Movies, it should come as no surprise to learn, were an absolutely critical part of my formative experience. It wasn’t merely that my first exposure to them was during the wondrous Lucas/Spielberg heyday of the early eighties; no, we didn’t have a VCR in the household till the very end of that decade (like color TV, they were deemed by my parents to be “just a fad”), so seeing a movie meant going to the movies. To this day, the very whiff of butter-steeped popcorn time-shifts me back to those magical days, like one that occurred precisely twenty-five years ago, when a little Christmas-themed film with absolutely no brand awareness or marquee stars whatsoever created an unforeseen sensation—it was the must-see movie of the season, and I was eager to oblige.
The perfect occasion to do so arose on one of those barren Saturday afternoons in New York—too cold to be outside for any length of time, too hard to hear yourself think over the hiss of the monolithic prewar radiator. Well, it would’ve been perfect, anyway, if not for one small hiccup: Nobody was around to join me. I called everyone in the Rolodex (and that isn’t just an archaic figure of speech—these were the days of actual Rolodexes), but came up empty. Where the hell was everybody?
There was no real precedent for this scenario. There’d always been someone around to meet on short notice—that was the benefit of living in a building full of young families, after all. Hell, my best friend, Chip, lived one flight below us, and was always available to team up to save the world with me by way of a spirited (read: profane), two-player game of Contra. But, not that afternoon.
My problems, it seemed, were rapidly compounding: What was I going to do for the rest of the day? Go to the movies by myself? It was really only through pure desperation, having exhausted every other avenue, that I finally asked, “Why not?”
The nearest showing was at a crumbling, retrofitted twinplex on the Bronx-Yonkers border whose published timetables were treated merely as estimates (it wasn’t uncommon to arrive for, say, a one-o’clock show only to be informed, altogether unapologetically, that the feature had started twenty minutes earlier) and whose audio-visual standard of excellence, only occasionally achieved, amounted to synchronous sound and picture. But at a mere mile and a half from my apartment, it was within walking distance—the city bus fare had risen to a full dollar by that point, as I recall, and such extravagant expenditures had to be indulged sparingly and judiciously—so off I went, by my lonesome, to see for myself the movie everyone had been talking about.
Christmas stories have a long tradition, from Dickens to Capra to more or less any of the derivative, made-for-Hallmark annual offerings that run in an endless loop between Halloween and New Year’s, of dramatizing a character arc that goes something like this: Either by specific traumatic event or just a gradual erosion of goodwill, the protagonist has lost touch with his better angels, his purer self, his family, his love of the holidays and the lost innocence they represent, and/or his own basic humanity; through a series of events, be it visitation by guiding spirits, enlistment in the school pageant, or a foolhardy attempt to “steal Christmas,” he experiences a life-changing epiphany that allows him to emerge from his social—and, in some cases, literal—exile and reconnect with those he’s kept at arm’s-length. In this time-honored scenario, the lonely, the misguided, and the miserly are all redeemed by the “true meaning of Christmas.” Time and again, we’ve seen variations on this narrative both brilliant and corny, and still it persists, like the holiday itself; there’s something about the prescriptive nature of it that appeals to us—a sentimental moral to which we allow ourselves to be momentarily receptive in our ephemeral yuletide spirit.
Home Alone, emotionally affecting as it may be, is not that kind of fable. For starters, the protagonist, eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, genuinely loves Christmas—he’s in complete harmony with the spirit of the holiday; that’s one of the qualities we admire about him. And though HA is family entertainment—with the requisite warm-and-fuzzy dénouement—the cartoonish violence (perpetuated by a child, no less) that comprises the third-act centerpiece defies easy categorization: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman are aimed at kids; The Ref and Bad Santa are for adults; Home Alone exists somewhere else altogether (hence the reason, despite its standing as a holiday classic, it was met with substantial critical disdain upon release). But it isn’t really dramatics that sets it apart so much as thematics: It is, against convention, a Christmas story about the joys of solitude. It’s about the simple pleasure of ordering pizza the way you like it; of watching the movie you want to watch without compromise or consensus; of eating dessert for dinner if you goddamn well feel like it without having to defend your decision to anyone.
Which is not to say the movie is a celebration of hedonism—far from it: In the end, Kevin learns to appreciate his family, warts and all—that’s his takeaway; given a choice between living with or without them, he would still opt for the former despite its drawbacks. But, it wasn’t the McCallisters physical absence that brought Kevin to that conclusion so much as the respite from their shouting voices—something, as the youngest member of the household, he could never hope to compete with (one of the facts of family life he comes to accept as immutable by story’s end); what his alone time offered him was a rare opportunity for reflection.
I wrote last month about my shift from the collaborative enterprise of filmmaking to the solitary venture of writing novels—one that offers ample space for rumination. If filmmaking is an intellectual give-and-take with others, then writing is a conversation with oneself—a private exploration of your feelings, and a discovery, as you organize those emotions into communicable ideas, of your beliefs. That’s one of the great gifts of this strange profession; we may even be, stranger to consider still, the last of a kind—a vestige of an unplugged society given to the delights, the enlightenment, of solitary meditation.
In discussing the bygone practice of listening to entire musical albums in sequence—of taking them in and contemplating their meaning in its compositional totality—on The Howard Stern Show earlier this year, the Who frontman Roger Daltrey had this to say:
“It’s when you’re doing nothing… that we get our great thoughts, and our great artistic ideas. You know, you get epiphanies. You’re never gonna get it when you’re being fed stuff all the time.”
Our interconnected, on-demand culture makes it virtually impossible for us to do nothing anymore; the phones pinging in our pockets with tweets and texts refuse to grant us the experience—the joy—of true solitude any longer. To think, Kevin McCallister was only fighting to be heard over his siblings—he didn’t have the digital onslaught to compete with! Hell, the very circumstances that allowed for Kevin’s parents to accidentally leave him home alone in the first place—and that kept him unreachable throughout the plot—couldn’t even plausibly occur in this day and age, a mere quarter century later. Though it’s a fairly contemporary holiday classic, Home Alone is already a reminder, like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life before it, of a much simpler era—one in which you could be out of touch every so often, and the house didn’t tumble to splinters in your brief absence.
On the subject of nostalgic yearning, I’m headed to New York next week to celebrate Christmas with family. I have a packed itinerary on a color-coded spreadsheet—a practice my wife and I necessarily adopted when we moved out to Los Angeles and discovered that our limited time back home was always at a premium—and I can’t wait to catch up with old friends over burgers at the alehouse, to meet up with my cousins at Rockefeller Center, to share bagels and coffee with my (mostly Jewish) neighbors on Christmas morning, to have a few nice dinners out with my mother and father-in-law. I’m looking forward to all of that.
But, as precious as those outings are—more so now than ever given how seldom they occur anymore—my most cherished moments are always the ones I manage to steal for myself: those walks through the winter woods as the snow falls, or pausing on my way back from the avenue on Christmas Eve to admire the town’s fieldstone bell tower against a perfectly bleached lunar backlight. Those are the instances when I’m most in touch with myself—when I divine, to borrow a lame cliché, the true meaning of the holiday, at least insofar as it means to me. I mean, if you can’t get a minute to yourself at Christmas, how silent or holy a night can it really claim to be?
We had some lively discussions here in 2015; in the process of reviewing books and considering emerging narrative models and mourning the loss of those that have inspired this noble profession, I learned more than I expected—certainly more than I can sufficiently convey. I thank all who’ve supported this blog throughout the past year with your comments and tweets and “likes” and time spent reading the posts, and I wish you a happy holiday season filled with family, friends, and festivity—and, regardless of your creative inclinations, perhaps a meaningful moment or two of peaceful solitude; like Christmas itself, occasions such as those are too rarified a thing to leave unexploited and unsavored.