Avalon (1990)

For those of you who have large ethnic families, with many aunts, uncles, cousins (of the first, second, and third variety), you understand how that grand cacophony of life gives you memories that only you, and those in your situation, can truly appreciate.

For those of you who weren’t raised in such a situation, you can watch Avalon.

Said to be largely autobiographical, this film by Barry Levinson is obviously a labor of love. He shows us the story of this family of Russian immigrants, as only one who was an eyewitness can.

The story begins in 1914 with Sam Krichinsky (Armin Mueller-Stahl, an actor whose name you won’t recognize, but whose face you will) arriving in America, wide-eyed and in awe of this new country. The bulk of the movie takes place between 1948 to 1950, and the details of that era are wonderfully brought to life. Black and white television, test-patterns, parents singing to their embarrassed kids, automobiles so beautiful they make you ache, and of course, families.

By the way, anyone out there remember how they use to sell a piece of clear plastic,  divided into three colors, blue on top, brown in the middle, and green on the bottom? You would tape it to your black and white television, and viola!, color! Understand? Blue sky, brown houses, and green grass. Of course, it made the people look like alien-invaders, but that was cool too.

Randy Newman’s score perfectly frames the scenes. No lyrical songs about family and friends, his music doesn’t need lyrics here. Barry Levinson’s beautiful staged story tells us all we need to know as the soundtrack gently leads us to a bittersweet conclusion.

Bittersweet? Yes, and be warned, this is not an episode of The Waltons. This movie will break your heart. It shows us that the American dream is just that, a dream. As progress and materialism increase, it infects the family like a slow-growing, insidious disease. The televisions get bigger and bountiful, as the families grow further and further apart.

As Sam notices that so many of the things that made up his life have disappeared, he quietly laments, “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.” Avalon makes you want to get out the family pictures, and remember.

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