Wednesday, May 28, 2014

American Masters: Good Ol' Charles Schultz

American Masters is a series of documentaries shot in a variety of styles about a variety of subjects, but all tied together by the idea of artistic mastery. What is most notable about the title is the way in which it puts the individual artist ahead of their works – after all, the show isn't called American Masterpieces, perhaps because that would infringe on another PBS band. But there's a pervasive sense that art, instead of being interesting in itself, instead bestows importance on individuals who become truly important.

It would be easy to knock down the series, or at least this episode, for its unreconstructed auteurism. After all, the author has been dead for half a century, and was scarcely outlived by the director or the cartoonist. But I'm not interested in condemnation right now. Rather, I'm curious about why we talk about art in this way, and what artistic values biographical reading supports.

Of course, the first and foremost reason why American Masters is about artists and not about art is because it is easier (or at least more familiar) to tell stories about people than texts. We are used to the patterns of a life story, particularly the life story of a gifted artist: promising childhood, harrowing maturation, success, corruption, old age, and finally a well-mourned death. “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” quotes Citizen Kane in its opening minutes, and draws several implicit parallels between its subject and film's most revered character. The story is already written, and all that remains is to change the particulars of the fiction to those of reality.

By contrast, how would you make a 90-minute documentary about Peanuts the comic strip? There isn't a lot of plot to recap, nor would there be a point to doing so even if there was one. You could talk about the strip's cultural impact, or attempt a critical analysis, but at that point it starts turning into a dissertation committed to screen, and it's hard to think of a way to make such a thing visually compelling. Of course, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” could also be a dissertation, albeit one that would not pass much muster in today's academic environment. Which raises the question: is there a possibility for criticism on television?

It would be inaccurate to say that “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” doesn't include any actual criticism. Throughout the special we see numerous Peanuts strips, presented one panel at a time, the neatest way of translating serial images to video. These are sometimes accompanied by narration by one talking head or another, and sometimes presented without comment other than the implicit link between the strip and the biographical material surrounding. The first of these, documenting the first strip of Peanuts, has some commentary on how shocking or emblematic its bitter punchline was, although this mostly falls into the “Why is this art great?” genre of criticism. Later strips will be approached chiefly for their resonances with Schultz's life.

Said life presents an interesting challenge for the filmmakers. Schultz did not follow the Behind the Music trajectory: there is no crash and no sordid scandal, just ever-mounting success. He was not a reclusive genius, or a tortured artist. There are dramatic moments, but it does not fit into an easy dramatic arc. But this inability to fit a narrative mold is perhaps what gives the story of Schultz's life the amount of power that it has. You could also, perhaps, say the same thing about Peanuts – that beneath the generic cartoony exterior there was a kernel of bitterness and alienation that spoke to the feelings that people felt but couldn't share.

As mentioned above, the opening moments of “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” are also the opening moments of Citizen Kane. This is the boldest directorial act in what is otherwise a fairly standard PBS episode – it takes a lot of cajones to place your public television documentary about a newspaper cartoonist in direct proximity with the Greatest Film of All Time (c). The opening shots of Kane are juxtaposed with the familiar (and familial, for the typical North American kid weaned on Merry Christmas Charlie Brown) images of the Peanuts characters, and a Peanuts strip in which Lucy spoils the film's famous ending for Linus. These opening shots establish a kind of thesis: that despite the obvious aesthetic differences between Peanuts and Citizen Kane, they have many underlying similarities, and absolutely deserve to take place in the same canonical situation. By having Lucy proclaim “Rosebud is his sled” as the opening credits of Kane roll by, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” alerts viewers to the fact that it is essentially spoiling its own conclusion by telling you its central point right at the beginning.

The explicit justification for this comparison is that Charles Schultz watched Citizen Kane dozens of times in his life, and there must have been some parallels that drew him to the film. This statement is, in some ways, a reading of a reading: it is telling us what Schultz thought of Citizen Kane, and then suggesting how we should think of said thoughts. The documentary implicitly assumes that Schultz loved Citizen Kane because he identified with it. But there are many different motivations for watching, reading, or otherwise studying art – escapism is just as likely as identification [1]. “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” assumes that good art is art that relates to real life, here the very specific real life of Charles Schultz.

But even in this formulation, there's a dual nature to identification. The text is identified with the lives of both reader and writer – hence both Citizen Kane and Peanuts reflect Schultz's life. All of which raises the question of whether director David van Taylor's reading of Peanuts is just as personally motivated as Schultz's reading of Citizen Kane. The presence of the director and the reasons for his interest in this topic have been scrupulously removed from the documentary we have before us, so as to cut off what should logically be an endless chain of interpretation. This is perhaps not a flaw in biographical criticism, or identificatory reading, but a sign that analysis is never so neat as American Masters often makes it look. Criticism has a funny tendency of leaping out of bounds and catching the critic in a way they never anticipated.

If we didn't get the message already, we then immediately see a photo of a young Schultz with a sketch of Charlie's Brown head fitted over it. They aren't really a match, at least no more than any person's head would resemble Schultz's broad, universalizing character designs. Maybe this image becomes, instead, a symbol for the looseness of artistic comparison: just as Charlie's Brown head can fit any head, so can the themes and tropes of Peanuts map onto any life in the way this documentary does for Schultz. Or at least that's how I would like to think of it.

Still, one of the talking heads poses an interesting point in this sequence: “What does it mean to draw 18, 977 comic strips? Drawing fifty thousand times Charlie Brown's head? You must be looking for something”. This is one of the distinctive qualities of the comic strip as a form: it is an endless, daily repetition, less a bolt of inspiration than a constant effort. It's this workmanlike nature of production that makes comics easy to dismiss as art. What the aforementioned quote, placed prominently right before the title sequence, does is to reverse this assumption by turning this production schedule into proof that Schultz was in fact a tortured artist drawing on inner emotional dissatisfaction. This claim is highly questionable – the artists of Hi & Lois and Hagar the Horrible have also drawn the same thing thousands of times, but we are less inclined to assume that their work stems from a deep melancholic longing. The film briefly touches on the idea of process, but quickly abandons it for more psychologizing.

The psychological experience of toiling away at a comic for decades could be a potentially fascinating subject, but it's the one that we have the least ability to understand. Schultz left a huge amount of material for any prospective biographer. He was not a Salinger-esque recluse, but maintained a modest public persona as a kind of jovial uncle. The documentary includes numerous clips from interviews and a goofy hockey-themed promotional video [2]. American Masters is able to give us some idea of how Schultz thought about his art and the world. But what interviews don't preserve is everyday experience, the sense of routine and habitus necessary for the production of so regular an art as a daily comic strip. There is no way to archive or replay the experience of a life.

So the question of what it means to draw Charlie Brown's head fifty thousand times is perhaps unanswerable, or at least unanswerable by so functional a TV program as this. Still, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” does pay a decent amount of attention to the habitus in which Schultz lived. In particular, the segments about Schultz's Xanadu-like residence in California, which projected the kind of idealized and sanitized family life that Peanuts never believed in, have a kind of genuine power if only because of the strangeness of Schultz's ersatz living situation. That private encampment, of course, was a form of suppressing the fault lines in Schultz's family that would eventually lead to divorce – a classically Freudian narrative.

The psychoanalytic lens taken throughout suggests that Schultz is in some ways a tragic figure, an artistic genius caught in arrested development and consigned to the Sisyphean task of drawing the same characters every day for sixty years in search of inner peace. But American Masters also wants to celebrate its subjects, and that is certainly true here, as seen in the plentiful testimonials and visual evidence of Peanuts' incredible success, both commercial and critical. So the documentary ends up at a kind of impasse: Peanuts is simultaneously the product of a tragic yearning and an artistic masterwork that brought joy to millions. I actually don't think these two narratives are contradictory, and I've always believed that art can be more than two things at once. Picasso and Dostoevsky, for instance, made great works of art drawing on the inner problems that eventually doomed them – their art was great for the world but harmful to them. Schultz, as presented by American Masters, is a kind of suburban American version of that tortured-artist narrative, with the demons less dramatic and the success much more popular and less high-cultural.

The ease with which such comparisons can be made suggests that this narrative about Charles Schultz's life ultimately doesn't tell us much about Peanuts: any other acclaimed work of art could easily have taken its place. Biography makes poor criticism, but maybe that's because it's not meant as criticism. Perhaps it would be fairer to judge American Masters as producing biographical narratives. On that level, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” is more of a success. It's not exactly riveting, but it has a bit more style than your average PBS documentary, and there's enough fairly interesting material. But it still leaves me hungry for a TV show that would genuinely engage with works of art.

[1]I've been looking into different modes of study for a “serious” academic project, so maybe it's just because of my current circumstances that I'm seeing resonances in this documentary. Regardless, if you're interested in further theorizing about why and how readers read, Rita Felski's Uses of Literature is one of the best books I've read on the subject, and certainly the most approachable to a non-academic audience.

[2] The amount of video material available on Schultz makes the film a bit more visually interesting than a documentary on, say, a nineteenth-century novelist, but it also has the effect of demystifying Schultz. One wonders if, a couple decades down the line, we'll be able to work up reverence for authors whose entire life is available through banal Twitter feeds.