FILM / The Last Detail

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IF an unenthusiastic press is to be trusted, nothing in Home Alone 2 would seem to be as funny as its poster image of the Statue of Liberty caught in a gesture of pained surprise, stone hands tangentially brushing stone cheeks - a gesture first seen in the original Home Alone which has since become Macaulay Culkin's trademark.

Young as he is, Culkin is a canny little pro. Appearing recently in an off-Broadway play, and sensing that the audience's attention had begun to flag, he suddenly stepped out of character, slapped his hands against his cheeks and won an instant round of applause. He was 'quoting' the gesture which had made him famous, quoting it out of context, and thereby demonstrating that he had already understood the free-floating nature of stardom.

Stan Laurel, for example: virtually all you have to do to communicate Laurel's image is scratch your scalp and assume a beatifically idiotic smile. Spin a coin and, in a movie buff context, you are 'quoting' George Raft. Splay your two palms under your chin in the form of a capital W: hey presto, Judy Garland] Bestride a chair in a louche, languorous pose: Dietrich. Sashay about with a leer, a curved back and a fat cigar: Groucho Marx. Turn your toes out and give your right leg a vigorous shake like a child who has wet his trousers: Charlie Chaplin, unmistakably.

To be sure, the concept of quotation has never been incompatible with a medium as predominantly visual as the cinema. You will hear film buffs quoting, often shot for shot, the Odessa Steps massacre of Potemkin or the shower murder of Psycho just as eloquently as book lovers quote, often word for word, a favourite passage from Tolstoy or Dickens. With the examples cited above, however, the ambition is a more modest one, comparable less to a line of prose or poetry than to a comedian's catch- phrase, of the type that, unlike a real joke, makes audiences laugh more and more they hear it.

And perhaps the surest sign that Culkin is a genuine star is that he has already found what might be called his own personal, indelible catch-gesture.