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20 years ago, Kevin McCallister littered his house with jagged ornaments and menacing come-get-me’s. He escaped without one bruise. 20 years later, we’re still queasy and sheepish about adolescent violence. Not because we don’t secretly lust after it but because we’re uptight and unwilling to own up to our own taste. Call me wild-eyed and sick-minded but I’ll gladly own up to my vices . You keep DVRing Law & Order: SVU and pretend to be horrified.
Well, here and now the hypocrisy stops. Kick-Ass comes out on Friday. Already, it’s been savaged by numerous critics for graphically portraying both violence committed by children and violence committed on children. Maybe Kick-Ass takes it too far; I don’t know; I hope so. Regardless, a serious pummeling of pre-teens on film seems like the next logical step. We’ve already started accepting it in comedies. From Bad Santa to Step Brothers, raucous R-rated laughers have long been implementing punishing assaults against ankle biters for the amusement of the masses. In Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, the protagonists literally fly all across the country, surprising, swearing at and body slamming teenagers who started online flame wars. And the scene is almost cathartic. I saw it in theaters and the laughter rose as nervous, twitchy people began belly laughing against their better judgment, which then cleared the air for complete, uninhibited laughter. The same hypothesis worked in Observe & Report. Douche bag vandals. Their own skateboards used as weapons. Loud guffaws. We’re willing to begrudgingly embrace these guffaws because they taks place amidst an R-rated deluge of already-crossed lines and woefully-compromised values.
We love to watch children get the shit kicked out of them. From Cold Case Files to Boston Public to Bully, the fictional and nonfictional beating of adolescents, toddlers, preteens, terrible twos, sweet sixteens and babies alike is pure entertainment of the highest order, at least as long as its merciless and exploitative. Hell, it’s almost as fun as seeing some little sixth grader go to town with his fists on a hapless middle-aged man. We put on the abject disdain face, sure, but half of late-night television and a few networks like A&E and TruTV are almost entirely devoted to horrid, villainous and creepy abuses against women, children and red-haired orphans. We love violence in this country, maybe as much as we love adulterous sex, but openly admitting to enjoying such a thing, especially amongst mixed company, is still a dangerous and slippery slope. It’s taboo, like ridiculing the handicapped or rubbing one off during church.
It’s just like melodramatic procedurals. We’ll indulge in rampant child abuse on Law & Order: SVU because there’s an inherent aura of seriousness about the show. The victim will point to the doll, open up in graphic detail about the atrocities and we’ll watch with our sad faces on as Detectives Stabler and Benson round up the bad guys and verbally harangue them for their misdeeds. Make no mistake, this is entertainment. We’re not watching to learn about the underage sex trade or prepare ourselves against the dangers of someone taking the innocence away from our kids. It’s the same thing every single week. We already know the score. We’re watching because injustices committed against children are inherently exciting. It’s emotional and dangerous, a mine of sensational theater we haven’t yet fully assimilated into acceptance.
If there’s one thing the film industry has taught us, it’s regardless of how shocking a perceived obscenity is, once the wall is breeched in mainstream Hollywood, the once offensive content will steadily litter itself into more and more acceptable material until it’s no longer taboo. It happened with swearing. It happened with violence. It happened with nudity. It’s already happening with violence against women, and soon, maybe with the emergence of Kick-Ass, maybe at a point later, it will happen with violence against children. And it’s not just in recent hard R’s. Look at Uncle Buck, a movie now described as beloved family entertainment. John Candy hits golf balls at his niece’s boyfriend. But we’re willing to look past it and even derive pleasure from it, because the boyfriend in question is named Bug and he’s kind of a sleazebag. Look at Caddyshack, a film released thirty years ago. Judge Smails brazenly talks about sentencing teenagers to the gas chamber because he felt he owed it to ’em. We’ll laugh that though because it can be written off as pointed social commentary.
Punching a child in the face is like gay sex. It’s not the punching or the sex Main Street America has a problem with. It’s the specificities which make us nervous. Perhaps that’s normal. It’s not as if I think the majority of movies should be slathered with child abuse, but there has to be room amongst the hundreds of big-money studio flicks released every year for a few violent preteen pictures that aren’t R-rated comedies or police meodramas. We deserve to properly exploit this genre and follow it wherever it might lead without uppity bleeding hearts protesting with hypocritical morality at every overpass. Sure, Kevin McCallister booby-trapping his house is one way to play it; John C. Reilly using a sea-saw as a skull-crushing weapon is another perfectly decent alternative; but Kick-Ass has every right to present its grizzly take. And as learned and curious filmgoers, we should want to see that dissenting vision, at least to decide whether or not it’s for us.
We need to stop acting surprised or outraged that it’s come to this. The seeds of childhood violence were reaped a long time ago. It’s been fifteen years since Larry Clark‘s Kids! To condemn a movie like Kick-Ass for having its own vision and world view is simply idiotic and shortsighted, especially for anyone who truly sees the cinema as an art form. Would we really be better off with another by-the-book Romantic Comedy? No. No, we wouldn’t.
We need to see a child raped. We need to see a nine year old stab his father in cold blood, a teenager lay waste to his mother, a sad, sack of shit fourteen year old shoot the bully that‘s been tormenting him. Okay, maybe we don’t actually need to see these things, but at some point, we will see them and the protesters will emerge from their holes with a righteous fury. M.A.S.H. was the first big studio movie to say fuck. Since then, better movies have said the word fuck, and it’s because of M.A.S.H. we didn’t have to waste time hearing about how they said the word fuck. We just got to watch the fucking movie because the barrier was already broken. Maybe some day we’ll say the same thing about Kick-Ass.
The youth of America is already ruined, and I should know because I’m one of its finest. I swear like a mobster, I’ve got five tattoos, and I sometimes pee in the shower. I think my parents’ generation did it all wrong, I occasionally take off my shoes underneath the table of fancy restaurants, and I eschew conservative strategy to try and shoot the moon well over a quarter of the time in Hearts. I’m a living, breathing middle finger pointed toward many of the established values of generation’s past. And to be honest, I approve of it, almost as vehemently as I disapprove of these damn fifteen year old kids with their bullshit, abbreviated text message lingo and complete refusal to open doors for incoming women. It’s just classless. I think they’re ruining America, and maybe someday, I’ll think they’ve taken the movies to too dark a place, but right now, I’m a twenty-three year old perhaps naively fighting against a taboo I think needs to be torn down.
We already laugh as middle-aged men beat them senseless in R-rated comedies. We already exploit their pain in police procedurals shows on television. Why can’t they get their skull rocked in a superhero movie? 20 years since Home Alone: adolescent violence hasn’t come far enough, but with the help of Kick-Ass, I can’t wait to see the new and bloody places it’s going to visit.