Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Solitary Consignment: A Christmas Story

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.

The film, appropriately enough, was Home Alone.  (For my Save the Cat! acolytes out there, HA is a Dude with a Problem story—specifically, a “Domestic Problem,” like Misery and Gone Girl.)

Go to the movies... BY MYSELF?!

Go to the movies… BY MYSELF?!

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.

Roger Daltrey on "The Howard Stern Show"

Roger Daltrey on “The Howard Stern Show”

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?

A photo I took of Bell Tower Park in the Bronx on December 29, 2012

A photo I took of Bell Tower Park in the Bronx on December 29, 2012

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.

2 Comments

  1. Inspiring and nostalgic, Sean. Perfect, really. And perfect timing for me, as I have realized in the last week or so that I need to reassess some things and not only make but protect those soul-feeding times of silence and solitude (i.e., to treat them like any other appointment, not like “unscheduled time” that is free to fill with other things).

    And you’ve also inspired me to watch Home Alone again. (I’ve never been one who’s minded seeing a movie alone; in fact, it’s something I consider a welcome treat.)

    Enjoy New York for all its wonder this time of year; and see you in 2016 for more good times (maybe even in person!).

    • Thanks, pal! You’ve been such a steadfast supporter of the blog, and Christmas seems like the perfect occasion to thank you for that — to tell you sincerely how much I appreciate your engagement with these posts throughout the year. I really enjoyed your reflection — inspiring and nostalgic in its own right — on some of your cherished Christmas traditions over at Jed Jurchenko’s blog this week. Indeed, what would Christmastime be without Vince Guaraldi?!

      For reasons that are explored at length in Douglas Rushkoff’s analysis of the effects the Information Age has wrought on our culture, Present Shock, finding time for oneself these days is well-nigh impossible. Many have resorted to formal, habitual practices, like Transcendental Meditation, to quiet their minds and reconnect with themselves on a regular, if not daily, basis. (The aforementioned Howard Stern is a practitioner, so far as I know.) I’m not opposed to TM (though I’ve never studied it), it’s only that I personally have never had much trouble “unplugging from the Matrix,” as it were, and getting attuned to myself again. I like living inside my head, though I think that’s probably true of most creatives.

      Seeing movies alone can be a great opportunity to reconnect with oneself. I recently treated myself — and just myself — to an encore screening at the local ArcLight of Batman Returns (another unconventional Christmas story!), which I hadn’t seen theatrically since its initial release. As a Batman yarn, it’s rather lacking — Bruce’s characterization in regrettably thin and Burton shows little fidelity to the source material (something I touched upon briefly in my Joker analysis) — but as an oddball, delightfully macabre Tim Burton fantasy, there’s a lot to recommend it! It certainly whisked me back to my strange, confused mindset circa 1992, a time in my life marked by a pervasive condition of loneliness over solitude; in considering the difference between the two — in appreciating why the latter is a skill to be mastered and the former an affliction to be banished — I suppose it’s fair to say, though this hadn’t occurred to me before just now, that some of the conclusions reached in the post above were influenced by my own subconscious introspection. That’s another one of the great things about writing, as I’m sure you’re well aware: It can coax timid epiphanies to the surface.

      My friend, I wish you nothing but the best for the holidays — and all things prosperous in the New Year! I’m hopeful that, among other good things, a face-to-face is in store for us in 2016…

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