Barry Levinson was one of the most successful directors in America around 1990, when he made Avalon, an immigrant Thanksgiving movie trying to sum up the transformation of the American family in the 20th century. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for Rain Man in 1988, a blockbuster about modern America that received eight Oscar nominations total, winning four. He would go on to make the gangster period piece Bugsy in 1991, personally receiving two more Oscar nominations out of the movie’s 10. But Avalon, which also received four nominations, is the most memorable of them all.
Avalon is a movie about Fourth of July fireworks and Thanksgiving dinners among a large family of Polish Jewish immigrants living in Baltimore: five brothers, their children, and their wives. It is very pleasing to see that these are hardworking, law-abiding people, that they love and care for their children with a view to their honest success (one almost wants to call them ideal Americans), assimilating and enjoying some of life’s pleasures as they earn them. It mostly takes place between Thanksgiving Day 1948 and Thanksgiving Day 1950, but it also looks back to the America of 1914, when these immigrants were arriving from Europe, and then forward to the America of the ’60s, when people start dressing like hippies.
Avalon is not a happy movie. Levinson understands these national celebrations to be rooted in the family, and the story he tells of post–WWII America is one of business success coming at the cost of family disintegration. The charming stories the old men tell about their family are eventually replaced by TV. The old people were domineering or at least relentless. TV is neutral, even soothing. Then again, TV is all-American and tends to homogenize viewers, whereas the stories of the old people were full of their Old World ideas, which their American children do not understand, just like they don’t speak Yiddish. Some losses are inevitable with the gains of peaceful prosperity.
Avalon starts in a mood of wonder: Sam, played by the wonderful Armin Mueller-Stahl, already a proud grandfather, recounts for the benefit of the nephews and nieces the circumstances of his arrival in America, in 1914, in Philadelphia, on the Fourth of July. The serendipity of the occasion is not lost on him, and he seems to want dearly to instill this love of America in the young; telling this story at a Thanksgiving celebration is most apposite. Afterward, he and his four brothers did all right hanging wallpaper; their children did even better; and their grandchildren will eventually end up in college. This peaceful prosperity could occasion the gratitude he calls for.
However, Sam’s wife, Eva, played by a very funny Joan Plowright, complains that they never ate turkey before, they don’t eat it the rest of the year, that she doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to give thanks for—they had to buy and slaughter the turkey—or to whom. Thanksgiving is not just an American but also a Christian holiday—America is a Christian country. These immigrants are Jewish and their character was formed in the Old World. Sam is the only one who is truly at home in America, enthusiastic about its freedom, possibilities, and marvels, and he is our protagonist.
Thanksgiving seems to be Sam’s attempt to mix American individualism and his dedication to his family, an attempt to hold everything together in the midst of the changes we see. Sam’s son Jules (Aidan Quinn) is in business with his cousin Izzy (Kevin Pollak), eventually becoming remarkably successful retailers for modern appliances. They also Americanize their last names, from Krichinsky to Kirk and Kaye respectively, which breaks hearts. Jules is also fated to become an ad salesman for TV. Both men get married and move to the suburbs, where they raise modern families. All this hustle and bustle makes demands on everyone’s time and attention, pulling the family apart. They gradually lose touch with Sam’s three surviving brothers (one dies of the Spanish Flu in the aftermath of WWI), and various quarrels eventually break the “family circle” in which they used to decide everything of importance to all in common.
Thanksgiving therefore has a double character. On the one hand, it’s a kind of nonreligious expression of gratitude—ultimately, a form of patriotism. These are not religious people, and it seems that, without religion, Americans don’t know who is especially deserving of their thanks. They love America, but it seems no different than loving themselves. Each American is America. This can lead to ingratitude. On the other hand, Thanksgiving is supposed to save Americans from this individualism by forcing them at least to stop busybodying and rekindling the love of their own family.
Avalon, however, concludes in a sad mood: Sam succeeds in everything he wished for his family, except that he also wished that they be, and remain, a family. Thanksgiving never really catches on. The generations split into pieces during the course of the story, then fragment further. Parents and kids separate since they are not poor and crowded, as in the Old World, but can afford houses of their own, if in different social classes. But also brothers and cousins lose touch, since life is so full of activity they do not have the leisure required for extended family life.
Part of the problem is that the future beckons always, and the past is easily forgotten in America. Family is as much tied to the past as to the future, with the old and dying as with the young and the soon to be born. Sam is shocked eventually to learn that the places where he had spent his life in America had simply all been bulldozed and redeveloped. New things replace old things, and technological progress, married to commerce, makes for a prosperity that shocks the old, leaves them uncomprehending and, in Sam’s case, in a home for the elderly, where he dies alone.
Avalon came out in 1990 and looks back to 1914. It was Levinson’s attempt to tell his fellow Americans, as an adult talking to adults, that for all the great successes and victories of midcentury America, people had forgotten something of great importance, which their parents or grandparents knew, that family is the only way for people to be content together. Prosperity begat consumerism which begat materialism; loneliness rather than happiness followed, restlessness rather than gratitude, resignation rather than hope for a blessed future. That is the fearful individualism Tocqueville described as a sickness of the heart, making it hard for Americans to live and act together to any great purpose.
Avalon is the legendary island where the dead king Arthur somehow endures and the street where the Jewish family first lived. Sam says they are always going farther away from Avalon, that is, not only losing their family but also losing hope. In a way, all he has is his memories.
Avalon ends with Sam’s grandson Michael (Elijah Wood) telling his story to his own son, whom he has also named Sam. Thanksgiving is the hope of restoring the family—often failing at this but a quest never to be abandoned. It rests not only on the families celebrating it, because it draws its power from the national belief in that holiday; it also offers hope that lost or abandoned families can be restored, because family is in a way natural and holds forth the possibility of forgiveness or at least forbearance.
Levinson made four movies about his life in Baltimore and the transformations of post–WWII America. Diner (1982), which also won him an Oscar nomination; Tin Men (1987); and Liberty Heights (1999), dealing with adults, young men in college, and teenagers in the ’50s–’60s. They’re all worth seeing for those who want to think about the good and bad of midcentury American society, which is still so influential in our thinking about what American society is, and is supposed to be.