movies Uncategorized

An oral history of ‘Home Alone’

George Lucas on Home Alone (as recounted by the former chairman of Twentieth Century Fox):

You know you’ve got a big hit coming? The one about the kid. The movie business is binary. The light is either on or it’s off. If it’s on, there’s nothing you can do to screw it up.

Home Alone hit theaters twenty-five years ago this week. Chicago Magazine’s oral history is well worth a read. It recounts how a simple Christmas movie became a runaway success.

Home Alone remains one of my holiday favorites. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was nine years old (the same age as the film’s hero) when I first saw it. For my younger self, the film struck the perfect balance between schmaltz, prepubescent irreverence, and slapstick.

It’s easier to see the seams now (for example, we spend most of the movie waiting for the booby trap sequence). But the John Williams score still whips up instant nostalgia, and the Old Man Marley ending makes me weepy. (Don’t judge me. I’m a sucker for father-son reconciliation stories.)

What better way to waste time this Thanksgiving week than to revisit the McCallisters, the Wet Bandits, and the Sound Bend Shovel Slayer?

Life technology Uncategorized

Buy myself an iPad—and some talent.

Once upon a time, I drew.

When I was twelve, I’d fill the margins of my school notebooks with doodles. These were ridiculous sketches: severed heads, floorplans for elaborate secret lairs, and goofy-looking comic characters. Just the sort of thing you’d expect from a pre-teenage boy.

Unfortunately, that was the pinnacle of my artistic career. I would have loved to take drawing classes, but my underfunded little school offered no fine arts instruction for high schoolers. Over time, any artistic sense atrophied, and my drawing skills calcified at the level of a middle schooler.

Still, twenty years later, I missed drawing. I’d daydream about starting an online comic strip. So, time and time again, I’ve tried to rekindle that long-extinguished interest. I bought instructional books and sketch pads, but those failed to keep me engaged. I splurged on a WACOM pressure-sensitive drawing tablet. That worked—for a little while. But I found the disconnection—my pen moving on the pad, the drawing itself taking shape on screen—to be irritating. Then, when I bought my first iPad, I purchased a cheap stylus and a popular drawing app. But those didn’t do the trick, either; the iPad couldn’t tell the difference between a light touch and a bold, firm stroke.

With each attempt to kickstart my artistic drive, I grew more discouraged. But if I’m honest, the fly in the ointment here wasn’t a subpar tool; it was my subpar passion. A new toy—however feature-rich—is no replacement for discipline. If I hadn’t been drawing with paper and pencil before buying a WACOM or an iPad, what made me think anything would change afterwards? The perfect drawing tools didn’t make me an artist, any more than a Louisville Slugger would make me a ball player.

And yet, I’m still tempted. I still buy into the same delusion—that I just haven’t found the right tool yet. For example, last week Apple announced its jumbo-sized tablet, the iPad Pro. Unlike my WACOM tablet, the new iPad allows you to sketch on the screen itself. And unlike my current iPad, the Pro’s pressure-sensitive “Pencil” accessory allows the user to lightly sketch, tilt the stylus and shade, or bear down for a bold stroke. It’s closer to the pen-and-paper experience than any other digital drawing tool.

And part of me wants to try—one more time—to spend my way into skill.

games history Life Uncategorized

Invented adventure

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I attended a private Christian school. After nine years, that sheltered environment felt familiar and comforting. It was also expensive; by the summer before my freshman year of high school, my family could no longer afford the tuition, and I was forced to transfer to the local public school.

It was a rough transition. I now had 150 classmates instead of twenty; I felt lost in the crowd. To my naïve astonishment, kids brazenly smoked in the restrooms. Fist-fights broke out on the lawn outside the school almost daily. Like clockwork each day before lunch, snickering bullies shouldered me into the lockers. Worst of all, I knew absolutely no one in my class; I had to start new friendships from scratch, years after most cliques had set in stone.

Starved for social contact, I treasured those few friendships I had outside of school. In particular, I clung to a younger neighbor from our low-income neighborhood. We rode the same bus (he attended the junior high), so each day we’d hunker down in the same seat.

And there, on that bus, we’d invent worlds.

Over time, we had developed a sort of spoken role-playing game that translated well to the bus trip. My friend would talk his way through an interactive adventure that I imagined and described. I’d place his character in some godforsaken place—an abandoned warehouse, a subterranean lair, a tall tower—and he’d have to “battle” his way out. He’d tell me each move he wanted to make, and I’d explain him what happened as a result. Each bus ride became an impromptu, oral performance of a text-based adventure game—think Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide.

This imagined world was haunted by pop culture’s most famous arch-villains: the Joker. Chucky from the Child’s Play horror movies. Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger. My friend’s avatar faced off against each in turn—a series of “boss battles,” advancing from the least threatening to the most vile.

Who was that chief bad guy? None other than the Terminator, everyone’s favorite homicidal android. We so adored the Terminator films that we even named our game “Zzz-ching”—the noise the robot made as it stalked my friend through deserted corridors. Zzz-ching became our default pasttime, on the bus and off.

That year in public school was scary. I felt lonely and overwhelmed by an unfamiliar, chaotic context. As silly as it might seem, our little game represented a welcome escape. It was a world I could control completely, when the real world seemed dangerously unpredictable. It was creative work that someone else appreciated, when I felt ignored in the mass of other students. For a few minutes each morning and afternoon, Zzz-ching provided some distraction and camaraderie—just enough to make public school a bit more bearable.