Barry Levinson: There's No Place Like Memory

September 30, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

NEW YORK - On the phone, he's very Hollywood.

You can hear it all, the impatience, that tinge of arrogance in the voice of a man who's used to being listened to, the way he cuts to the chase as he hones in on what he wants.

"Yeah ... yeah, I know. ... OK, we'll go to his agent. I'll get you the number. ... And if that doesn't work, we'll go to him directly. I'll hook up with you later."

But putting the phone down in his hotel room, he reverts to Baltimore. It's just Barry, after all.

And that, perhaps (and that uniquely), is the key to the success of Barry Levinson, who has never quite gone Hollywood, and who still draws pleasure and sustenance - and movies - from his roots in his native city. For some reason, you can take Barry Levinson out of Baltimore, but you can't take Baltimore out of Barry Levinson, whose "Avalon," opening Friday but receiving a benefit premiere tonight at the Senator, is his third movie filmed in and drawing on his hometown.

"It's hard to say why," he says with a laugh. "I think it comes from the fact that my past is so vivid in my mind. I suppose I could borrow all my memories and characters, and set them in another place - but for what reason? It just makes sense to me."

That down-home bluntness pretty much defines him. In the way the pretensions cling to some epic Hollywood figures, unpretensions cling to Levinson. He answers his own phone, opens his own door. He has no entourage, only a family with him in his New York hotel suite. He's in jeans and Nikes and a white shirt; he could be going out to shoot hoops with some of the neighborhood guys after a while.

OK, he drinks mineral water. Evian, no less. So? Nobody's perfect. At least he doesn't take it with at fruity little twist.

And now he faces the world with what will certainly be called the greatest Baltimore movie of all time, The Mother of all Baltimore movies, the ur-Baltimore movie.

As his producer and partner Mark Johnson says, "He really gets Baltimore in there!"

"Avalon" follows this city and an extended family through three generations, tracking the progress from immigrants to full assimilation. Along the way, it re-creates the splendor of the old prewar Baltimore, a majestic, Praguelike city of elegant statuary, cobblestone streets and thriving, teeming marketplaces. It's like a $20-million "I Remember" from the old Sun magazine, and it moves Baltimore out of actuality and into legend.

"I worked really hard with my cinematographer, Allen Daviau, in trying to capture a strange and beautiful sense to the movie. We sat down and thought of the many ways you can re-create the past in memory. Well, let's see. You can do it in black and white. You can use a lot of backlighting, so that everybody looks religious. But all those just seemed like a clichM-i."

He and Daviau settled on a process called "stretch-screening." They shot the pictorial sequences at 16 frames a second, then doubled every other frame, then projected the film at the conventional 24 frames a second.

"There's not much information there," Levinson says. "The eye knows that something is wrong, but it can't quite recognize what."

Whatever the technique, it gives the movie a kind of visual dignity that places it squarely in the realm of memory, which is one of the themes.

Basically, it's the story of his mother's side of the family, the Krichinskys; his maternal grandfather, one of five brothers, arrived in Baltimore in 1914, married, raised a family, watched his grandsons - one of them Barry - grow up and prosper in the world.

"I didn't realize how autobiographical it was when I was writing it," he recollects. "I never set out to do 'My Story.' That didn't really interest me. But when I thought about it, I realized how autobiographical it was. It's much closer than I realized. I was shocked."

He ticks off the similarities almost abstractedly.

"My dad was in the small appliance business and later the discount appliance business; there was a fire. My grandfather and his brothers were paperhangers; they were musically inclined and did play in an orchestra on weekends. One of my uncles was stabbed by a robber while his son watched. My grandfather owned a club. ..."

Filming the family's life over the years was necessarily filled with odd moments. For one thing, the interiors were filmed in an elaborate mock-up of a Baltimore row house - the one he initially grew up in - built on a Baltimore sound stage. It must have felt extremely weird filming his own family memories in his own house, yet all of it slightly strange.

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