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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Avalon: A Thanksgiving View of the Past

Avalon, Directed by Barry Levinson

There are many movies that families watch as annual traditions.  When we were kids, it was Mary Poppins, Gone With the Wind, or The Ten Commandments.  These were common holiday movies.  As video tapes became available, we began to choose our own movies, and movies like A Christmas Story became a part of our yearly tradition.  And let's not forget all those Rankin-Bass greats like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  But around our house, a completely different movie has become a Thanksgiving tradition.  One that is not your usual holiday fare.

Here at our house, the kids have grown up watching a Barry Levinson film with the mysterious name of Avalon.

Avalon, written by Levinson as well, is a semi-biographical story of Levinson's family.  Set in Baltimore of the 1950's, it tells the story of Sam Krichinsky, who came to America in 1914 (or was it 1915?).  You see, as the family gathers every holiday, Sam tells the younger generations about when he came to America.  We hear these stories through the eyes and imagination of Sam's grandson Michael, played by a very young and precocious Elijah Wood, long before he became a hobbit with a dreadful journey ahead of him.

As the holiday dinner proceeds, we learn more and more about the Krinchinsky family, both past and present.  Despite the fact that this is set in the 1950's, I felt right at home when I watched this scene for the first time.  My own childhood was full of such family gatherings in the 1970's, and it was much the same as in Levinson's film.  It is why this movie became such a favorite of mine, and why my kids came to like it so much.  I often pulled it out to watch, and they loved to watch along with me.  I was always narrating over the dialog, telling them how the film matched my own memories, or how they differed.  I didn't know it then, but I've since heard some of my kids say they have the same nostalgic feelings for this film that I had simply because we watched it so many times and they identify it with my own past.  This is somewhat ironic considering Levinson's objective with the movie.

The Krichinsky family, at the outset of the film, is very close, and aunts, uncles, cousins, and parents are all friends, highly involved in each other's lives.  Holidays are spent in one house together, sitting around after the massive dinner, talking about the home country, telling old stories.  But as television begins to enter the picture, and shopping creeps into their holiday traditions, the family begins to splinter.  Objectives change and tempers flare.  Eventually, there is a split, and half of the family goes its own way.  By the end of the 1960's, Michael, now a young father, must visit his grandfather in a nursing home, where Sam is still telling the same old stories, though his memory is not what is used to be.

Elijah Wood and Amin Mueller-Stahl in Avalon
The character of Sam is played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, whose magical performance stands out in this cast, though there are few cast members who do not shine in this ensemble.  Joan Plowright, as Sam's wife Eva, is a delight to watch, and Aidan Quinn turns in the best performance of his that I've ever seen as Michael's father.  Elizabeth Perkins takes on the role of Michael's mother; her attempts to make sense of her husband's family is both entertaining and extremely realistic.  Lou Jacobi steals the show as Sam's obstinate brother Gabriel, though Kevin Pollack gives him a run for his money as the swift-talking cousin Izzy.  I could name cast members here until I've listed every one of them.  One of Levinson's strengths as a director is the way he draws such natural performances out of his cast, including the smallest of the roles.

The movie wouldn't be half as good without Randy Newman's painfully beautiful soundtrack.  This is not the Randy Newman of his Short People style of music.  Here he is more like Gershwin and Mozart mixed together.  There are moments when a simple piano, accompanied by a single trumpet, will melt your heart.  It is a soundtrack that should not be left out of anyone's playlist.

Sam and his extended family, captivated by that new
gadget, television.
Filled with humor, tragedy, and a few bitter truths, Avalon pans across the wide vista of a family's struggle to adapt to the technological and sociological changes that transformed America in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  And for some odd reason, it has become a family tradition in our home to watch it.  We watch it nearly as often as we watch A Christmas Story.

For some viewers (my wife foremost among them) Avalon might be seen as a bleak movie.  But I've never seen it that way.  Instead, it is always a great reminder to push back against the isolating influence of progress and to hold on to family traditions.  Why my kids like to watch it, I'm not entirely sure.  You'll have to ask them.

The movie can be seen on Amazon's Instant Watch (the left link) and the soundtrack can be found at the link on the right.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Parkland, Not Your Average Kennedy Film

Parkland, directed by Peter Landesman

I'd only seen a few glimpses of this movie in the last week; a small display at Wal-Mart, part of a commercial during a football game.  I had no idea what it was about.  But I saw right away that Paul Giamatti and Billy Bob Thornton were in it and I had that funny feeling that this was one of those sleeper films that would turn out to be a real gem.  When my son and I went looking for a movie to watch (simply to have an excuse to make nachos and chill out for the night) we found Parkland listed in the pay-per-view queue.  Discovering that it involved the Kennedy assassination, we decided to give it a try.  Honestly, there wasn't much else that looked interesting.

It turns out I was right.  This was definitely a gem.  To start with, the cast was very impressive.  In addition to Giamatti and Thornton, who both turn in strong performances, there were plenty of other cast members who caught my eye.

James Badge Dale turns in a stronger than usual performance as Robert Oswald, brother of the infamous shooter.  Dale, who had the early distinction as Jack Bauer's partner in season two of 24, works his role with understatement, as if he is sleepwalking through the nightmare that hits his family when it is announced his brother has shot the President.  That's not an insult.  He does it well, allowing us to see the unfolding tragedy that overtakes his average life.

I've always liked Ron Livingston since his tour of duty on Band of Brothers.  Here he plays Federal Agent James Hosty, and he brings his world-weary persona to a role that was a pleasant surprise.  Hosty is a bit of a cynic, but he hasn't given up.  He is still in the game, working leads, and trying to make some sense out of the crazy guys in the world like Lee Harvey Oswald, a man he's been tracking simply because he was a real mess.  That his guy ends up killing the President leaves Hosty defensive, confused, and ultimately in some very hot water.  Livingston is well cast in this role, and I only wished his role had been expanded.

Macia Gay Harden in Parkland
Marcia Gay Harden takes a very small role here, but her presence is palpable despite the fact she is mostly a bystander in the hospital, responding to the shock of the President's bloody arrival by clinging to her role as head nurse, executing her duties as if she were attending a king in his court, instead of a patient in an emergency room.  I can't hardly remember any of her lines, but her eyes were saying enough every time the camera focuses on her, which is what this movie is really all about; watching as events overtake everyone in the room.

Other cast members fill out this film with similar understated performances; Zac Efron, Glenn Morshower (another 24 veteran), and Colin Hanks.  But really I could list most of the actors involved in this movie.  So many of them had small, nameless parts, passing in and out of scenes as needed by the script, having few lines but lending their emotional weight to every scene.  And that's what makes this film unique.  The dialog is not the focus of this story.  Often, the action carries through without dialog, save for the chatter that crowds around an emergency.

Landesman is to be praised for his approach to a story that has been seen too many times before.  He is well aware that we know the story.  He's not trying to tell us what happened to John F. Kennedy that day.  What he wants us to do is take a trip with him away from the main event.  Yes, the events we all expect to see are there in the movie, but do you really see them?  They are always off to one side; a reflection in someone's glasses, a noise off to the left, a blur of action to the right.  It's okay.  We already know what's going on.  We know Jackie is hit with spatter from Kennedy's wound.  We know she inexplicably crawls out onto the trunk.  But Landesman wants us to look away from all of that, and see what is happening around this historically momentous event.

Why?  Because everywhere you look, you see people who are deeply affected by this horrendous attack.  We tend to forget that violence was not so prevalent in our visual horizons back then.  The Vietnam War had not yet invaded our living rooms.  And Kennedy, a young, exciting leader with terrific charisma, was not only cut down with a rifle, he was murdered on live television, an act that left so much of the nation shocked and as off-balanced at Jackie climbing onto the back of that convertible.  And that's what makes Parkland something special to watch.  Landesman takes one of the most sensational historical moments of the last century and reminds us that it had real emotional impact on the people caught up in the middle of it.

We've allowed conspiracy theories to cloud our perception of that day.  Mention the Kennedy killing and most people will pause, take on a thoughtful expression, and say "you know, I don't think we'll ever really know what happened that day," or "I'm pretty sure I can guess who paid Oswald to do it."  The puzzle of it fascinates us and long ago we learned to ignore the sheer tragedy of the moment.

Paul Giamatti in Parkland
Not Landesman.  He doesn't even begin to nod in the direction of a conspiracy.  If you want that, go see Stone's JFK.  You won't get any of that foolishness here.  What you'll get is an idea of how this impacted our people.  Giamatti, taking on the role of amateur film-maker Abraham Zapruder, really brings this point into 8MM color focus.  As he's filming, giddy at the chance to see his President, we hear him gasp in shock as the bullets hit.  He continues to film, caught up in the moment.  When he finally drops the camera and stumbles away, he is nearly sick to his stomach, overcome with grief.  It is an important moment.  I felt as if the director were reminding me that I can't just be a voyeur at this killing.  He wants us to be more than that.  Because at that moment, our nation was staggering from a tremendously powerful blow.  And instead of obsessing over convoluted theories, we too, should be staggering from this blow.  

I was tempted to think he'd gone overboard, watching secret service men and cops and admirals who were overcome with emotion, tears in their eyes, losing their comportment.  But I was reminded of what my mother told me.  She told the story of how she and my father sat on the steps of her parents' house and wondered if the world was coming to an end and how they decided right then to go ahead and get married, since no one could be sure of anything any more.

Parkland keeps its focus on this emotional trauma, though it never blinds us with it.  Yes, there is that macabre scene when Jackie is discovered in the emergency room with hands cupped, still cradling what bits of her husband's skull and brains she had been able to save.  But this isn't a sensational moment.  After all, this is long after Kennedy arrived at the hospital, after the doctors and nurses had done everything to save him.  After they had lost their battle.  You realize with sympathetic admiration that Jackie has been holding this the entire time.  These are stories we've heard before, but it is sobering to see it in the context of all that happened that day.

If you are any sort of casual history-buff, you won't see anything you didn't already know.  But when it is put all together, you get a clearer picture of that day in Dallas, and it is well worth taking a little trip back in time.  I was especially impressed by a little scene that involved the President's casket and Air Force One.  Keep an eye out for it; a perfect demonstration of the passion and confusion that must have overcome so many professionals that day.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Confessions of a Bibliophile

It is not something that I recognized right away.  Growing up, my yearnings seemed normal to me.  But that shouldn't surprise anyone.  That is the way these things develop.  You feel an attraction to something that seems perfectly normal to you, and as you gratify your desires, and you become more comfortable indulging in them, you begin to equate joy with your particular object of desire.  And that's how a young boy from the heartland grew up to be so obsessed with books.

Sure, coming into my home as an outsider, you would recognize this dysfunctional behavior immediately.  You'd simply look to the left and the right, spot the stacks of books that line the walls and cover the furniture (all of which does not include the shelves full of books) and say to yourself "what a sick, sick, man.  Doesn't he know there are programs that can help him out of this private hell?"  Then, when you realize I've raised five children in this atmosphere, you'll add this addendum: "not such a private hell!  Here's hoping he hasn't warped these kids for the rest of their lives!"

But take a step back, realize that no matter how obvious this addiction is to you, it has never been obvious from my perspective.  Back in the 1970's, before any real awareness of electronic media alternatives (yes, television had emerged as a healthy counterpoint to the unsavory habit of reading, but it had not yet won over a super-majority of society at that point), it was considered perfectly normal that an old, converted city bus would creak its way into our little town on the Illinois prairie and wheeze to a stop next to our little IGA grocery store.  Mind you, this was just a block from our house.  My mother, bless her heart, saw nothing sinister in allowing us children to don our stocking caps and stuff ourselves into our wool coats as we ran down the street to clamber aboard the Bookmobile.  (I was under the age of five!  A mere babe in the wood...on a treeless prairie, no less!)  Just that name—The Bookmobile—you know it was designed to lure children into its crowded passages, full of colorful, worn books, all of them suffused with the odors of a million aging pages pasted to hardback covers with crusty, yellow paste; pages that had been pored over by thousands of other bibliophiles from hundreds of other small towns identical to our own.  One can easily see how yet another obsession of mine germinated in the suffocating shell of that ancient bus—my germaphobia.  That old Bookmobile would sneak into town during the day and every homemaking mother would encourage her innocent children to check out books from its jam-packed shelves.  I often wonder, did our fathers even know this thing existed?  Were they aware of its book-peddling influences on our provincial, pastoral lives?  I doubt it.  One can only imagine how the men of that town would have snatched their shotguns down from their fireplace mantels and chased that asthmatic motorcoach into the surrounding cornfields, eventually shooting out its flabby tires.  I'm sure with a little help from a few of the local farmers, that old bus would never have been seen again.  Just think of how that might have saved me from a lifetime of bibliophilia.

But the bookmobile was never hunted down and murdered by the men of our small town.  And as the years passed, I never did purge myself of the bookworm that had nested deep inside me.  And as I grew in stature and age, so did that serpent within.  By the time I was in high school, I was maintaining a small library of no little significance.  Of course, I married a bibliophiliac.  Neither one of us was aware of our literary disorder, though we must have been subconsciously drawn to each other.  She accepted my library as hers, mixing it with her own peculiar affection for reading.  Her own addiction was for a much more ancient form of reading.  Thus began my experimentation with the hard stuff: books that had been around for centuries, books that normal people instinctively keep out of their homes.

While I've overcome my shame enough to admit these things, it is still hard to confess what inevitably came next.  It is not easy to admit that we actively drew our children into this world of words and ideas.  Sure, young parents make the simple mistake of reading a few, light verse children's books to their beeblets when the little tykes need something to lull them to sleep.  But parents can be forgiven this indiscretion, since these youths are far too young to be affected by such incidental contact with books.  However, we didn't stop there.  We continued to read to our children, even as they matured enough to understand what we were reading them.  We would read with passion, acting out the actions of the characters, developing elaborate and memorable voices for the dialog, shaking the children to make sure they did not fall asleep before the story had come to an end.  We would leave the books lying around, and never scolded the kids when they were found sitting in a corner of the room, gazing at some book's illustrations without permission.

Children raised under the shadow of books.
All of this occurred, mind you, during the 1990's and the 2000's, as most children in our society had been freed of traditional book-reading habits by the advent of Gameboys, the Cartoon Network, AOL Instant Messenger, and Myspace.  The rise of digital media meant we had no excuse for our actions.  Yet we continued to buy books, filling our home with stacks and stacks of Hardy Boys Mysteries, Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, and Great Illustrated Classics.  Stuck in our own reading quagmire, we gleefully dragged our children down with us.

But this story ends with a little hope...of sorts.  Though I've not yet had a road-to-Damascus epiphany, I have begun to see our book habit for what it is; this blog post is a painful yet important first step on the road to recovery.  I've begun throwing our books out.  Not a complete purge, mind you, I'm just taking baby steps for now.  But they are steps, nonetheless.  I've been able to toss out not only books I've already read, but even a  few I had hoped to read again.  More importantly, I've been able to take that most difficult of steps; admitting that a few of the books I bought are books I'll never read.  They've taken up space in the house for decades, and it takes real courage to say "this book looked interesting back in 1994, and it was a steal at $3.99 from the Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller mail order paper, but I haven't read it in nineteen years, and I know in my heart I'm never going to sit down and read the darned thing."  I know.  I just went from talking about baby steps to taking Goliath steps.  Like I said, this story contains a little hope.  And if I can throw out a book like My Summer in Alaska (One man's struggle to survive in the Alaskan Wilderness) and admit that it is no great loss for me, then maybe someone else out there can do the same, and together we'll all take those baby steps, Goliath steps, and all those steps in between as we break free from our obsession with books.

Now, if only Amazon would quit selling so many eBooks for just $1.99.  But that's an addiction to conquer at a later date.