Welcome to Pop Optics! This is a feature in which I will explore some particular life moment that was shaped or influenced by some particular pop culture or even vice versa.
When Home Alone was released in November of 1990, just in time for the Christmas movie season, I would have been 3 years old, so chances are I might have seen this in theaters but damned if I can recall that. I don’t see why I wouldn’t. The previous year my parents took me to see Batman, so what’s the harm in me watching a Dennis the Menace-styled Macaulay Culkin enact guerilla warfare on a Goodfella and adult Kevin Arnold?
Whether or not I saw this in theaters is of no import. The film is ubiquitous. It has become an annual tradition, imprinted upon the public consciousness through constant airings on broadcast television during the Christmas season. It has become a pop culture touchstone in the same breath as It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Gremlins, and Die Hard. Most people can quote the movie just as easily as others might even be able to recite it line for line. The plot is just as simple: a small child of annoying stature, constantly chided and bullied by his family, in a fit of holiday grumps and denial of pizza, makes the grand wish of every child: that his family would up and disappear, leaving him alone and to his own devices. Well, lo and behold, this happens.
Except it isn’t so much that they disappear but simply forget about him in their mad dash to get out of the house and to the airport on time for a big family trip to France where they can eat shrimp and watch a dubbed Jimmy Stewart do battle against a capitalist tyrant. In that time, a duo of burglars hit up the homes vacant of their residents who decided to vacation for the season because the harsh Chicago winter just became too crushing for their souls. Eventually, our pint-sized hero must do battle with these nefarious nerdowells in the cruelest of measures, damn near killing them if this weren’t a family movie. It all has a happy ending. In the end, he overcomes danger, fears of the basement and strange old men, and learns that the Christmas spirit is strong enough to reunite him with his family if he believes hard enough.
While this is all well and good, I can relate only slightly enough with the wish fulfillment of being left alone while your family is cast off into the phantom zone. The story’s main character, Kevin McCallister, is the youngest of his immediate family, but likely towards the top of the bottom half of his extended family who have all descended like vultures (especially mooching Uncle Frank) upon his house the night before their international departure. At every turn, Kevin is accosted either by an older sibling or even the adults, being told to pack his suitcase, being admonished for not knowing how to do so, insulted with fake French words, and then finally pushed too far when it turns out his dipwad of an older brother scarfed down the only pizza that was meant to be left aside for him. In a fit of rage, he decides to respond the American way: with unchecked aggression, all the while, the rest of the family scrambles to prevent a disaster.
Finally separating the two, all eyes look to Kevin and stare him into both submission and guilt. The disgust on their faces as plain as that pizza he never got to taste, just bitterness. His mother, played with savage delight by Catherine O’Hara, pulls him away and banishes him to the attic in hopes that he’ll think over how much of a little shit he’s been. Well, if he were to admit that his behavior was wrong and he reacted in haste and with poor judgment, we wouldn’t have much of a movie. This would instead be an episode of Growing Pains when Kirk Cameron went full Christ and screamed about how masturbating to firefighters destroys marriages (I never saw the actual movie – that’s what it was about, right?). Instead, Kevin acts like a defiant kid, and like a kid, cuts his mother through the heart when he declares that he wishes that the whole family would just disappear. When she gives him a chance to walk back that statement, does he? Fuck no! He doubles down and you can see the stoic devastation in Catherine O’Hara’s expression. She’s at a loss for words and while she’s not hurt enough to cry, she is hurt enough to not blink. Struck stupid and in shock at her youngest son’s steadfast desire that the whole family can be raptured for all he cares.
In the light of the morning, the family hurries the fuck up because guess what? Winter winds wreak havoc upon the sleepy setting, shaking branches loose and crashing down upon powerlines, knocking out not just power but the telephones as well. So this means no power, no alarms, no early wake up to be out the door when the vans for the airport arrive to pick them up. A sped-up montage and sabotaged headcount later, the family leaves for O’Hare with only 45 minutes before flight departure (ah, the pre-9/11 world where this was still doable) and Kevin wakes up to discover his family gone. He searches the house, even checking the garage to see that the cars are still there, and sits back in the house with the only logical (or, rather, magical) conclusion: He did indeed make his family disappear. At first, he say this with a tinge of sadness, but then reflects upon how his family treated him like shit the night before and now a wicked grin spreads across his face. His family has disappeared and this means that, yes, he is now HOME ALONE!
So what does Kevin do? The typical kid alone stuff. He runs around, jumps on the beds, ransacks his brother’s room and loots his secret stash, and even eats junk and watches rubbish on the television. Basically, Kevin does what I’m sure a lot of children would love to do if they had the chance to be without their overbearing and largely ever-present families: misbehave without consequence and eat like diabetes has been cured.
A good scene to call into question is when he orders a delicious cheese pizza, just for him. If you recall in the opening scene, a pizza delivery person appears (working for the fictional Little Nero’s Pizza, an obvious play on Little Caesar’s – you’re just subbing out one Roman emperor for another, albeit, the general title of Caesar with a specific ruler – this joke would have worked better if it were Little Kaiser’s, but I guess you need a pizza place to be vaguely Italian) with several boxes in tow, waiting for payment and a tip. A displeased Kevin has a brief interaction with him, admonishing him for not having an emergency cheese pizza. The delivery kid is indifferent to his plight, just wanting the money for the pizzas and his tip so he can move on with his life, possibly fawning over some girl in his grade who is way outside of his class but no worries, the power of love and Top 40 pop will overcome such deficiencies. Kevin will remember this moment, as it is just another example of his life being ruined by people who do not require a step stool to reach the kitchen sink.
Some time after he accepts the fate that he willed unto his family, he decides to order another pizza. Do you think Kevin called Little Nero’s and asked if that same kid was working that night? He doesn’t know his name, but do you think he described him? Maybe he just said for them to send the same driver as the other night to that residence. This plan feels like something out of the Joker’s playbook from The Dark Knight – pretty devious and effective but requires way more planning and conditional executions than makes sense. Well, in the genius of movie magic, the same worker arrives with a single pizza and finds instructions to make the delivery to the back door (phrasing). It is here that Kevin decides to execute his plan in all delirium. To keep it brief and concise, Kevin syncs up a scene from an in-universe film, Angels with Filthy Souls, a B-movie noir thriller, wherein the main character talks trash to a low-level gangster. Kevin makes sure to pause, mute, rewind, and fast forward so that the dialog comes from only one source and is used to terrorize the poor pizza boy (who gets stiffed on the tip for his trouble). This escalates from harmless prank to possible felony when Kevin lets the tape play through the rest of the scene where an ultimatum is given for the pizza boy has “to the count of 10, to get” his “ugly, yella, no-good keister off” his property. With “1, 2, 10” count, the Tommy gun lets the bullets fly and the pizza boy flees in terror, doing his best to dodge bullets and save his life. I hope he at least gets hazard pay.
In this world, Kevin can do such things with a devilish innocence and his actions handwaved with a “kids will be kids.” In the real world, that pizza boy is going back to his job and telling his managers that he just got shot at and there’s no way he’s making deliveries to that house again. At best, the manager agrees and nothing comes of it. At worst, a call to the police is made and doors might get busted down in search of the maniac who likes to prey on pizza boys. If anything, then Kevin is found out and the original efforts of his mother and the local police get wrapped up. “Hello, Mrs. McCallister. We found your son. He tried to shoot a pizza delivery kid but it was just a movie. Anyway, we’re going to hand him over to DCFS. See you in court.”
Like Kevin, I was the youngest of my immediate family and in the middle among my cousins. Also like Kevin, I often felt overlooked and pushed aside. I had to advocate for myself a lot, doing my best to articulate my wants and needs and expressing myself in a way that wouldn’t be dismissed as childish precociousness. Unlike Kevin, at least as far as the movie implies, I often was heard. I usually always had the ears of my parents. Of course, I was often a quiet child but also a child with problems that they and myself didn’t understand at the time (depression – it was depression), so when I wasn’t outgoing, I was mostly hiding myself away, refusing to interact with people. What was written off as shyness was really just me struggling to be social out of other fears or emotional impairments.
Also unlike Kevin, I was often left alone. Not by choice or because of neglect, but because I grew up with two parents working and two older siblings who were either out of the house or on their way out (my brother is 17 years older while my sister is 11 years older). Most days after school, I would either go to a friends house until one of my parents was off work or I’d chill at home as long as my grandmother was able hang around. Most of my summers involved my grandmother looking after me while I would come in and out of the house with whichever friend was available. Eventually, by the time I was 9 or 10, I was allowed to stay home alone a couple days a week, alternating with my parents’ and grandmother’s schedules to ensure I was never home alone for long. Either way, as time went on, I got used to not having anybody around for extended periods of time and learned quite easily how to do things for myself.
Kevin eventually has to learn how to be responsible out of necessity. After indulging in his own wish fulfillment, he realizes that he needs a toothbrush, needs clean dishes and clothes, and even needs food. He accomplishes these tasks, not all of them with ease, but with a sort of childish bravado, and he feels proud that he’s able to act so mature even though he knows he doesn’t have to do so for long. Once the chores are done, he can resume his mischief but with the presence of dangerous characters looming about, he soon realizes that his dream come true is nothing but a nightmare. He isn’t quite ready for this kind of power and he recognizes that he still needs his family, that he still needs his parents around to protect him and take care of his needs.
For myself, my lack of parental supervision became the norm. I was left in good company, of course. I wasn’t being left behind or abandoned or ignored. Growing up in a lower middle to middle class household (and not anything close to John Hughes’ bastardized vision of what middle class actually looks like) meant sacrifices and a need to be self-reliant. Making my own meals, doing my own laundry, and doing my own grocery shopping (more really making runs to White Hen for slurpees and wrestling magazines) were just par for the course. Having my own copy of the house key stashed safely in my backpack and trusted to come straight home and not burn the house down was a big deal to me. I felt like was older than I actually was. Mind you, some of my meals were as simple as making a sandwich or cooking Spaghetti O’s on the stove, but in my heart, it was like a preview into my future. The saddest coming attractions for the life of a loner.
Watching Home Alone is both nostalgic enjoyment and self-reflection. I never took advantage of the fact that I was left to my own devices a lot as a child because I didn’t feel like screwing up the opportunity that my parents gave me more or less by lack of options on their part. I don’t take it for granted that I had a life most kids think would be cool because honestly, I think it is a scenario more common than I probably realized or understood. I would never had wanted to wish my parents away because what the hell would accomplish that wasn’t already happening? Probably not much. We all couldn’t be afforded the same kind of fictional disposable wealth that the McCallisters likely had, living in one of the most affluent neighborhoods (the home in Home Alone is in Winnetka, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago and John Hughes’ favorite setting for many of his films’ characters).
Where I grew up (and still temporarily reside), was filled with working families. The homes were modest but affordable and you didn’t feel like you were ever living beyond your means. We made do, we got by. Being left on my own was simply a byproduct of a time when being middle class was not only common but also still left with a safety net. My parents did their best to provide for myself and the family. Very rare was it for us to take grand vacations. I never even went international until high school. I didn’t have to wish to be left home alone, I just simply had to ask or wait long enough and it would happen.To borrow a phrase from another film, Kevin was just a fantastical tourist; I had to live here.
Or maybe I’m overlooking something else here. Maybe it is less about wish fulfillment than it is just really wanting to be left alone. The amount of energy one can expend to appear like they actually want to be social and around a large group of people cannot be easily measured. Perhaps Kevin just wants to enjoy not having to be told not to do something. Maybe he’s relishing the void he’s “created” to allow himself a moments peace so that he doesn’t have to force an interaction with other people, people he’d sometimes prefer not to be around. I can relate to that. For some, that is the holiday but for the rest of us, that’s everyday.