Video Review: Avalon
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

A Polish immigrant struggles to keep his family together amidst tensions in their new land of America.

As the turning of the millennium approaches, the world feels an intense anticipation, whether self-inspired or created by the media. This week we searched for a film to review which would tie into the hype. Then we realized that, although Y2K seems like a galactic event, the fact is our lives will not change that much. However, this special new year does bring a wonderful opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and look forward to where we’re headed. When we do so, we will find that our happiness has consisted of loved-ones and the small and simple moments we have shared. So we chose to review “Avalon.”

If you’ve seen the film, you might suggest it would best be reviewed near the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving since those uniquely American holidays play a prominent role in the story. But the film isn’t about patriotism or Americanism. It is about family.

Sam Krichinsky, a Polish immigrant, comes to America in 1914 by way of Philadelphia. He settles in Baltimore with his four brothers in a neighborhood of row houses called Avalon. The story tells how they adjust to their new country, make their living, get married, have children, and struggle to keep their extended family intact.

After its release in 1990, Avalon was nominated for Best Picture, but lost the Academy Award to “Dances with Wolves.” It grossed a mere $16 million dollars and has virtually disappeared, but its inspired construction and beautiful execution is worthy of revival. In fact, the film stands up well under multiple viewings as long as we slow down and let its subtlety, sophistication, and poignancy wash over us.

Barry Levinson directs pure cinema in “Avalon.” His storytelling relies on the ability to leap through time, space, and subjectivity. He leads us back and forth through time and in and out of the thoughts of Sam, his son Jules, and grandson Michael, in a highly entertaining way. At times the film suffers from an episodic feel, but this is easily forgiven considering the sincerity of the film and the complexity of the theme. Levinson, who also wrote the film, gives us more to think about than any ten action-adventure films.

Indeed, one of our great frustrations in writing this review was deciding which layer of the film to analyze. One can look at what Avalon says about the American dream, American culture, or even Jewish culture. Another study could comment on the shift in American society with respect to family tradition, the rise of a popular culture, and commercialism.

The theme that intrigued us the most deals with what defines our personal identity and motivates our actions. As the Krichinsky family grows, they often gather in family circle meetings, meet for holidays, and live within sight of each other. But like many complex relationships, tensions arise, and the family slowly begins to disintegrate. Through it all, Sam reminds them of their roots with stories. The dreamlike flashbacks convey what is most important to him and his family. Ultimately, Sam’s memories are the last proof of his own existence and his great-grandson is easily diverted by the flickering images on the television set. But the film ends on a hopeful note as the boy’s father, Michael, refuses to let go of his grandfather’s legacy. He chooses to remember.

As Levinson explores this family’s heritage and the near loss of their story, we begin to think of our own past and wonder if somehow we, too, are beginning to forget. Sam warns us, “If you stop remembering, you forget.” What an appropriate theme as we enter a new millennium. No matter how our family tree grows and changes, we must not forget our roots.

Randy Newman’s nostalgic score perfectly captures the film’s emotion and compliments beautiful performances from the entire cast. Because the film has the breadth and depth of life, the deliberate pace may be difficult for younger viewers. However, Levinson’s creative flashbacks and colorful humor keep the film interesting. Avalon is a rare film–full of love and family values we hold dear.

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