Thursday, May 26, 2011

HOME ALONE and the Violent Tradition

When I watch characters on screen that I deem entertaining or likeable being tortured or persecuted, I cringe. I can’t help but root for the protagonist on most occasions, even when my better judgment begs the question, “who cares?”. Usually, I want them to live; I want them to get some sort of retribution against their aggressor. I wanted this at the resolution of HOSTEL, so much so that I disregarded all its ridiculous coincidences and poor storytelling. When I saw our hero slice off his friend’s torturer’s fingers with a scalpel, I beamed with satisfaction. I leaned back in my chair with a smug look on my face and thought mmm, good, all is well. Movies always seem to push their audience towards expecting and hoping for these types of situations to play out. To us, the protagonist can do no wrong. This isn’t simply the case in torture flicks and monster movies, it applies to most movie categories, even holiday family comedies.

That’s right, my attitude as it pertains to protagonist force in films was cultivated by the highest grossing holiday family comedy of all time, HOME ALONE. At the age of 3, in a Marcus Theatre close to home, I watched on approvingly as Kevin McCallister, ably played by McCauley Culkin, shot Daniel Stern point blank in the face with a BB-gun and blowtorched Joe Pesci’s skull, among many other potentially more lethal acts. The little boy smirked and carried out his punishment of the “Wet Bandits,” who, in hindsight, meant him no true harm and with the police and neighbors only a phone call away. Sure, when I think about it now, I know that John Hughes based his entire plot on the foiling of criminals by a little boy and that it is meant to be fun and cute, but when you boil it down, Kevin McCallister is my generation’s David Sumner.

In STRAW DOGS, David Sumner creates a situation in which a few men, who, at the time, mean him no true harm, would be turned into trespassers inside his home. In protecting his home, he devises several sadistic tactics to maim his oppressors. With a pleasant, albeit slightly insane, smirk, David displays the violent and cruel nature of man. The movie’s end isn’t as triumphant as HOME ALONE’s; it actually paints a pretty grim picture. However, it doesn’t matter what scholarly essays say about the matter, or what Sam Peckinpah intended, when my father walked out of the UWM Union Theatre in 1971, he thought Dustin Hoffman was the good guy. He was the down and out weakling throughout the entire film, outmatched by any single member of the gang he fought. We want him to get revenge on the men who have been emasculating him. We want him to prove that he is a man and to stop being such a cowardly and passive victim. He’s our hero, damnit, and we want more from him.

It is obvious where the movie is heading from the start. David’s avoidance of confrontation with the men who have asserted their dominance over his home builds to a point where there must be direct confrontation. His inability to take action with words or lawful intervention against the hooligans and possibly prevent their transgressions against his home allows for creation of his final situation.

The argument behind this movie is that David does not truly prove his manhood, because his ideas of what it takes to be a man are skewed and primitive. However, humans are primitive creatures at heart and dominance in the mastery of violence will always correlate to masculinity. At least a manly David Sumner is a character we can get behind. His outbursts of outrageous, cruel, and unnecessary violence in the final scenes of the film do not deflect the empathy of the audience. He is the kid who has to prove himself against the bullies, just as much as Kevin McCallister. Both have fairly infantile views on adult responsibility, but it’s their situation as an underdog and emphatic dominance displayed in the face of greater size and years that earns them our kudos.

Such an emergent fury in the face of adversity also comes into play at the climatic end of Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. William Munny is a sad and sorry character who does not fit in the world of a western genre film. His stance against violence and bible thumping does not make him an appropriate protagonist in for the audience of western films. It’s hard to understand and relate to the man. His final conflict is not nearly as contrived as that of the two previously mentioned heroes, but it echoes similar feelings. The centerpieces of STRAW DOGS and HOME ALONE do not take place when David is backing down and not when Kevin is crying for his mommy, they both take place during violent bids for dominance. The most important scene in UNFORGIVEN is the shootout between Munny and Little Bill’s men, at which time Eastwood reasserts himself as the cold-blooded killer of his youth. His masculinity is restored and he gains a measure of revenge and then some, but we do not fault him for it because he is our hero and we are behind him. He did not need to ride back into town and walk into that saloon, but he created that situation for himself so he could take lives. He is definitely not a good guy, but he is a lot more entertaining and fulfilling than the part of his character that was. Munny’s final reply Little Bill rings true as it relates to the film audience’s feelings too. Little Bill may not deserve to die, but “deserves got nothing to do with it.” It does not matter who truly deserves to be punished or in what fashion, all that matters is that we have been pushed in the corner of Clint Eastwood since the first bell, but now we are cheering because he is wielding a Spencer Rifle, killing people left and right – like a true badass.

Eastwood practically trademarked the master of violence character in the Leone trilogy and in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. He never misses his mark. He deals death and pain to those in his way, yet he is once again portraying the champion. In DRIFTER, he shoots down three men who are harassing him. His actions are not a question of self-defense and they rarely are. He takes everything these men are and everything they will ever be from them and he does not look back.

How can we cheer for a man like that? Well, it is because he has been established as our central character, his opponents are scummy, and he carries out his actions like an ace. Apply the same formula to the Culkin character in HOME ALONE, and you have a super fan favorite. Even forgetting the immense likeability of a child, he is our central character, his adversaries are slimey, and he’s just so damn good at inflicting pain. His shots with an air rifle land precisely where they mean to (mid-forehead and scrotum), the nail he carefully placed finds its way into Marv’s foot, and he swings paint cans with deadly accuracy at the faces of both intruders. He is a master of violence if I have ever seen one. Every careful scheme he devises works in his favor and it all results in the eventual capture of the antagonists. No matter what he did to two undeserving men, or what sick thoughts entered his mind while coming up with ways to torment the burglars he expected instead of calling on someone who could help, he is still a smiling, innocent child who weeps in the arms of his mother in the end. What an interesting dichotomy, the two sides of Kevin McCallister. Eastwood may have never wept in the arms of his mother before he shot her dead, just as the Culkin character never raped a woman for being impolite (that we know of), he is just such a badass that we have to love him. He does not have the universal popularity of a kid, but he has attitude. The protagonists of both respective movies rely on their attitude and deadly accuracy to maintain the favor of the audience.

Many of the films we watch make comments about how we watch violent media. FUNNY GAMES seems to say that what the audience wants is for the charismatic characters to prevail and for the prolongation of violent scenes. As illogical as the boy’s acts are in the end of HOME ALONE, we want him to continue his antics because we like the character and it is a satisfying and entertaining course of action. The likeability of Kevin is eerily reflected in FUNNY GAMES' primary antagonist, Paul. Both are boyishly charming, always smiling, mostly cool, and moderately aware of their part within a film. They both carry and decide the course of the film and we follow them along for the ride. Kevin McCallister makes more trouble for the Wet Bandits than is truly necessary because the audience derives entertainment in it, Paul continues to play with the feelings of his victims and deny them escape or retaliation because under the circumstances it just does not seem necessary, nor do we truly want to watch our movie guide and his partner get gunned down. Through Paul, we are allowed the ability to rewind and change the actions perpetrated in part of the film that we did not enjoy.

Soon after Kevin’s family abandons him for France, he is plopped in front of the television watching a VHS of a fictional gangster flick 'Angels with Filthy Souls'. After a scene of bloodshed, Kevin seemes scared and pauses the film. However, he could not have been that bothered by it for he utilizes it cleverly and effectively to scare off burglars and an unsuspecting pizza guy - rather unnecessarily. He used the gruff film dialogue to give the appearance of tough grown ups living in the house, which makes sense in terms of the Bandits because it momentarily makes them apprehensive about breaking in to the house. The pizza guy was an innocent victim, Kevin had no reason to not buy directly from him, and he paid him accordingly. The little boy simply gets his jollies tormenting people and because he enjoys it; we enjoy it, too. He uses the television as a weapon just as the creators of VIDEODROME do. They use the allure of violent media to hurt those that they deem to be weak members of society because they watch it. Watching the enticingly illicit images of VIDEODROME turn the film’s protagonist into an assassin.

The same is argued about violent media today. Many think that watching such things can cause us to commit the deeds carried about within them. As an American child, Kevin McCallister’s interests already lie within the realm of violence when left with no parental restrictions. He picks out a movie that was deemed too violent for him to watch by his parents and he watches it, he is then driven towards playing with his brother’s pellet gun. When using the violent film’s context to scare away visitors, Kevin is shown emulating its brutal villain. Later on, he continues to reflect the antagonist by gunning down and repeatedly berating his attackers. The violent film obviously had some effect on how the boy thinks it is appropriate to conduct one’s self, specifically while in potential danger. It does not quite turn him into an assassin, but it makes him dangerous and prone to violence at an alarmingly young age.

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