US, 1990, 128 minutes, Colour.
Armin Muehler Stuhl, Elizabeth Perkins, Joan Plowright, Aidan Quinn, Elijah Wood, Kevin Pollak, Lou Jacobi.
Directed by Barry Levinson.
Avalon was written and directed by Barry Levinson. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Levinson had written about life in Baltimore in Diner and The Tin Men. Here, however, he goes back to his own family origins and portrays the family over a period of 50 years, from 1914 to the mid-'60s.
Barry Levinson was a prolific writer of screenplays (ranging from Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety (where he performed the paper boy hitting Mel Brooks in the shower, aping Psycho) to the autobiographical Best Friends). He also directed The Natural, Young Sherlock Holmes, Good Morning Vietnam and won the Oscar for Rain man.
The creation of Baltimore during the early decades of the 20th century is done with a fine attention to detail and a spirit of affection. In fact, the film is an affectionate look at migrants to the United States - in contrast to the oppression of New York City, the possibilities for fulfilling the American Dream in Baltimore. There is happiness, failure, sadness, the break-up of families, the prospect of death - yet a strong sense of humanity.
The cast is excellent and is led by Armin Mueller- Stahl, the German actor who appeared to strong advantage in Music Box. Joan Plowright is his wife (employing a similar accent to her role in I Love You to Death). Elizabeth Perkins and Aidan Quinn are the younger generation and Elijah Wood is very good as the little boy, Michael. Lou Gilbert is also excellent as Uncle Gabriel.
The film is an excellent piece of Americana - affectionate and critical, humorous and sad.
1. Impact of the film? Portrait of America and Americans? Sense of humanity?
2. Baltimore from 1914 to the '60s, the inner neighbourhoods, the suburbs? Authentic atmosphere? A Baltimore of memories? The wide sweep of life in the city, attention to details like holidays, the circus coming to town, Thanksgiving meals? The musical score, the range of songs?
3. The title, the neighbourhood of Baltimore? Memories of the past? Long gone?
4. The portrait of the family (the working title of the film)? European background, Jewish background? The goal of the United States, migration, the family in the United States financing migration of the rest of the family? The Family Circle meetings and financial support? The bonds, love? Extended family? The celebrations of Thanksgiving? The old world and the new, work, Jewish traditions, the war? Refugees? The new world, the American Dream, success and money? The hurts, family break-up?
5. The significance of television: a symbol for change? The family watching the test pattern, the eager concentration, the anticipation? Jules and his idea of selling television? The programmes, the Howdy Doody and other programmes being watched? Meals being abandoned? Sets in the bedroom? Television advertising?
6. A film of memory, nostalgia, regrets? The screenplay's explanation of memories and their living in children? Interpretation?
7. The portrait of Sam as the focal character? The voice-over of his telling stories, his arrival in Baltimore on the fourth of July 1914? The recurrent memory at beginning and end? The brilliant fireworks, his excitement, America as a land of promise? The importance of Sam's storytelling, the memories, the children listening, Eva's comments? His search for his brothers, their moving, finding them, their appearance? The paper-hanging work? Playing the violin together? Seeing Eva and marrying her? The jobs, Gabriel's role - and pointing? Bringing the father over to America, his place in the family, not drinking water but whisky? Owning the nightclub, the enjoyment, the music, the black singers and dancers? The wedding celebration, Sam's memory, the night and Izzy and his wife with Jules and Anne? The continued memories, continuing to tell the stories? His wife's death, his grief, growing old, shuffling to the table, mistaking David for Michael? The old people's home? The visit of Michael and his son? The memories, sitting alone in an old people's home, shaking? His having revisited Baltimore and only finding the nightclub - as if he had never lived? Life's meaning as embodied in Sam?
8. Sam as the patriarch, his relationship with his brothers and the bonds with them? The Family Circle meetings and presiding? Thanksgiving dinners and the turkey? The bringing over of the Father and the money for him? His relationship with Eva, their continuous arguing? His love for Jules? In the row-houses? Moving, the birth of the baby and moving out with Eva? A wise and experienced old man? His work, showing young Michael how to hang paper but wanting him never to do it? Jules being attacked and his going to the hospital? The hot nights and going out to sleep outside with the children and telling stories? His exasperations? The fire and his supporting Michael in telling his father about the fire? The holidays, Eva's collapse, her death?
9. Jules and Anne: Jules in the memories of his father, his own memories about the Father coming and his being so short? His love for Anne, the marriage - and marrying with Izzy and his wife, telling Sam at the nightclub, the joyous celebration? A good man, the next generation American? Family, meals? Love for Anne, yet her exasperation for her mother-in-law? The outings, especially with Izzy and his wife? Anne and her learning to drive the car - and Eva refusing to go with her, the tramcar hitting the car and Eva's comments? Izzy and the deals? Jules and his love for selling, professional, going out knocking on the doors with Michael? His being mugged and robbed, in the hospital? The gift of the television? Everybody watching? The idea of the shop, growing to the warehouse, discount sales, his own fears? His unwarranted fears? Getting money, the holidays? The television ad and his stiltedness? The big sale, the fire, the collapse of his dreams? His support of Michael telling him about the fire? No insurance, bowing out? Becoming a salesman, enjoying his work, visiting his mother? Anne, her love and support, the clashes with Eva, wanting her own privacy and home? Relating with the other women? Her pregnancy, the birth? A future for Jules and Anne?
10. Michael and his age, place in the family? In the period, the questions of Anne about relations after the Thanksgiving meal, at the meals with his cousins? In the house, at school, in the corridor, the difference between `can' and `may'? Going to work with his father? Seeing his father robbed? Moving out, the suburbs? Going to the movies and enjoying the serials - and following the ideas with the model planes, the fire and Eva putting it out, in the warehouse? Listening to Sam's stories, the hot nights out? The importance of the fire, Ted not telling the truth, his going to tell his grandfather, telling his father? The aftermath - and his growing up, his own son, visiting Sam?
11. Eva and her background, migration, strong, continued arguments, repetitious arguments about turkeys at Thanksgiving etcetera? The clashes with Anne, not going in the car? Love for Sam, her continued fussing, presence at the meetings? The news of her brother, the phone call, telling the women, meeting him at the station? Proud of her son's success? The picnic, indigestion, her collapse, hospital, death and funeral?
12. Izzy and his wife, the wedding, the outings, changing the name? Place in the family? The risks, the ideas, TV ads, warehouses? The fire and no insurance?
13. Gabriel and his place amongst the brothers, always late, cutting the turkey, presiding over the meetings - and interrupted when the circus came and everybody went to watch? His anger when the turkey was cut, the appeals of the rest of the family, his refusal to talk, the other brother refusing to talk with him? The portrait of the brothers?
14. Eva's brother, her never having seen him, concentration camp, refugees? The wife and child? The girl watching the model plane with the Swastika? Nightmares? The job in New Jersey, unable to come to Eva's funeral? The puzzle of the rest of the family as he moved away after a year.
15. The portrait of the American decades, way of life? American changes? Dreams and prosperity, achievement, failures? The perspective of old age and death?
16. The film as a memoir and a tribute?