Monday, July 8, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #69 - Avalon (1990, dir. Barry Levinson)

Unless you are a Native American, you have immigrants in your family. It is one of the universal elements to American life. Surprisingly, there a very few movies that really get to the heart of the matter. Avalon not only does so, it also sums up the 20th century American experience better than just about than any movie I can think of. Avalon begins on the 4th of July in 1914 when Sam Krichinsky comes to Baltimore from Russia to join his brothers in “the new country.” The brothers settle in a neighborhood called Avalon and set about living the American dream. With care and beautifully drawn details, director Barry Levinson lets us into their world of work and family. The brothers become wallpaper hangers, raising children and trying to fit into their new country while holding on to the cultural vestiges of their previous life. One of their most important memories is their first Thanksgiving dinner in America. The family is set up at a maze of tables strewn throughout their small apartment and the room, as well as the screen lights up with a genuine familial warmth that is rarely seen on film. Bickering and argument melt into the golden glow of laughter and memory as the family takes part in this most American of holidays. In the corner, while the family bonds, is the silent eye of a new and ominous family member: the television set.
And thus the Krichinsky family enters the American century, full of hope and the best intentions to work hard and make it in this “promised land.” And in many ways, they do just that. Their story shows outward success, as the sons of two of the brothers become successful salesmen, first with televisions, then opening an early discount store. We see this family grow and start to spread out in Baltimore making their mark as so many other immigrant families did. But we also see cracks start to show in this optimistic façade. The family leaves Avalon for the suburbs, and thus the die is cast. With the core family split, things start to unravel. The family seems to have more and more trouble getting together for Thanksgiving; brothers feud, and the two sons become more successful; but have they over-leveraged themselves? The family dinner table goes from being the center of the home, to something the family walks past on their way to eat in front of the TV.
The movie provides many twists and turns of plot that I won’t give away, but it is the powerful development of themes familiar to all of us that make Avalon the masterpiece it is. With an inextricable inevitability, we see the Krichinsky family, so reminiscent of our own, splinter apart. Sam came to America full of justified hope, and he and his extended family begin to change and shape their adopted country. But as America always does, the country and the corrosive effects of modern life slowly change the family. By the end, we barely recognize them as the people we first met; they are now Americans.
Avalon does something remarkable. It captures an elusive and poignant truth about American life. In the process of becoming naturalized, we, by necessity, become de-naturalized from our families and thus the values, traditions, beliefs and heritage at the very core of our lives. It begs the uncomfortable question; is it worth giving up everything you hold dear for a grab at the gold ring?
- Paul Epstein

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