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Avalon (1990)

January 13th, 2008 · 8 Comments

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“I came to America in 1914, by way of Philadelphia. That’s where I got off the boat. And then I came to Baltimore. It was the most beautiful place you have ever seen in your life.” This begins the oft-repeated story Sam Krichinsky (Armin Mueller-Stahl) tells to his grandchildren. Sam’s remembrances include entering the wallpaper business with his four brothers. Presiding over Thanksgiving dinner, Sam debates his brother Gabriel (Lou Jacobi) over which year it was that they brought their father to America.

Sam’s son Jules (Aidan Quinn) is a door-to-door salesman. His cousin Izzy (Kevin Pollak) promises him that with all the money out there after the war, the time is right to go into business. His wife Ann (Elizabeth Perkins) is tentative, but when a mugger stabs Jules on his rounds – while his young son Michael (Elijah Wood) watches – the men open a discount appliance store. Their main inventory is a new fad called television. The business is a huge moneymaker.

Success prompts Jules to move his immediate family to the suburbs, severing them from the larger family network. Sam’s wife Eva (Joan Plowright) – who refuses to ride in a car if her daughter-in-law is driving – chides Ann so much that the grandparents are moved into a separate house. This distresses Michael. The boy’s love for cliffhangers has developed into a habit of playing with fire, and he blames himself for a blaze that erupts at his father’s store. Michael confides this to his grandfather, who urges the boy to tell the truth.


Production history
After winning an Academy Award for directing Rain Man, writer-director Barry Levinson turned to an idea that had been nagging him since he’d shot his debut film Diner. One line of dialogue had gotten into his head and stayed there: “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have remembered them better.” Levinson had grown up in a middle class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore of the 1950s, with grandparents and other relatives living only a street away. His father was in the discount appliance business.

It occurred to Levinson that his sense of family began to change once the role of storyteller shifted from the head of the family to a television set. “Television has had an enormous impact. It permeates our lives, it changes how we function, it affects how we relate to one another. Really, it takes over everything.” Out of his mourning for the dissolution of the traditional family – and stories his grandfather passed down to him – Levinson began writing a script called The Family.

Changes in transportation and the growth of the suburbs also found their way into the script, which Levinson wanted to reflect the immigrant experience he had seen growing up, a Baltimore story as opposed to a New York one. Retitled Avalon, the film was released in October 1990 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. It garnered four Academy Award nominations – including Best Writing and Best Cinematography – but its lack of marquee actors left it largely ignored by audiences at the time.


The disconnect with audiences may have also been due to the fact that – like Diner – Levinson’s script unfolds as an album of memories, impressions and conversations, which taken on their own, seem pointless. A family circle meeting is interrupted by a circus parade. A street car smashes into Ann’s parked car, somehow validating her mother-in-law’s fear of women drivers. Gabriel disowns Sam when his brother cuts the Thanksgiving turkey before he arrives for dinner. These are really the major “events” of the film.

Barry Levinson has made as many poor movies (Toys, Disclosure, Envy) as good ones (Good Morning Vietnam, Bugsy, Wag the Dog), but this film is the jewel of his career. On any list of the greatest movies about family ever made, Avalon is near the top. The Krichinskys are probably Polish, likely Jewish, but unlike most immigrants tales, where they come from makes absolutely no difference. This is a film about tradition, and what regrettably happens when families abandon their most neglected tradition: storytelling.

The characters may not seem to be the most complex – captured a bit here, a bit there – but the casting is exceptional, particularly Armin Mueller-Stahl as the family’s imaginative patriarch. The vibrant lighting by Allen Daviau and the melancholy musical score by Randy Newman culminate in career finest work. Levinson is never the least bit condescending toward the audience in his tragic portrait, filling Avalon with so many small rewards that it may take additional viewings to absorb how masterful the film truly is.


Gregory Dorr at The DVD Journal writes, “Despite its modest scale, Avalon is a sweeping, though intimate, epic. As the film patiently moves through its careful narrative, the Krichinsky family is so vividly realized that it becomes extended family to the audience, where every good time, conflict, and heartbreak feels wrenchingly personal.”

Avalon charts in a realistic way the forces that have irreparably affected that nuclear unit of the past, but it doesn’t stop there. The emotional undertow of the film goes straight to the heart with its touching depictions of suburban childhood, marital phases, family feuds, and the delights of grandparenting,” writes Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at Spirituality and Practice.

Scott Mignola at Common Sense Media says, “Watching Avalon is a little bit like sitting down to a big supper with an entire family: aunts, uncles, grandparents, kids running around, kicking each other under the table. You come away from it exhausted, bruised, but hopefully enriched by a good meal and a few generation’s worth of stories.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Father/son relationship · Grandfather/grandson relationship

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sir jorge // Jan 13, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    I had this on my radar for a while, maybe it’s time to watch it.

  • 2 Marilyn // Jan 14, 2008 at 10:02 am

    I’m like Sir Jorge. I’ve been meaning to watch this film for ages, but never have. You’re pushing me; now I HAVE to watch it. Thanks, Joe!

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jan 14, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Jorge/Marilyn: Thank you for your comments. I know that when I venture out of my comfort zone to watch a movie I’ve never seen before on someone else’s recommendation, it’s because I respect their taste. Two hours can be easily missed if you give it away too easily. I hope you get a chance to check out this film. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen it is impacted by it in some positive way.

  • 4 DW // Jul 4, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    One of my favorites of all time. It’s a masterpiece. What this film says about the effect TV has had on us all is heartbreaking – though so subtle many don’t even make the connection.

    By the way, I was looking for the script when I found this. Every year around this time I drive my family crazy always saying “I came to this country in 1914”.

  • 5 Jo Ann // Jul 19, 2011 at 4:41 am

    I wish this was also available in book form. I take care of a retired 96 year old Jewish woman, still an avid reader who would love this story, it rings true to her and her family. They did basically the same things, bringing over family from Europe to give them a start. She doesn’t have a video player (doesn’t want one “too complicated”)

  • 6 Jane Hinckley // Oct 31, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Does anyone understand what the family is talking about in another language regarding Simka’s past?

  • 7 linda // Aug 29, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I have looked everywhere for this film but can not find it. Any tips?

  • 8 Howard Kramer // Jun 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    The Gabriel You cut the Turkey without me scene is one of my all time favorite movie scenes.

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