Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Home Alone Disappoints: Scream, Kevin, Scream!

No, I'd never seen Home Alone. (I didn't see The Wizard of Oz until I was sixteen either, so go yell at my parents.) As it started, and John Williams' familiarly magical score piped up, I immediately thought of Harry Potter - although dwelling on those two dodgy efforts with which Chris Columbus began the series is not something I'm really interested in. On the face of it, both Harry Potter and Home Alone are about orphaned boys. However, for a film that seems to be expressed in the pop culture space as the wild expression of a free child, Home Alone turns out to hew remarkably close to the whimsical holiday movie traditions of something like Jingle All The Way. What I wanted was the manic, unbridled release of free will; what I got was the affirmation of its suppression.

Kate (Catherine O'Hara) is too softly lit to be a bad mother
Actually, Home Alone does give you both. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) wishes for his family and their constraints and their bullying to disappear, and they do, with an astute mixture of plausibility and movie magic. Editor Raja Gosnell - who graduated to director by Home Alone 3 - does particularly sharp work intercutting Kevin and his mother's (Catherine O'Hara) realisations that he's been left home alone. There's some similarly deft work from cinematographer Julio Macat - particularly the gliding zoom in on the parents, still blissfully unaware in their aeroplane seats, the realisation slowly but surely creeping towards them. When Kevin realises, everyone involved delivers a sledgehammer blow to the fourth wall - "I made my family disappear!" he exclaims into the camera. Frequent shots of him rushing to the top of stairs see him stop at the camera, stare, and then turn tail and run towards his room in the other direction. It's a technique that can be normalised, to an extent, through the idea of the id unleashed - Kevin is of the age where inhibitions aren't sealed, and having been cut free from his family allows him to do such unsocial things as talk to himself.

Kevin screams into the camera, which seems to block his way
Home Alone follows a narrative trajectory where Kevin's unleashed id is tamed, in the absence of a family to suppress it, by its having to fight against a darker expression of the id - the criminal. Or rather, criminals, in the mostly unthreatening form of Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), the former of whom is in the film almost as soon as Kevin, masquerading as a policeman standing untended in the foyer of the house. Harry and Marv, easily bested by Kevin, are repeatedly figured as childlike figures, particularly Marv, who's afraid of the dark ("Not not not!" he protests), and insists they be known as the "Wet Bandits" due to his "calling card" of leaving the robbed houses flooded. Harry is the gruffer and darker, the mastermind of the pair. As such, Kevin's victory over Harry - one which he ingeniously avoids taking credit for - is not so much Kevin ensuring his own safety, but the value and integrity of his family and their home. Notice how Kevin magically - with the final comic exception of Buzz's room - tidies the house up for the return of the family he didn't know were returning. And by not telling of his heroic exploits, Kevin reasserts the status quo, without gaining any superiority over his siblings and parents.

Manchild Marv (Daniel Stern) and mastermind Harry (Joe Pesci)
Moreover, the film sees Kevin, in the absence of control, shifting from wild unleashed id to suppressed normality remarkably quickly - a few short scenes of exuberant physical madness and some eating unsuitable food combinations (what is that), and then he's done, doing shopping and laundry and protecting the home fortress. He finds safety and solace in the most communal of places - a church, where he also discovers that another 'Other', his frightening old neighbour Marley (Roberts Blossom), is in fact not a murderer but a melancholy grandfather. Marley - surely a nod to A Christmas Carol - inevitably becomes part of Kevin's victory over the robbers. But crucially, Marley is only a force for good once he's been normalised as part of a family unit which Kevin secures the reunion of. Kevin has passed through the final expression of the id and functions as a householder, working as part of a community (albeit a select one - but then it is Christmas and people are rather busy) to bring down an external threat.

Obviously I'm not suggesting that Home Alone should have been about Kevin teaming up with the robbers to tear the house to the ground as a symbol of the destruction of domestic society and the true freedom of the id. This is a family comedy, a Christmas classic for many, and I did enjoy Macaulay Culkin's sprightly performance and the slapstick of his intricate booby traps. But I'd always imagined the film as featuring a kid really cutting loose, enjoying his freedom, being a proper kid without repression. Home Alone could be read in a more positive way along these lines - Kevin's concealment of his triumph keeps the power of the id hidden, so society and family life can continue as normal, but we have still witnessed the positive power of the freed kid. His victory over the criminals was greater than the mere arrest they'd have suffered under the influence of Kevin's parents - what Kevin did was humiliate them. But Kevin is always tied down - before he begins taking responsibility for the house, his freer expression is intercut with scenes of the family fretting on the other side of the ocean, so that you don't ever forget that he's still part of a functional family. O'Hara does an excellent job of making this worry very palatable, and I'm not against family or anything - but is it so much to ask for Kevin's brief freedom to be precisely that? Probably. No one likes to overthink this stuff, it's Christmas.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Stellar write-up on this film I must say. I've seen this much too much, not that I mind (but I've seen the second one which follows the same paradigm, but seems better in so many ways more) and I like it but I cannot argue with your issues. Yes, it's lame to comment and just say "you're right" but ummmm, you're right.

Also, Catherine O'Hara selling her earrings makes me tear up. Yup, I am EASY. said...

Wow did you just hate on Home Alone? Bravo for your demonstrations of cojones my friend.
Not my favorite film either but has some funny slapstick, more of kids movie IMO.

Calogero said...

Yes, magical soundtrack by John Williams for "Hoem Alone", starring Macaulay Culkin.