America's Favourite Child Soldier: 'Home Alone,' 25 Years Later
John Hughes crafted a right-wing masterpiece under the guise of good, clean fun for the family.
Macaulay Culkin has spent the past few years on tabloid deathwatch. Never far from his new face: a picture of him at age 9, in his trademark role, screaming at that mirror, clean as a god. To reinforce this contrast, the Daily Mail reported that "people who know him say he's worlds away from Kevin MacCallister." Tragedy aside, it feels appropriate that the so-called face of my generation should now be so contorted. Culkin remains a fitting poster boy for our indulgence, just as the film that made him might be seen as a signpost of our miseducation, a standout example of the kind of bullshit we were raised on.
Like its star, Home Alone hasn't aged well. At least that was my sense revisiting it 25 years after the craze. It didn't take me long to realize that this was a political judgment. You see, upon closer inspection, the tale of a rich kid taking on the lumpenproletariat is rather obviously a work of right-wing propaganda—a libertarian parable, The Fountainhead for Generation ADHD. This was no accident.
The film went into production in early 1990, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Quite a time this must have been for a lifelong Republican and geeky Reaganite like John Hughes, the film's brainfather: a spell of great ideological security. As an A-list conservative, he was part of a rare breed in Hollywood, and through most of his career he had tread rather lightly. Hughes was known as a pragmatist, above all else, a masterful panderer. He transitioned to film from advertising in the late-70s and by the mid-80s had mastered the teen flick (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) causing Time magazine to anoint him "spookily in sync with the swooning narcissism of adolescence." In the early 90s, he proved himself equally adept to the narcissism of children—a purer narcissism.
Hughes's teen films bear only subtle traces of his political attitudes, as Michael Weiss noted in Slate a few years back: an obsession with class differences, a preference for new money, and the usual celebration of the individual. He was careful not to inject his views in a way that might alienate viewers. Sometimes this self-censorship happened in the editing room, like the speech Hughes cut from Ferris Bueller ("Be careful when you deal with old hippies; they can be real touchy"). Such an overt expression of his attitudes would have been inappropriate: Conservatism doesn't come naturally to teenagers.
Children, in this respect, are a better fit—they tend to be fairly reactionary. They usually despise regulation, entertain fantasies of self-sufficiency, fear what they don't know, enjoy weaponry, hold firm to their superstitions, and hate nothing more than seeing their cake equally divided. Hughes's libertarian bent was particularly well-suited to children of the 90s, raised on a twin regimen of neglect and placation. It's a matter of statistics: Children of this era were home alone in unprecedented numbers, spent a quarter of its waking hours watching television, and was as a result the most entitled generation of infant consumers in recorded history—hyperactive, disobedient, and product-savvy. With this audience in mind, it comes as no surprise that Hughes saw fit to produce his most ideological work.
Hughes's close friend, National Lampoon editor P. J. O'Rourke, said as much about Home Alone in a 2010 interview, after Hughes's passing: "[The conservatism in his films is] there for those who care to see it. Home Alone is all about self-sufficiency, freedom, and responsibility, basically." Watching the film with O'Rourke's hint in mind, it isn't hard to identify the contours of parable.
The film starts with a rebellion against overregulation. Fed up with his siblings' teasing and mother's nagging, Kevin, the runt of the clan, starts a fight in front of his extended family. Ordered into the attic of the family mansion, he prays for them to disappear overnight. And they do, on a flight to Paris. By the time they realize their mistake, mid-trip, their youngest is already scouring the house for the best time possible. We see Kevin jumping on his parents' bed, tossing popcorn in his mouth, watching violent movies, shooting his brother's BB gun, sledding down the staircase—all the things reasonable caregivers would forbid. At the beginning of the film, Kevin is helpless, a welfare dependent, but the lifting of the nanny state allows the fruition of his full creativity.
A sense of responsibility follows. After the initial excesses, Kevin decides to live like a responsible homeowner. He does laundry, he shops—but unlike the adults in the film, he enjoys himself. His imitation of adulthood is, by all indications, better than the real thing. He runs his mother's errands with a bachelor's sense of autonomy. But that autonomy is fragile. He's only eight, after all, and adults interfere where they can. A policeman tries to bang him up for an accidental theft; a snoopy cashier inquires into his home life. Kevin evades them all. From opening scene to the final credits, he outwits every adult that confronts him. This was populism for children.
Culkin reprising his 'Home Alone' role in 2015.
The story emphasizes its hero's goodness and superiority whenever possible, so justifying an immense self-righteousness. He's the only charming character in the film, the most smart, free, and, crucially, clean. A famous scene shows him following a meticulous regimen of preening methods, culminating in burning aftershave; the burglars, meanwhile, have a van-ful of expensive commodities but don't take the time to wash the crud from their fingernails. It's interesting to contrast the aftershave scene with the most famous scene from Hughes's next film, Curly Sue (1991), a near-perfect inversion: Sue, a street kid, is soaped and shampooed by her adoptive mother as part of a broader civilizing process. Hughes was a master of unsubtle appearances—in some of his early teen movies, the camera literally crosses the train tracks. The class of his characters often reflects in their hygiene. Lower middle-class characters in Home Alone, like Uncle Frank, look slightly disheveled and wear dusty sweaters. The poor are downright filthy.
Hughes had a weakness for "the Reaganite gentry," according to Weiss. It is for this reason, presumably, that the hero of Home Alone comes from new money. We learn this in a particularly contrived scene: Sitting in first class, on their way to Paris, Kevin's father reminisces that the only vacations he took as a child involved driving the family Dodge to visit his grandpa in some backwater village. Uncle Frank sits one row ahead of them with his wife, complaining and stealing saltshakers. Their combined gaggle sits in tourist class. Kevin's dad is paying their way. The sequel—in keeping—would introduce us to the insanely generous owner of a major New York toy store. In this world, philanthropy takes the place of social services. Noble members of the underclass, the street cleaner in Home Alone and the pigeon lady in the sequel, are content with what little they have, and subsist off religion and classical music, respectively. The burglars burgle because they're virtueless fools. The society depicted in Home Alone is experiencing the opposite of class struggle: Everyone gets what they deserve.
Libertarian views are taken to their logical extremity when the wet bandits take their class envy to the MacCallisters' suburban mansion. Kevin cocks his shotgun: "This is my house, and I'm going to protect it." The burglars hold crowbars, crude weapons. Kevin has set up an array of surgical traps, apparently designed more to hurt and humiliate the burglars than to incapacitate them. The list of traps include: a BB gun ambush; icy stairs; a scalding-hot door handle, branding the family M into one burglar's palm; tar and feathers; industrial glue, a four-inch nail, and Christmas ornaments to the bare feet; a blowtorch to the head; an iron to the face; and a pipe to the face, which elicits a gold tooth. Escaping from the two lunatics, Kevin does something tremendously odd, because of the time at which he does it: He calls the police. The whole routine was unnecessary. This is textbook sadism, or, as far right-wing movements have described it in the past: "creative violence for its own sake."
Luckily, the "Wet Bandits" are the kind of evildoers one can mash up without arousing too much concern. They are a subspecies of human: One could hardly imagine them performing basic homo sapien tasks: raising children, hunting, or gathering. Their IQs combined roughly add up to his. They are tri-staters, slightly ethnic, Jewish and Italian; Kevin is Midwestern elite, gold on porcelain. Harry and Marv pursue Kevin in their van halfway through the film, but call off the pursuit when he runs into a church. ("I am not going in there." "Me either.")
Aside from one reviewer at Entertainment Weekly—"a sadistic festival of adult bashing!"—critics at the time didn't seem too bothered by this unnecessary brutality. Many described it as "cartoonish." The adjective cartoonish, in this context, connotes no blood, unrealism, an element of humor—no more distressing than the violence we are acquainted from cartoons. One wonders whether this is a judgment purely of the quality of violence, or also of the people subjected to it. If Kevin's mother stepped with bare feet on Christmas ornaments, the violence would hardly be described as cartoonish.
Hughes reproduced more-or-less the same villains for later productions (Beethoven 1 and 2, Baby's Day Out, Dennis the Menace, 101 Dalmatians) and subjected them to similar humiliation. Family Action became his thing. He learned from success. Home Alone's violent crescendo, along with its adorably self-righteous child populism, was its primary draw. It was also an innovative response to an imbalance in supply-and-demand: Millennials had seen plenty of violence on television, much more than the recently-introduced PG-13 rating would allow us to see in the theatre. Problem Child, perhaps the most cynical film ever, tried to fill this niche a year before—but with a lesser child star and none of Home Alone 's gloss. These embellishments allowed Home Alone to become a mass phenomenon.
"The kids imitate the movie all the time," a postal clerk from Braintree, Massachusetts, was quoted in the Boston Globe. "They relate to it. He's cute—the kid in it." The Roanoke Times captured the scale of this imitation, asking, "What kid out there hasn't tried to imitate Macaulay Culkin's famous hands-pressed-on-cheeks scream from the movie Home Alone?" One kid in Kentucky reportedly took the shtick all the way: "As officers entered the house in which the boy lives with only his great-grandmother, they had to dodge 12-inch nails, open scissors, and a vat of concrete triggered by trip wires... doorknobs covered with lard and pieces of glass... steps that were soaped or greased or contained protruding nails."
During his advertising days, Hughes represented Big Tobacco. He knew how to redress a potentially controversial product. Home Alone was his master-contrivance. Exciting children while reassuring adults, it aced the calculation that underlies every successful blockbuster—appealing to the masses' elemental senses without offending their sensibilities. At a time when rap music's effect on the young was being hotly debated, Home Alone was recognized as a family movie, which sounds like a genre but is really a certificate of agreeability. FX vice president Chuck Saftler summed up this ubiquitous appeal quite nicely, when his network decided to run a 24-hour marathon of the film on Thanksgiving in 2009: "[It's] a movie that can appeal to everyone in the house... the marathon airing allows distracted viewers to zone in and out of the TV while celebrating with others."
This was a remarkable achievement on Hughes's part. He wrote a film that was as American as apple pie, but also as American as a childhood shooting spree. And that makes Home Alone, a monument to an era when America was still blindly in love with itself and its mythologies, worth revisiting. In the words of some corny old white dude: They don't make 'em like they used to.