentiments about the virtues of love and family life. (It’s no accident that the genre’s most famous treatment of Christmas lies in the devastating ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” which you should read right now if you haven’t before.) But I suspect that those impulses have simply been translated into another form. Robert Anton Wilson once commented on the prevalence of the “greenish-skinned, pointy-eared man” in science fiction and folklore, and he thought they might be manifestations of the peyote god Mescalito. But I prefer to think that most writers are secretly wondering what the elves have been doing all this time…

Ask the dust

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Pig-Pen, Part 1

Over the last few days, I’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas repeatedly with my daughter. I don’t think I’d seen it in its entirety for at least twenty years, and I was relieved to find that it held up even better than I had hoped. It’s odder and more prickly, in its way, than the Peanuts specials I remember best—I especially like Lucy’s explanation that Christmas is “run by a big eastern syndicate”—and it benefits in particular from being deeply rooted in the original strips. My favorite line, for instance, comes straight from a strip first published on November 27, 1959. In the special, Frieda complains that Pig-Pen’s dust is taking the curl out of her hair, prompting Charlie Brown to respond:

Don’t think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchadnezzar.

This is a great line, obviously, but my favorite part comes at the end: “Or even Nebuchadnezzar. The idea that Charlie Brown would be especially impressed by the thought of Nebuchadnezzar is delightful, and it’s the kind of thing that would have occurred only to a singular man working alone at his desk.

Recently, I’ve become preoccupied with the problem of how to preserve this kind of idiosyncratic voice in the face of all the larger pressures that threaten to eliminate it. In part, it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of children’s entertainment, which is when those tensions start to feel especially stark. It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that someone who devotes his or her life to writing stories for kids might be fundamentally odd in a way that feels more comfortable with children than adults: when you think of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and Maurice Sendak, among others, you’re left with a sense of aliens trying to navigate their way through the grownup world. But if you’re in charge of the company—or the big eastern syndicate—that packages and distributes that content, you’re working under very different incentives. You’re wary of giving offense or warping tiny minds in a way that would arouse the ire of their parents; you know that the risks of any artistic experiment far outweigh the potential benefits; and you’re painfully aware that you’re likely to offend somebody, no matter what you do. Hence the insipid caution of so many books, movies, and television shows aimed at kids six and younger. Occasionally, individual and corporate goals will align, as in the early days of Sesame Street, but more often, the companies that worry most about what kids want to see are the most likely to come up with something that doesn’t interest anyone.

Pig Pen, Part 2

And the solution, oddly enough, seems to be to ignore the kids altogether. Disney and his early cohort of animators didn’t use focus groups to figure out what children wanted to watch: they were trying to amuse themselves. Similarly, Chuck Jones and the rest of the team at Warner Bros. were making the cartoons that they wanted to see. A Charlie Brown Christmas was all but made by hand, and many of its elements—the jazz score, the lack of a laugh track, the gospel message from Linus—were included in in the face of indifference or active opposition. Instead of writing down to kids or aiming at a target audience, these artists devoted themselves to art forms, like the animated cartoon or comic strip, to which children are naturally drawn. They thought as cartoonists or animators or puppeteers until they began to intuitively make good choices based on what the medium itself could accomplish. And once they learned to think in those terms, they didn’t need to worry about what the kids would like: anything that fully realizes the possibilities of an animated short or a four-panel strip will engage younger minds, no matter what stories you tell. The real enemies of art, here as elsewhere, aren’t the network notes themselves, but notes coming from people who have no stake or interest in the kinds of stories being told. An animator allowed to think as an animator can’t help but come up with something that will fascinate a four-year-old. It’s when those tricks of the craft are diluted by views imposed from the outside that you end up with something condescending and dull.

In the end, every medium has its own logic, and in some cases, that logic naturally approximates that of a child. (I’m not saying this to minimize the difficulty or sophistication of the efforts involved—only to say that their power is derived from a fundamental affinity to how we see the world at a younger age.) Usually, these are the media that are the most accessible to creative children in the first place: it isn’t hard to get started with cartooning or puppetry, and kids are often interested in them because the materials are readily available. You could even say that this is why they’ve retained the emotional charge of something remembered from childhood: the artists who make their mark with puppets or cartoon characters are drawing on skills that they began to develop at an early age, while novelists, by contrast, are building on something that they acquired later on. There’s plenty of good juvenile fiction out there, but its logic is more adolescent, in every sense of the word. And the best artists of them all, like Schulz, are the ones who make the spectrum of feeling from childhood to adulthood feel like a seamless whole. Charlie Brown and Linus don’t talk like any real six-year-olds would, but if they’re uncannily convincing as children, even to readers of the same age, it’s because Schulz understands how kids talk among themselves, and how their conversations can seem as urgent or complicated as anything adults can say. That honesty clings to them like dust. And as Pig-Pen says: “Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?”

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2015 at 9:18 am

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