The Oscars are this week, and as always, I’m haunted by the ghosts of nominees past. Twenty-five years ago, Barry Levinson’s screenplay for Avalon (1990) lost the Oscar to a Ghost—Bruce Joel Rubin’s script for the all-star, box-office blockbuster (500 million). Recently, Avalon failed to make Tablet magazine’s 100 Greatest Jewish Films, unlike Levinson’s The Natural (ranked 45), David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (62) and “Every Jeff Goldblum Movie Ever” (75). But as I learned last fall, Avalon’s complicated relation to the category of “Jewish film” would have made it right at home on this eclectic, occasionally unfathomable, list.
In October, my colleague Patricia Fernandez-Kelly screened Avalon in her urban sociology class to document the consequences of suburbanization: first, the fraying of family bonds; ultimately, atomization and social isolation. I was asked to comment on the Jewish angle. Viewing the film for the first time since I saw it in 1990, I thought—piece of cake. Here were all of the major themes of my American Jewish Writers course: immigration and assimilation; multilingualism; memory and transmission; holidays that negotiated between tradition and assimilation; television and media; and the Holocaust, viewed from a safe, American distance. Avalon is a prime example of what media theorists call “double coding,” watchable as either a Jewish or a universal story. But it turned out that there were as many Jewish Avalons as there were Jewish critics.
If you haven’t seen it, Avalon opens with a rapturous evocation of Sam Krichinsky’s (Armin Mueller-Stahl) arrival in Baltimore amid Fourth-of-July fireworks: “I came to America in 1914—by way of Philadelphia,” says a voice-over with Yiddish inflections. “And then I came to Baltimore. … The sky exploded, people cheered, there were fireworks! What a welcome it was, what a welcome!” This narrative is a story Sam tells (and later, retells) at a late-1940s Thanksgiving to his grandson Michael (Elijah Wood) and cousins. Levinson gives a wide berth to the 26 family members gathered around a huge table to eat, schmooze, and argue, while the family matriarch, Eva (Joan Plowright), tries to puzzle out the meaning of Thanksgiving; “The Pilgrims started it, whoever they were,” offers Sam. After a few nostalgic scenes about the five close-knit Krichinsky brothers in the idyllic “Avalon” (a building? a neighborhood?—unclear) the film shifts to the American-born next generation. Now, two Krichinsky cousins (Aidan Quinn and Kevin Pollak), changing their name to “Kirk” and “Kaye,” showcase upward mobility by opening a successful discount TV business and giving up their row-houses for the suburbs.
Yet this success story proves an inexorable epic of decline, a “Baltimore Buddenbrooks,” as historian Stephen Whitfield puts it. With the flight to the suburbs, the family disperses; with the encroachment of television, it hollows out. The film concludes with a visit to a failing, demented Sam in his nursing home by the grown-up Michael and his young son. In lieu of telling his story, Sam sadly muses, “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have remembered better.” Sam’s story is now Michael’s to tell his son: “He came to America in 1914 …”
The words “Jew” and “Jewish” are never spoken in the film, but Jewish names, heavy Yiddish accents, and a colorful supporting cast of veteran Jewish actors (Lou Jacobi, Leo Fuchs, and Israel Rubinek; none of the five leads is Jewish) leave us in no doubt that this is a Jewish family. At its 1990 release, critics mentioned the family’s Jewishness in passing but treated the film as an American story. The production notes played up its universalism: The cast “spans diverse ethnic, geographical and experiential backgrounds. … ‘I think that this is not only a story about Barry and his family,’ states Mueller-Stahl. ‘It’s a story about all families.’ ‘Very simply, “Avalon” is about a family,’ Plowright says, ‘about their reaction to change, about their progress in the Promised Land.’ ” The film’s most famous line, Uncle Gabriel’s anguished cry of insult, is often quoted, but in two different ways: universally, as “You cut the turkey?” and Jewishly, as “Ya cut da toikey?”
Critics reviewed Avalon in the context of Levinson’s box-office and critical success with Rain Man (1988), which had earned him some freedom from Hollywood protocols. Hence, the film “has no story in the traditional sense,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann, while David Ansen lit on the reason: “Its rhythms are dreamy … the facts open to dispute. … The telling is more important than the tale.” Flushed with Hollywood success, the story went, Levinson had returned to his Baltimore roots. Avalon was deemed his most “personal” movie, its family named for his mother’s line, its plot linked to their successes and trials. The production notes boasted that Levinson’s parents and relatives had been on the set during filming. Avalon was that rare thing, an intimate, rather than sweeping, family saga; Ansen called it “a kind of $20 million home movie,” “an epic film about dinner tables.” Most critics excused the film’s sentimentality and nostalgia since it was drawn, in Hal Hinson’s words, from his “deepest self.” Pauline Kael was alone in lambasting Levinson’s myth of a golden age as reactionary: “At times the movie seems like a product of the cultural wing of the Republican Party.” Janet Maslin tried to put daylight between Levinson and the elegiac, nostalgic Sam, citing “the family’s love-hate relationship with its own past”; “nostalgia,” wrote Hinson, “is built into the characters.” But Kael was right to identify Levinson’s point of view with Sam, because so did Levinson, railing against “television, … transportation and the growth of suburbia,” for altering “something that had been strong, and we haven’t been able to replace it. The family structure … instilled a sense of morality and acted as an educational force.” Avalon, he said, was his own “bit of mourning” for the broken, irreplaceable, family circle.
Amid this sea of praise for Levinson’s authenticity and depth of feeling came a dissenting voice: Jack Fischel, writing for the Zionist Midstream, called the movie “misleading and intellectually flawed,” impugning “Levinson’s honesty in conveying Jewish life before a mostly non-Jewish audience.” There were no Passover Seders, Hanukkah gifts, kaddish at a funeral, donations to Palestine; intermarriage didn’t register as an issue. “Were it not for the publicity,” wrote Fischel, “the viewer would find it difficult to determine the ethnic group portrayed in the film”—a preposterous claim, but it makes the point.
Whereas Fischel lamented the erasure of American Judaism, a decade later, in the penumbra of ethnic studies, scholars came to regard Avalon as an exquisite document about Jewish-American experience. As film scholar Nathan Abrams would later put it, they were now “reading Jewish.” In 1999, Whitfield argued that Levinson was a path-breaker: Instead of framing his Jewish-American story around generational conflict, he had focused on “the poignancy of immigrant adaptation” to the American ideals of individualism and success. There is no rebellion in Avalon, simply dissolution and disintegration. The family falls apart when prosperity visits them unequally; when suburbanization divides them; when they passively submit to television’s mass-produced conversations and stories and its siren call of consumerism. “The sense of loss, of mortality, indeed the glimpse of utter oblivion,” he wrote, “is heartbreaking to behold.” For Whitfield Avalon was a tragedy because “America has won.”
Meanwhile, critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s jab about a “noodgey” character in Levinson’s Sphere (1998)—“you do the math,” she snarked—provoked Levinson finally to embroil his Jewish characters in explicitly Jewish issues. Liberty Heights (1999) treats a Jewish family’s resistance and attraction to assimilation, anti-Semitism, Jewish-gentile romance, ambivalence about religious observance, the attenuation of Jewish fatherhood, and racial segregation. The film garnered modest acclaim but no prizes; its only award nominee was Rebekah Johnson, as the Jewish teen’s black love interest, for a Black Reel award.
But the impact of Liberty Heights was to kasher Levinson for consumption as a maker of indisputably Jewish films. In 2003, Warren Rosenberg claimed that Liberty Heights was Levinson’s “coming out of the ethnic closet.” Where Fischel had seen no traces of Jewish traditions, Eric Goldman detected Jewish palimpsests in Levinson’s moving images of Americana. Avalon, he wrote in The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, is “the shtetl”; Independence Day is the genesis of the American Krichinskys; a divisive Thanksgiving features a knife-slice that ironically invokes circumcision. Goldman shrewdly concluded that Avalon is not about the abandonment of tradition; instead, it is “about Jews for whom America becomes their religion, and about how that ritual, that history, that memory, is passed down to the ensuing generations.”
Viewing Avalon for a second, then a third time, I realized that a quarter century of debate has ignored a critical figure: the child, Michael Kaye, played delicately and unself-consciously by an 8-year-old Elijah Wood. While everyone acknowledges that “Michael becomes the storyteller”—i.e., grows up to be Barry Levinson—there is little talk about his character. Whitfield even observes that Levinson “has not tried to make central the feelings of childhood in a way that, say, the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak has done in trying to recover the special vulnerabilities (and strengths) that children experience.”
But Whitfield’s comparison misses the mark. Michael most closely resembles not Sendak’s Max, but Chabon’s Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay. Like them, Michael lives in a keenly visualized, quasi-imaginary world. The endless whine of language is for the grown-ups; Michael comes alive when he sees fireworks, or elephants mysteriously passing by the window. In fact, it’s simply the circus coming to town, an episode Levinson recalled from his own childhood, but for Michael it has a fantastic, dream-like aura. Like Kavalier and Clay, Michael vicariously fights the Nazis. As he draws a path of kerosene on the floor, strikes a match and revels in the advancing blaze, he’s directing his own action movie. Levinson’s camera lingers on the child’s pellucid blue eyes as much as it does on his grandfather’s, as if to acknowledge that his perspective is divided between them.
Whitfield is wrong on another count: In Avalon, both the vulnerabilities and strengths of childhood are writ large. In a terrifying sequence of filmic horror, Levinson shows us a beehive growing louder and louder until suddenly the bees swarm out to attack Michael. And so keen is Michael’s sense of empowerment, that he’s convinced that he and his cousin set the fire that consumes his father’s warehouse—and his ambition.
Michael Kaye’s own story is a counter-narrative to Avalon’s epic of Jewish-American decline. He’s growing up, and up, and up, and he is coming to see that the assurances of home and family are unstable. What disrupts them is not consumerism, the car, or television, but absurd and unpredictable catastrophes: an attack by bees, a trolley derailing, his father being violently mugged before his eyes, a scream in the night from his Holocaust-survivor cousin, a devastating three-alarm fire. In the end, Michael Kaye’s resilience in the face of absurdity, matched by his capacity for wonder, may locate Levinson’s profoundest Jewish vision closer to Kafka’s Prague than to Baltimore.
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