Friday, November 9, 2007

Good Grief, Or Maybe Not

By Lars Trodson

The opening shot was of the aged face of Charles Foster Kane whispering the word “rosebud.” At first I thought I had tuned in to the wrong program, because I wanted to watch the American Masters biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. But then the picture changed, and we were shown the famous strip in which Linus is watching “Citizen Kane” for the first time, and Lucy says, as she walks away, “Rosebud was his sled.” Linus reacts in that famous Peanuts’ way: “Aaaargh!”

But I wondered what in the world “Citizen Kane” had to do with Charles Schulz, and then we were told that Schulz was obsessed with the film. He watched it, by the accounts of the people in the biography, some 40 times. At one point, one of Schulz’s sons says something like this: “Watching a film 10 times I can understand, but 15 times is excessive. Forty times? What was he looking for?”

It was interesting to me that the show emphasized Charles Schulz’s melancholy nature, and his search for love. We now know how much of Schulz is in Charlie Brown – although we really shouldn’t be surprised. I guess what people never knew was how truly autobiographical a comic strip could be – especially one where the title character seemed such an outcast and always felt so sad.

All Charlie Brown wanted was to be loved, most certainly by the Little Red Haired Girl – who I guess was a true love of Charles Schulz when he was younger. Maybe Charlie wanted to be loved by just about anybody.

So I don’t think Charles Schulz was looking for something he couldn’t find in “Citizen Kane”, but obsessed with the notion of what he saw. I think he saw what I wrote about in my earlier essay on this site. I wrote that Charlie Kane spent his entire life looking for a love he couldn’t have – looking for someone to love the poor poet inside the rich man’s persona. Certainly, it seems to me, Charles Schulz remembered a time when he didn’t feel loved, before he became rich and famous, and of the time when the girl he truly loved didn’t love him back. And then the fame came and maybe it seemed like all of a sudden everybody loved him. You can hear him think what Charlie Kane thought: Why didn’t anybody love me when I was a nobody?

That’s why Charlie Kane fell in love with Susan Alexander; after all, she loved him, or at least liked him, the night they met. That was when she had a toothache, and he was covered in mud, and Susan didn’t have any idea who Charlie was. As I said at the time, Charlie kept the snowglobe that he took off Susan Alexander’s bureau, and I think he took it because she once loved him without reservation and he wanted desperately to remember that time. He took the snowglobe and kept it until the moment he died because it was a reminder of the one true moment of love he had.

The parallels between Schulz and Kane are unmistakable; and anyway, very few of us actually have the same perception of ourselves that the outside world has. Little Charlie Brown might be the Charlie Kane that never grew up to be rich.

There’s a scene in “Kane” when Charlie wonders what he would have been like if he hadn’t been born rich. “I might have been a really great man.”

“Don’t you think you were?” Asks Walter Thatcher, his guardian.

“I did pretty well under the circumstances,” says Charlie Kane, who laments that he always “gagged on that silver spoon.”

I think Charlie knew his wealth stopped him from being an artist; he didn’t have the discipline to follow through with anything.

I think Charlie Brown – if it doesn’t seem too silly to say it – is a great little fellow. Optimistic, he doesn’t hurt anyone; he muddles on and stays true to himself. He doesn’t ever change to curry favor with the people he so desperately hopes will accept him into their circle.

I’ve seen “Citizen Kane” maybe 20 times myself. Excessive? Almost certainly. Obsessive? Perhaps. While I have nothing to offer anybody except myself – I have no riches to bestow on anyone, nor will anybody be impressed with my stature in society – I think the yearning of both Charlies is the same. We have all felt like Charlie Brown or Charlie Kane. We want to be loved for who we are. And we have sometimes wondered, for some people out there, maybe even the person that we have fallen in love with, why that isn’t enough.

I think maybe if we had seen Charlie Brown grow old, the last thing he would have said was the name of the Little Red Haired Girl, and the thing he probably would have held on to was the little paper Valentine’s Day card he had gotten from her in class, all those years ago, even if he knew in his heart she didn’t really mean it.