'Avalon' tells of families past and lost


October 11, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

To see Barry Levinson's "Avalon" is to take a sentimental journey through an old family photo album, where you catch yourself declaring, "There's sweet Aunt . . . gee, what was her name?"

I walked out of the Senator Theater on York Road and bumped into a cousin whom I happen to love and see about two times a year, since it takes as much as 15 minutes to get into my car and drive to her house.

"Wasn't the movie wonderful?" she said.

"Wonderful," I said.

Then we looked at each other for a heartbeat and realized an uncomfortable fact: The movie could have been about us.

In America, we have the strange notion that we haven't arrived until we've spread out a little. Why should we go through life without a yard in suburbia? Why shouldn't every room in the house have its own television set, so nobody has to watch something he doesn't want to watch, and nobody has to listen to a human voice instead of a piece of talking glass and wires?

All we lose is texture. My parents grew up within blocks of an entire repertory company of cousins and aunts and uncles who not only crowded into tiny apartments, but into each other's existence. The children of their generation are vaguely aware of each other as nice people who drop in on each other's lives occasionally, like stockholders getting annual company reports, but it's the parents who have actual histories in common.

"Avalon" begins with laughter and ends with isolation. At Thanksgiving dinner, everybody sits around a table so crowded that arms and elbows and pieces of dialogue overlap each other in the fight for space. If you inhale too deeply, you wind up in somebody else's mashed potatoes.

When an aunt passes on some family insights to a collection of nieces and nephews after dinner, they're all bunched on a tiny stairway. There's no other room. They're like city kids who want to play baseball but space reduces them to a narrow alley. You make do. You improvise. And you create intimacy.

By the end of "Avalon," though, almost everybody's vanished. We see a few family members perched in front of the TV set eating Thanksgiving dinner on metal folding trays. They've got all the room they need now, but the only noise in the place comes from a laugh track laughed by people nobody knows.

Two days after we saw the movie, my cousin and I talked on the telephone for about an hour.

"We never just hang out anymore," she said.

"Yeah," I said, "unless it's some special occasion."

"Like a funeral," she said.

Exactly. "Avalon" avoids the easy sentimentality of many movies about the immigrant experience, where history is filtered through layers of mist. People argue here. Pettiness takes on a life of its own. The center does not hold. There's laughter at the Thanksgiving table, but people want a little privacy, too.

"Avalon" reminds us what we lose when we value privacy a little too highly: a sense of who we are, a feel for those who should be important.

In my home, there are old photographs all over the walls of people I know mainly through stories.

Here is my great-grandfather Max, who fled Latvia to work in a sweatshop in New York City. He married and raised a huge family in a three-room apartment on Henry Street. There were five daughters and a son, plus boarders who slept in the kitchen.

Here is my Aunt Anne, who married my Uncle Bernie in her parents' home on Finlay Avenue in the Bronx. It was a lovely ceremony, except that Bernie's friends disappeared. As the bride and groom said, "I do," the friends were shooting dice in the bathroom.

Here is my grandmother Esther, who came here from Poland and wrestled with the English language but helped teach me to read. One night, the two of us looked at a comic book and came to a strange word, i-s-l-a-n-d. I insisted it was "is-land." She insisted it was "eyes-land."

Every family has its little stories, which become lost down the corridors of time if we let them. All we lose is a sense of where we came from and, therefore, a piece of who we are.

In "Avalon," the brand-new invention called television is brought into the living room. A knob is turned. A light appears: a test pattern. Three generations of the family sit and stare at it in fascination, not quite knowing that the future has arrived, and it hums and glows, and it will change forever the way they talk to each other.

"We have to see more of each other," my cousin said. "It's not like our schedules are so busy. We eat dinner and we sit in front of the television set every night."

That's America today. We watch actors playing out fantasies on a little screen instead of taking part in the vanishing essence of our own lives.

"Avalon" tells us what families used to be like and reminds us it's not too late to hold onto a piece of that, if we still want to.

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