This past week, they started rolling out the “Best of 2020″ lists. Best albums, best films, best shows, etc.
These lists work only if they provoke debate: “Folklore didn’t make the top 10?? To the barricades!” This year, they are landing like space rocks, which is to say, you know such things exist, but you don’t see any and don’t much care.
This wasn’t the year for bold visions, brave new waves or Best Of’s. This was a year for comfort viewing, cry listening and reading the hot bestseller, “Your Phone Late at Night.”
This was the year you had long, important conversations about Too Hot to Handle, a reality show that was big for about 72 hours in April, and a piece of entertainment so stupid that if you’d suggested watching it to your 2019 self, the person you used to be would have slapped you in the face. But that person is gone.
This was the year you didn’t discover anything new, and didn’t want to.
Instead, you spent months revisiting your internal back catalogue. Way, way back to the things that put your lizard brain on a dopamine drip as soon as it hears the first bar. In terms of eras, this was The Year of Shmaltz.
Everyone has a different shmaltz tolerance. No one’s suggesting you have to go full Nana Mouskouri’s Holiday Favourites in order to test your shmaltz limits.
(Though you should probably try that. She’s great. Arty types judged her on the enormous granny glasses, but it turns out that on that score – like so many others – Mouskouri was ahead of her time.)
Shmaltz is any album more than 20 years old that you still listen to on a loop. So, yes, it’s important that you hear this from a friend: Bruce Springsteen has become shmaltz.
It’s any piece of art that has no intention of challenging you (but for a few crowd favourites, major museums are shmaltz-free zones).
Shmaltzy art appeals to an exaggerated universality of experience, rather than illuminating hidden corners of human life. Shmaltz is popular and profitable, sometimes by accident. Shmaltz is the movies you watched in the basement with your brother and could mouth all the lines to. Over time, everything that continues to resonate gradually ossifies into shmaltz.
There is no single definition aside from a generalized sentimentality, but this might be closest – when life gets hard, shmaltz is there to give you a big, sloppy hug.
Everything about the past nine or so months has been building to a great crescendo of shmaltz. All the domestic skills that took on new importance during quarantine – baking, decorating, cooking from an honest-to-God recipe book, home improvements, relentless, relentless online-shopping – have prepared us for this moment: Christmas.
I recognize that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But – fair warning – I’ve started celebrating all your holidays, whatever those may be. If it’s hard-coded into Google Calendar, I’m celebrating it. I’ll let whatever version of God I meet on the way upstairs sort out the religious infractions.
For the secular slice of western society, Christmas is a shmaltz-permissive zone. From Dec. 1, you may confidently engage your corniest desires.
This year, that urge feels steroidally heightened. Which leads inevitably to the film that most defines our current moment, Home Alone.
Well, I mean, it’s right there in the title. We are all Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) now. Trapped in our well-feathered nests, trying to prevent a hidden enemy from breaking in.
Home Alone was the shmaltziest movie ever made when it was released 30 years ago, and has got moreso since. John Hughes wrote the thing. This was the moment he went from subversive voice of the suburbs (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to chief celebrant of America’s aspirational middle class. Though it made him monstrously rich, Hughes didn’t like talking about Home Alone very much. Too shmaltzy.
You’ve seen it, because everyone has seen it. If you haven’t seen it, don’t tell people that thinking it makes you sound edgy. Not right now, pal. This isn’t the year for that sort of thing.
On one level, Home Alone is the original Hallmark movie. An enormous, charmingly dysfunctional family who learns the true meaning of love after they’ve flown to France minus an 8-year-old, which is a crime. That kid then discovers resilience and becomes a pipsqueak militiaman, committing many other crimes.
On another level, it is the original revenge porn. Most of the slapstick havoc Kevin wreaks on two idiot burglars would kill a man in reality. This is a movie about murders narrowly avoided.
Which, let’s face it, is delightful. Wouldn’t we all like to kill someone right now? You’d certainly do extreme bodily harm to a burglar if he came into your spot, all COVID-y and looking to steal your electronics, which are your only connection to the outside world. Not last year. Last year, you’d have done the right thing and called the cops. This year? This year, you’re defending the homestead.
When Kevin solves the intractable domestic problems of his spooky neighbour by giving him a good talking to about the nature of fear (all of which takes place church while a choir sings – this movie is as subtle as one of those flying paint cans), isn’t he really talking to all of us? We’ll survive this bit, and eventually our mom will show up to rescue us.
The great mystery about Home Alone is whether it’s any good. It’s certainly snappy. The dialogue has aged pretty well. Culkin’s weird charisma is undimmed by changing eras. But is it capital-A art? At the least, it’s passed the first hurdle of any cultural artefact – it’s survived a generation.
But this year, that question doesn’t matter. What Home Alone and everything like it offers now is a warm place to rest your weary brain. It is the Christmas shmaltz that keeps on giving.
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