Thanksgiving Movies: Avalon

 

Fellow Ricochetti, I’ve been writing about a number of Thanksgiving movies, to put artists in the picture of the distinctively American holiday! First, Avalon, the Barry Levinson story of Jewish immigrants to Baltimore, set in the post-War era that defined the experience of the Baby Boomers for whom the movie was made, in 1990. You can read my thoughts over at the Acton Institute and find the movie’s opening scene below. I’ll be writing about movies through the weekend, for now, I leave you with my intro:

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.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    It’s a shame that it’s unlikely that we’ll see more pictures like Avalon now, or any time soon, because the audience for grownup movies has all but vanished, except for art house films for a much smaller crowd about historical subjects. In a way, Avalon is the flip side of The Godfather; they’re both about families from rougher parts of Europe who find fortune in 20th century America. They are both obviously “ethnic”, yet the subject rarely comes up directly in conversation. 

    Avalon is true to life in that respect. My wife’s family, like the one in the movie, never said “Jewish” out loud; for one thing, it was obvious; for another thing, people took the idea of assimilation much more seriously in those days. Her family, like my Scots-Irish one, called themselves “100% American” and would punch you in the face for saying anything different. Yet none of us denied where we were from. 

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I think that’s a mark of a lost confidence. One wonders how to get it back; the vast swell of immigration that stopped with the Great War & then the law of 1924 left a lot of assimilation to be done, in conditions that had never existed before, yet America on the whole dealt with it astonishingly well, largely without gov’t involvement.

    One thought that comes to mind is, the success didn’t prove to be what successful Americans wanted. Hence all the complaints about the country becoming popular in the 60s–put in the mouths of Baby Boomers until they learned to actually say them themselves. Strange, but not unheard of, in modern times, for elites to cook up a youth revolution…

    Avalon looks instead to the weakening of family bonds as everyone was free to go his own way in the ’50s. That surely is part of the story of the ’60s youth revolution, a preparation. The other part is the rapid commercial-technological change, which is thrilling in one sense, but in another alienates the old from society, & there are consequences there… Part of assimilation, it suggests, was everyone watching the same TV. Then the grandkids do forget their grandparents, &c.

    Avalon is somehow an answer to the old assimilation story–you, too, can be American: Then your story could be America’s story, good & bad… That ambition is largely missing now. Dunno if either artists or audiences are aware they could have stories that somehow dramatize the American story & maybe clarify some of the issues that trouble us…

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  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I’m glad to see readership on this post is brisk. It gets at one of the biggest cultural problems we have, and one of the biggest projects we’ll have to undertake to restore the health of American culture: rebuilding a shared belief in what was once so strong a positive, idealistic sense of nationhood.

    It didn’t decay overnight and it won’t be reclaimed overnight. But it can be turned around. Paradoxically, when we believed in ourselves we also inspired people in other countries around the world to believe in us.

    Avalon is one of the many films over the decades that make the point that sometimes assimilation stresses a family. In many cases, it takes one than one generation for a family to become at home with being Americans, yet sometimes it happens in one person, it “clicks” for one member of the family faster than for others. 

    • #3
  4. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Likewise, Gary! & there’s another one to go. Great weekend available for everyone here…

    I’m a big believer in cinema preserving American memory & helping new generations–but I gotta tell you a story my friend Sam Goldman told me. One year at a fellowship he was teaching to Israeli kids, he showed them Avalon, obviously, for Thanksgiving, which was a new thing to them. They thanked him for the great movie & told him it confirmed everything they heard about how bad America was about taking care of family–his jaw dropped!

    • #4
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