Like Jason's Facebook Page

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment