'Avalon' Barry Levinson's Moving Look Back At An Earlier Age



Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl and Aidan Quinn.

Directed by Barry Levinson.

Rated PG.

Distributed by Tri-Star.

*** 1/2 Barry Levinson's "Avalon" is something stunning, particularly for Baltimoreans: It's an "Our Town" that really is about our town.

No film has ever celebrated the elegant old Baltimore quite so fervently. Levinson re-creates that lost city as a kind of wonderland, a bursting cornucopia of pleasures and delights, a texture of warmths and embraces. And he makes constant associations between the strength of the city and the strength of the families that lived in it and the strength of the country that they comprised, America, as if the three were linked in a syzygy of values.

Thus, the movie has the soft sweetness of fond recollection yet its strength is that it never surrenders to hopeless sentimentality; with a great deal of precision it laments the steady erosion of the family unit, from a seething, raucous near-tribe to today's minimalist union of career and acquisitional goals. It has the glow of an old photo album and the sadness of a dirge to it.

Levinson must have begun with the crucial decision of method: Did he want to tell a universal, "typical" immigrant story, and that way achieve resonance but also perhaps phoniness, or did he want to stay specially linked to his own past, and trust the resonances to emerge? For mostly better but occasionally worse, he chose the latter.

What this means is that since the story hasn't been shaped dramatically, it occasionally churns up incidents which it can't quite assimilate and that seem to have only marginal relevance to the theme. It has, in short, the discursive, rambling sense of any family's history and the kind of inherent lack of narrative precision. It weights many things equally -- deaths and desserts, for example, or mischief and business failure. And although the dramatic arc is accomplished and it achieves a sense of thematic closure, the last dramatized incident -- two boys who think they've burned down the family business -- isn't quite as powerful as it would have been in a more conventionally told story.

But that's Levinson -- his method, his values, his refusal to obey formula while at the same time shrewdly achieving a mainstream big-picture Hollywood career. He manages to make multimillion-buck personal films, and get the decadent, loony Tinseltown system to work for, rather than against, him. It's a trick only a few great ones -- John Ford comes to mind -- have been able to pull off.

What "Avalon" has in great abundance is a sense of life and family, a wonderful, giddy messiness to it. It begins sometime in the '40s with an old man remembering. The speaker is Sam Krichinsky, paperhanger, nightclub owner, musician, one of the five Krichinsky brothers; the location is the row house in a mythical Baltimore neighborhood where the extended Krichinsky families have gathered; the occasion is the American holiday of Thanksgiving which they don't quite get but which they will tear into with a joyous gusto that has to be seen to be believed.

"I came to America in 1914," the old voice, still faintly blurred with a taint of old country accent, croons. "Then I came to Bal-ti-more. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen." We cut to young Sam, eyes bright and blue, walking under an arbor of velvet sky spangled with fireworks through the Prague-like glories of this city; light and magic fill the air; it's the Fourth of July and it's good to be an American, even a new one. (The photography, by Allen Daviau, is brilliant.)

From this starting point, the movie almost effortlessly slides through the years, moving intractably onward, chronicling squabbles and squalls, moments of triumph and despair, holidays and funerals. It has "The Godfather's" sense of family, without the violence, and "Ragtime's" sense of history without the formality. It's American history as Krichinsky family history, making the point, of course, that the history of America is the history of the Krichinskys -- and the O'Malleys and the Steinbergs and the Washingtons and even the Smiths.

The three Krichinsky (later Kaye) generations are represented by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who gives a breathtaking performance as Sam, his son Jules (Aidan Quinn) and his son Michael (the Barry-analogue), played by a wonderful child actor named Elijah Wood. Somehow Levinson has found the magic to bring that so-difficult, so-delicate texture of family politics to quivering life.

But he also brings them to death. For the subtext of "Avalon" is the melancholy of anomie, the way in which things fall apart, the center cannot hold. The agent in this destruction is the television, but I think Levinson means this metaphorically, television as harbinger of faster times, other agendas, freedoms that promise so much more than they can deliver, or hide their downsides until it's too late. But the blue glare from the boob tube is like a desiccant, drying everything out, seeming almost to suck the color and the air from the house and the heart of the family.

It's a funny, sad, wonderful movie.

Incidentally, while the movie is playing exclusively at the Senator, viewers will have a rare and dislocating chance to see a movie where the movie was filmed. One scene is set in the Senator; if you sit in the first third of the house, you'll probably be able to see the seat you are sitting in. Is that wacky or what?

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