- “Somewhere in my Memory”
John Williams lent his name to a lot of iconic movies, but his score for Home Alone was possibly his finest work. It achieved what only the greatest scores can achieve – breaking down all distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic accompaniment until the music feels inextricable from the texture, ambience and atmosphere of the film. When I picture key scenes from Home Alone in my head, I can always picture the exact riff, refrain or motif that is playing, no matter how incidental or occasional it happens to be. I have a vague memory that the Home Alone soundtrack was one of the first CDs I ever saw, but in many ways this was a score so complete and so instantly memorable – a musical meme before its time – that the actual, physical soundtrack was a redundancy; something you might buy as part of your fandom for the film, but almost unnecessary once you’d watched it a couple of times. It’s a rare score that can make every single iteration feel like it has a character of its own, but Williams managed to do that here, in a musical landscape that has utterly no filler, and not a single wasted moment.
Of course, the score’s majesty is also a matter of how deftly Chris Columbus wove it into his mise-en-scenes. Time and again, the connections between sound and image are perfectly choreographed, while some of the most memorable sequences blend diegetic and non-diegetic sound in compelling, unexpected and atmospheric ways, especially in and around the church, when Williams’ score converges with the choral hymns. It’s at this point that Williams’ music – and especially the central “Somewhere in my Memory” motif – reveals itself for what it really is: a secular Christmas carol, full of all the melancholy, mystery and yearning of the best carols, but also capable of speaking to a wider and more inclusive audience.
- Old Man Marley
Part of what makes Home Alone so memorable is the way in which it takes a whole range of “adult” genres – gangster film, home invasion, vigilante action, screwball comedy – and remakes them in its own image. The most pervasive of these is slasher horror, since Hughes seems more than prescient that his nostalgic, white-picketed suburban fantasises were also the province of the slasher films that became so prevalent over the late 1970s and early 1980s. In effect, Home Alone presents a suburban topos so perfect and preened that it is virtually inviting a slasher, and while Hughes may have never scripted a horror film, Home Alone remains as a fascinating thought-experiment in how it might have looked if he had.
Key to the way in which the film acknowledges that legacy is Old Man Marley, a local street shoveller known as the “South Bend Shovel Slayer.” According to Biff, Marley murdered his family back in 1958 and continues to carry around dismembered body parts in his salt can. For me, the moment at which we first glimpse Marley – huddled with Biff and Kevin at the window, peering out into the night – was always a kind of primal summary of the film that followed, in which all the tentative traversals of suburban thresholds were bound up with the narrative logic of slasher horror. The fact that Marley looks like a homeless man makes his presence even more striking – it’s the only vestige of genuine urbanity in an otherwise suburban paradise, anticipating the “grittier” look of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, but also deftly capturing just how much suburban horror was mobilised and terrified by the incursion of the decaying and decrepit urban core into the quarter-acre suburban block. In a film in which Kevin’s house, street and neighbourhood is the norm, there is nothing more terrifying than homelessness, and part of the art of the film lies in the way in which it always presents Marley in situ, or in transit, despite the fact that he presumably lives in a house that’s every bit as lavish and expansive as Kevin’s. It’s only in the last scene, when we see him celebrating with his family, that his subject position – that of the suburban slasher – is finally domesticated and contained.
As a counterpoint to his combative rapport with the burglars, then, Kevin’s reparative rapport with this latter-day slasher effectively signals the end of suburban horror as a vital genre. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be any more suburban horror films, or any more suburban slashers, but that they would increasingly focus on the parodic and self-referential tail-ends of classic 80s franchises (think Jason Goes to Hell or New Nightmare), paving the way for the meta-slasher films ushered in by Scream. Yet it would be mistaken to construe Home Alone as a conservative or saccharine gesture, since Hughes doesn’t sanitise the slasher film so much as absorb and converge it with the suburban nostalgia films that would become so prevalent in the early 90s. Think of a version of Father of the Bride that had internalised all the dark energy of Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers and you pretty much have the eerie, emergent mood of Home Alone. While Kevin’s relationship with the Wet Bandits may be largely comic, the presence of Marley brings in a different kind of gaze and a different kind of eeriness that ensures that this never falls into the straightforwardly and cruelly comic mode of, say, the Problem Child franchise.
Some of the creepiest moments, then, are those where the Wet Bandits inadvertently absorb the slasher gaze and subject position signalled by Marley. As a child, two of these sequences always scared me in a particularly emphatic way. The first occurs when Kevin is putting up the Christmas decorations, only to see Joe Pesci’s face peering through the window, in the anamorphic and distorted reflection of one of the larger baubles. The second occurs when the Wet Bandits are starting to cotton on to Kevin and slowly follow him in their van as he walks into the street, only for him to break into a run and then hide amongst the nativity at the front of the church, foreshadowing his meeting with Marley the following night. In each of these sequences, the Bandits temporarily feel like suburban stalkers more than petty thieves, partly because in each case their gaze is distorted and mediated – through the window and the bauble, and through the opacity of the windscreen – in ways that recall the blank stares and distended presences of the best suburban slashers. Over the course of the film, this slasher potential never quite goes away, allowing the Bandits to retain a creepiness that they never match in Home Alone 2, which removes us entirely from this suburban and slasher potentiality, rendering Pesci and Stern’s performances much more crudely and cruelly slapstick in turn.
Yet what makes Home Alone so deft is that this slasher gaze is also dissociated from Marley as well. Left to hover between Marley and the Bandits, it becomes a function of suburbia itself, to the point where it frequently feels as if Kevin is warding off a slasher optic as much as any single individual or any constellation of strictly human forces. For my money, that produces one of the most evocative depictions of American suburbia ever committed to screen – easily as suggestive as anything to be found in Wes Craven or John Carpenter – in which the most beautiful, bucolic and nostalgic images are also the province of something emergent, something strange and unsettling – in short, a gaze – that can’t be satiated until Kevin’s parents finally arrive home. In suburban horror, slashers and absent fathers tend to go together, with the slasher standing in as an uberfather, an intensified version of the paternal authority that needs to be restored for society to continue functioning. In Home Alone, the father simply comes home but, perhaps, more importantly, the mother comes home first, putting the amorphous gaze of the slasher uberfather to bed once and for all, in a poetic coda to the golden age of suburban horror cinema.
- Buzz’s bedroom
Now that space doesn’t ramify as much as it once did in cinema, there’s something extraordinary about a film with the extravagant spatial scheme of Home Alone. Rewatching it, I was struck by the way in which every single space outlined over the opening act of the film turns out to have a special significance later on (something I would have simply taken for granted when originally viewing it). Sometimes it is a narrative significance, sometimes it is an emotional significance and sometimes it just occurs as a syntactically important moment, but there is genuinely no space that is left behind. While contemporary audiences may “inhabit” cinema in a peculiarly digital way – by having cinema with them all the time, in every domestic situation, on an unimaginable variety of portable devices – there was also an analog mode of “inhabiting” cinema that reached its height with the kinds of hyperreal – or incipiently hyperreal – cinema made around the turn of the 90s. On the cusp of a digital regime, these films treated space itself both as a kind of nostalgia effect and as a way of gesturing towards unimaginable new post-spatial possibilities, culminating with the reticulated topographies and lush cityscapes of the erotic thrillers that came into vogue in the wake of Basic Instinct.
Home Alone is one of the most spatially flamboyant of these early 90s films, revolving around a perfectly choreographed series of spaces while also always gesturing towards some as-yet unformulated alternative to space itself. As a child, then, I always felt as if I “inhabited” it in two distinct yet related ways. On the one hand, I knew every nook and cranny of the McAllister house intimately, as well as every detail of the surrounding streets and houses. I remember watching part of a director’s cut years later and being titillated at a glimpse of the house I had never seen – so deep was my familiarity with every fixture and feature that it was almost like experiencing a different kind of house. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that watching the film was like inhabiting the house – that’s the identification that both Hughes and Columbus seem to have been going for – explaining why the home invasion drama and the eventual return of Kevin’s parents had such a visceral and embodied impact upon a whole generation of children and teenagers.
At the same time, however, I was aware that this spatial scheme was in some sense incomplete, or not the whole story. At one level, that’s a function of the narrative, which proceeds by detailing ever more ingenious ways in which a house can be attacked and defended, effectively opening up a series of more and more nested micro-spaces around which the action and combat revolves. A great deal of the pleasure lay in the ways in which Kevin managed to scope out and map parts of the house that even he hadn’t consciously considered before, expanding his spatial horizons – the film’s definition of becoming more adult – at the same pace as the viewer. At the same time, however, there was a pervasive sense of spatial possibilities that couldn’t be formulated by either Kevin or the viewer, all of which revolved around exotic and strange emissaries from the outside world, which I always pictured as being inextricably nocturnal. Pizza delivery was the most mysterious of these emissaries – of which more in a minute – but they were also bound up with the VCR player, the gift from Santa Claus, the brief trips to the supermarket and the wider life of the local suburban community.
Throughout 80s cinema, these odd cusps were often figured by way of teenage bedrooms – the point in the regular suburban home at which new interfaces and new thresholds were most likely to be glimpsed, as well as the point at which the nightsprawl was often most easily and covertly accessed. In Home Alone, it’s Buzz’s bedroom that fulfils that potential and, accordingly, it’s Buzz’s bedroom that holds the most fascination for Kevin, just as Buzz is the only character who really “feels” like a teenager. After Kevin’s parents bedroom, it’s the first “private” space that we see in the film, and the only space that remains private. Yet, when the family disappears, it’s suddenly available, and while the Playboy magazine, picture of Buzz’s girlfriend, and weapons on the walls all have their thrills, it’s the pet tarantula, inadvertently set loose, that expands this threshold. As the film proceeds, Columbus periodically inserts spider’s-view shots demonstrating this enormous arachnid moving through all the connective tissue within the house that remains too interstitial and minute for even Kevin to compute and exploit. Expanding all the thresholds glimpsed by Buzz’s bedroom back out into the fabric of the house, the spider effectively derealises the McAllister home in its wake, spinning all the familiar rooms and vantage points into its own web of associations and perspectives, culminating with the critical role that it plays at keeping the burglars at bay.
- The train
As the film expands further and further inwards, discovering more and more reticulated spaces within the McAllister house, it also spirals outwards, as Kevin grows more and more confident venturing out alone into the neighbouring streets. In fact, one of the by-products of the spider expanding the threshold-space of Buzz’s bedroom back into the house is that it confounds the distinction between inner and outer exploration, turning every space into a threshold in turn, which is perhaps why the final invasion sequence goes on for so long and feels so visceral and exciting – every space has become a threshold. One of the most memorable of these bridges between Kevin and the outside world is the literal bridge, spanning the train line, that he crosses when coming back from the town square. Watching it as a child, there was always something magical about this pedestrian bridge, symbolising, as it did, the cusp between the childhood and adult world, as well as all the unseen and unfilmed spaces that form the connective tissue between the key spaces in the film.
Yet an additional detail makes this scene particularly evocative: the train passing beneath the bridge as Kevin runs over it. In many ways, it feels as if this train should be part of the narrative: its movement both mirrors and cuts across Kevin’s light gait too emphatically and pointedly not to be a part of the story. For a moment, it is almost as if the two narrative strands have connected and we are actually seeing Kevin walking home and Kevin’s mother travelling home in the same frame (it is at this point in the film that Kevin starts to really miss his parents), a feeling that’s enhanced by the fact that it is clearly a long-distance sleeper train, rather than a local. Yet once that uncanny sense of convergence passes, the effect is of a more general centrifugal momentum around Chicago during the holiday season. For a brief moment, Kevin’s story collapses into a wider vision of families and individuals descending upon Hughes’ hometown. In a way, Home Alone is a kind of unofficial companion piece to Planes, Trains and Automobiles – both are about people desperately trying to get home during the holidays, and both emphatically designate Chicago as “home.” The fact that John Candy once again turns upon on the way home – although this time as a help, rather than hindrance – just cements this connection between the two films, as well as their connection to the rest of Hughes’ films, all of which suggest, in their different ways, that Chicago is – or should be – the centre of the world. For the longest time, as a child, I thought that Chicago was the capital of the United States, and even after I was corrected, I still thought of it as the most central, powerful and beautiful city. To this day, I have never been to the Windy City, yet it remains at the centre of my psychogeography of the United States, thanks in no small part to John Hughes.
- Cheese pizza
One of the challenges faced by Home Alone is to make Kevin’s misbehaviour as visceral as possible without being sadistic or cheap. While there are a few sexual moments, Kevin’s cursory, tongue-in-cheek perusal of Buzz’s Playboy magazine makes it clear that the film isn’t really interested in that approach. Similarly, while tobogganning down the staircase provides a few momentary thrills, the film doesn’t rely on violence or physical comedy until its final scenes. Instead, it’s food that preoccupies Kevin – the prospect of unlimited, unchecked access to junk food and fast food. After all, the whole situation is started by Buzz eating Kevin’s cheese pizza in the first place – and, sure enough, the supreme moment of infantile abandon comes when Kevin orders his very own plain cheese pizza, with no adults around to prevent him savouring it to the full. Even now, when I watch the film, I’m amazed at Columbus’ restraint in never actually showing the audience the cheese pizza, but it’s absolutely the right decision, since it forces you to imagine a Chicago deep dish extravagance so delectable that visualising it would only be an anticlimax. In effect, Columbus – and Hughes – refuse to dilute taste with sight, bypassing even the spectacle of Kevin eating in favour of the spectacle of Kevin anticipating eating, and anticipating the order arriving. In the process, the cheese pizza became a kind of fetish, a unspoken, perverse possibility, not least for Culkin himself, whose band, the Pizza Underground, traffics exclusively in pizza-themed Velvet Underground covers.
- The pizza delivery guy
If anything, then, It’s the anticipation of the pizza – the experience of fast food delivery – that marks it as Kevin’s greatest achievement. It might sound strange but, back in the early 90s, getting food delivered provided some of the thrills that social media provides now – a bundle of pleasure arriving out of the nightsprawl – creating an odd and enthralling sense of being “connected” that couldn’t be gained simply by eating out, or even by picking up an order. I remember, as a kid, being absolutely titillated the first time I ordered in pizza alone – it felt like a kind of idiotic achievement of adulthood, a carefully choreographed and inexplicably successful procedure epitomised, in Home Alone, by the way in which Kevin choreographs the exchange with the pizza delivery guy around the scene from Angels with Filthy Souls.
If the vision of Kevin ordering in pizza was exotic, then the pizza delivery guy was an even stranger and more exotic emanation of the nightsprawl. Now that most delivery occurs via social media, the actual deliverer feels like something of an afterthought, a situation that I’ve experienced both as a consumer and also as a pizza deliverer myself in the years before I got stable teaching work. In Home Alone, that imbues the pizza delivery guy, who appears twice, with a queer potential that I found compelling from the very first moment I saw the film (although I may not have necessarily framed it to myself that way then). Watching it now, I’m not sure if the deliverer is meant to be gay, or just meant to be a dufus. My sense is that the actor is gay but that the role he has been assigned is that of a dufus, creating a queer energy that segues him into a comically expendable test run for the Wet Bandits. After all, if Kevin can do all the shopping on his own (and, in Home Alone 2, run up a tab at the Plaza on his own), there’s no real reason why he can’t open the door and pick up a pizza delivery on his own. Far from functioning as a defense mechanism, his prank on the delivery guy seems both about engaging with and containing whatever queer message he is bringing from the outside world.
In that sense, Kevin treats the pizza delivery guy as a kind of threshold-experience, a way of testing where and how the boundaries of his domestic space might reconfigure themselves in his parent’s absence. Just as the delivery guy always intrudes just a little too far – knocking over the statues, sticking around inside over the first few scenes – so Kevin has to repel him just a little more emphatically than a regular caller, even as his bounty provides him with his most viscerally eroticised experience in the film as well. Even now, I’m surprised that the pizza delivery guy doesn’t return in some way in the film’s final act, even incidentally, since his presence plays such an emphatic, if understated, part in the opening half.
- Green tic tacs
If the cheese pizza spoke to something universal about childhood tastes, then Kevin’s present from Santa – a couple of green tic tacs – had the opposite effect, at least for me. From start to finish Hughes’ films all display an incredulity at the sheer opulence of American consumer culture throughout the 1980s, often devolving into montage sequences or music videos in an effort to convey the manic energy, plasticity and productivity of postmodern capital. In Home Alone, that incredulity is centred – in the most tasteful and tactful way possible – on junk food and fast food. Far from Fuller’s Pepsi can feeling like a vulgar intrusion into a beautiful and stately Winnetka kitchen, the kitchen itself feels like part of a consummately stylised and civilised advertisement for Pepsi, not just as a carbonated drink but as an emblem of the conspicuous consumption so precious to Hughes’ protagonists, all of whom aspire to something like a revival of an ostentatious and unapologetic leisure class.
For me, the most pregnant of all these product placements were those mystical green tic tacs that Kevin receives from Santa. At the time, there were only three tic tac flavours available in Australia – peppermint, spearmint and orange. Orange was clearly the outlier in an otherwise minty selection, but it was also strikingly packaged in coloured plastic containers that made the tic tacs themselves look orange. While it was always anticlimactic to open the containers and see that the tic tacs were just plain old white, but there was something proportionately exciting about the orange flavour emerging from what looked like you regular run-of-the-mill mint tic tac as well.
What made the green tic tacs so evocative, then, was not just that they represented some hitherto unavailable flavour (they are labelled as Spearmint, but, knowing that Spearmint tic tacs, were white, I dismissed this) but that this flavour was so intense that it had lent its colouring to the actual confectionary object. In a weird parallel to Kevin’s forensic mapping of space, I became obsessed in figuring out the flavour – never mind actually tasting the flavour – of these elusive tic tacs, which was no small feat before the internet. After stopping and rewinding the scene when Kevin was given the tic tacs, I searched every other scene in the film – especially the supermarket sequence – but to no avail. Now that any product can be ordered into Australia at a moment’s click and “American” cuisine and confectionary has achieved a hipster credibility, it’s easy to underestimate just how exotic and remote American fast food felt at this point in time. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that these green tic tacs became a synecdoche for the fantasmatic “suburbia” – part Winnetka, part North Shore, part San Marino – that filled so much other American cinema at the time, which is perhaps why I found myself searching every other film that looked even vaguely redolent of Home Alone for those elusive tic tacs. To this day, I have never found out the flavour and never seen them in an American supermarket.
- Angels with Filthy Souls
It would be hard to overestimate the pull that Angels with Filthy Souls, the movie-within-a-movie, had upon young viewers of Home Alone. Apart from functioning as a brilliant comic set piece, it summarised everything that was memorable and quotable about the film itself. More than any other screenwriter of the 80s, Hughes had the gift of writing scripts in which virtually every line was a one-liner, seeming to summarise both the concerns of the film and the concerns of the generation it represented without ever seeming to depart too drastically from naturalistic dialogue either. It was in Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club that this pithy, aphoristic style came closest to congealing into a series of mantras, or slogans, but for that very reason those films now feel like beautiful, tensile studies in how to imbue every line with a kind of self-sufficient memorability without sacrificing the arc and shape of the whole.
In other words, Hughes’ films were memetic before we had memes, and nowhere more so than in Home Alone, an invitation to a younger and even more impressionable demographic to internalise, memorise and inhabit its lines almost before they even knew what they meant. Nowhere was that clearer than in the film-within-a-film, not merely because it is repeated several times over the course of the film proper, but because of all the coercive and seductive shots of Kevin himself repeating and memorising it, as if teaching his contemporaries how to respond to himself and Home Alone as a whole. In fact, it probably makes more sense to describe this as a screenplay-within-a-screenplay as much as a film-within-a-film, condensing, as it does, all of Hughes most memetic and earwormy tendencies into a series of lines that I, for one, felt compelled to repeat verbatim before I even had any clear idea of what they meant, what they were intended to be parodying, or how they placed the film within a broader cinematic lineage and heritage.
Of course, that’s what made them perfect memes, since true memes don’t function in terms of content so much as sheer iterability, something that has become particularly clear in the wake of the Harambe super-meme, a meme in which all putative “content” has been stripped away in favour of the spectacle of idiotic, inane and accumulating proliferation itself. Watching Angels with Filthy Souls now, it’s clear that it’s intended to work as a parody of the classic gangster films of the 1930s, as well as a point of reference for the comic gangster tropes that occur within Home Alone itself. At the same time, it forms part of a more general affinity for the 1930s, and especially for Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which the McAllisters are depicted watching in France as Kate tries to get back in contact with Kevin.
Over the 80s and early 90s, the proliferation of “Christmas” movies and quotations of Capra’s holiday classic seemed to go hand in hand. You might say that every 80s Christmas film was trying to be a modern sequel to Capra’s vision, or to discover a Capraesque contemporaneity, as well as a more general continuity between the 30s and the 80s as periods in which the United States started to exhale after eras of depression and fiscal incertitude. That in itself would be enough to make It’s a Wonderful Life a touchstone, but the vision of Capra’s magnum opus lies in the way in which it pairs this economic situation with a parable about the emergent relationship between small town life, urban life and suburban life. When James Stewart’s character enters the dystopian, “alternative” timeline, what he’s really glimpsing is the incursion of urban elements – figured in terms of an incipient noir aesthetic – into the fabric and texture of small-town America. At the same time, even Capra’s aesthetic vision can’t make this small-town aesthetic feel entirely plausible either. The result is a vision or a compromise, depending on how you look at it, in which George Bailey lights upon the first wave of suburban tracts as the site in which a small-town ethos might flourish without subjecting itself to the economic vulnerability that small towns were starting to experience at this point in time.
Fast forward to the 80s and this prophecy couldn’t be more pertinent. On the one hand, decades of white flight and urban decay had turned many urban cores into just the noir nightmare glimpsed by Capra. At the same time, the rise of globalisation and decline of small-town manufacturing meant that the American Main Street didn’t exist in the same way either. In their place, the suburban promise glimpsed by Capra became critical to the self-definition of upwardly mobile white Americans. And, given that a cinematic suburbia, or a suburban cinematics, was the great Christmas gift of It’s a Wonderful Life, it was inevitable that, throughout the 80s, every major Christmas film should attempt to “gift” or “regift” itself that reparative vision of suburbia in turn. Sometimes, as in Gremlins, this took place as an explicit affirmation of American know-how over globalised production; sometimes, as in A Christmas Story, it was framed in wry nostalgia; sometimes, as in Scrooged, it plunged us right into the heart of the decaying urban core itself. In each case, however, there was a sense that the director was trying to escape Capra as an anxiety of influence, and to formulate a vision of American suburbia that could either plausibly continue his legacy or question his legacy without entirely jettisoning it.
Of course, by the 80s, that utopian vision of American suburbia had fully disclosed itself for what it really always was: a fantasy of white, upper-middle-class isolationism and self-protectionism. In order to really engage with Capra’s legacy, it was important to dialectically incorporate the flipside of that legacy – which, in cinematic terms, meant incorporating suburban horror, and the suburban slasher, as the doppelganger of the nuclear suburban father and family. It’s the deftness with which Hughes and Columbus managed that – discussed above – that makes Home Alone so true to both the utopian and dystopian strands of It’s a Wonderful Life, congealing and converging them into a thought-experiment in how it might have looked if both Capra’s worst fears and greatest hopes had come to pass at the same instant. Key to that ambivalence is the lack of reverence accorded to 30s cinematics – with Angels with Filthy Souls presented as direct parody and It’s a Wonderful Life relegated to French cable, as far from America as America itself had become from its own fantasies, the entire film is haunted by the sense that it has become impossible, beyond a certain point, to ever really come home. I guess that’s what makes it so compulsively and achingly rewatchable – the need to pinpoint and cling on to that fleeting moment at which a certain fantasy of home felt briefly plausible.
Like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Home Alone yearns for the stillness of domestic tranquillity; the family all gathered around the hearth. But in both films, it’s the journey towards family that ends up constituting family, gathering more and more people along the way into something broader and more ecumenical than what we started out with. In the same way that Williams’ score creates a new kind of Christmas carol, and in the same way that the screwball comedies that Hughes drew upon created a new kind of marriage, so it often feels that Hughes’ filmography – and these two films in particular – are interested in creating a more mobile and reparative vision of what the American family can entail. At this point, it has to be said that this family is irreducibly white – while there are African-American figures, they all function as ushers or vestibular spaces, from the boarding attendant who gratefully bundles the McAllisters onto the plane, to the cut-out cardboard figure of Michael Jordan that Kevin attaches to a model train set to convince the Wet Bandits that there is a reputable white family at home, to the poster of Ice-T in Buzz’s bedroom that informs us that we have indeed reached some threshold-space, moments before the tarantula is set loose to roam around the house.
Yet, as a child, there was something about the sheer energy of family in Home Alone – somehow centrifugal and centripetal at the same time – that I found compelling. In a recent interview on Pitchfork in which he discussed his experience as a queer producer working on Kanye’s Yeezus, Arca observed that the sound and energy of hip-hop is profoundly inclusive, even if the actual lyrical content can often seem more restricted and bigoted. Similarly, for all that it services a white bourgeois family, the energy of the McAllisters at O’Hare – and the way Columbus shoots it – has a buoyancy that goes beyond any single meaning within the film. It’s at this point that I really feel Hughes’ presence in the film, since another of his gifts as a screenwriter was his ability to suggest something contagious about large groups of people, some common or collective spirit that exceeds any single agenda. Call it his version of family. When it was released, Home Alone was marketed as a “family drama without the family,” and while the pun works on a narrative level, it also makes sense at an affective level – in a very real way, the McAllister family do dissolve, over the course of the film, into a more general sense of togetherness that makes them feel less insular by the time they finally reconvene around Kevin.
At the end of the day, a film like Home Alone was always going to stand or fall on the performance of the parents. More specifically, it was always going to stand or fall on the performance of Kevin’s mother, since it’s that primal bond between mother and son that forms the centrepiece of the film. Every other adult in the family is relegated to a remote distance – we barely see Aunt Leslie, Uncle Frank is alternately scary and comic and Peter McAllister is wryly disinterested (apparently John Heard didn’t have much faith in the film). In many ways, the men of the family are closer to the Wet Bandits – somehow comic and threatening at the same time – than to Kate McAllister, so it makes sense that one early version of the draft had the Bandits acting at Uncle Frank’s behest. With the exception of John Candy’s brief cameo and Kevin’s conversation with Old Man Marley, adults are more or less caricatured as they are to the very young, which is part of what makes the film so authentic – these are adults written for children, rather than for other adults.
Kate McAllister, however, is the exception – her relationship with Kevin is real, possibly the most real thing in the entire film. To any child who saw the film as a child, it would be hard to avoid the ways in which Catherine O’Hara’s performance drew out all the inchoate longings, yearnings and anxieties of childhood. Warm enough for you to invest her with every possible maternal feeling, but clipped enough that you couldn’t completely depend upon her either, she was the kind of onscreen mother destined to induce separation anxiety in her audience before she had even left Kevin behind. In a recent interview, O’Hara revealed that Macauley Culkin still calls her “Mom” and so do I, whenever I watch the film. So, I imagine, do most of the film’s original childhood demographic, for whom O’Hara will always be irreducibly and primally associated with this role, no matter how many great (and probably better) performances she may have put in before or since.
In part, that’s because what O’Hara offers in Home Alone isn’t exactly a performance – she doesn’t have enough screen time for that. Instead, it’s more of a series of poses, or poises, a gestural economy that captures the essence of motherhood in a series of short conversations and single shots. Drawing more upon her early career in advertising (think the Dristan ad of 1979) than her feature-length roles, O’Hara comes close as possible to an airbrushed, streamlined, pixelated version and vision of motherhood, only to imbue it with a deep reserve that just makes its familiar qualities all the more alluring and mysterious. It’s a mystique that she wouldn’t be permitted to recapture in Home Alone 2, where she is given more screen time and so, accordingly, plays a more fully-fledged character. While Lost in New York has taken a fairly savage beating from the critics (and never really been rehabilitated as a cult classic either), I’ve never really thought it was that bad – it’s simply a version of how Home Alone might have looked if every piece hadn’t fallen into place as perfectly as it did. Watching it, you realise that O’Hara is the key to it all – as she moves from a series of poises to a full-blown performance, she inevitably has to acknowledge the absurdity both of the premise and of returning to the premise, leading to a tongue-in-cheek riff on the original that seems more concerned to court knowing parents than incredulous children.
In Home Alone, however, her limited screen time imbues her with a remoteness and a mystique that is never satisfied or satiated, which is part of what makes the film feel so true to the experience of childhood (at Kevin’s age, who doesn’t feel that their parents are playing out some vastly more profound drama in another montage sequence?). Nowhere is that clearer than in the longest sequence between Kevin and Kate, at the foot of the attic stairs. It’s an appropriately liminal venue for the scene that will set up all the subsequent thresholds between Kevin and the rest of the family, and takes place as a heated exchange in which Kate cautions Kevin not to take her for granted. Most people of my generation will virtually know the scene off by heart, but revisiting I was struck by the beautiful way in which Hughes and Columbus modulate the exchange so that neither Kevin or Kate escapes without blame and neither of them can quite extricate themselves from the vulnerability that the other instills in them either. By the time Kevin apologises – too late, but also too soon – there’s a sense that his path to adulthood has begun but that he also needs his parents more than ever, in a kind of miniature version of the experience engendered by the film itself, which encourages children to bask in the pleasures of being taken seriously, by a big-budget Hollywood film, but for that very reason to also take its own messages about the sanctity of parenthood seriously. And, by setting itself up as substitute parent for ninety minutes Home Alone continues to be my partial object: to watch it is to return to childhood and be rescued from childhood in a single viewing experience.