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October 13, 2008

If this country weren't going to through what it's going through right now, watching Barry Levinson's 1990 film Avalon would probably just make me feel a bit misty-eyed and queasy. Based on the director's memories of growing up around his immigrant grandparents who came to the US from Eastern Europe at the start of the First World War, the film is good, old fashioned sentimentality. It's a bit like Woody Allen's Radio Days but without the sense of humor.

But at this point in US history, as we watch the tenets of the so-called American Dream, with its cut-price goods, TV dinners and rags-to-riches can-do mentality, turn into a hideous joke, Levinson's film looks darkly ironic.

Spanning three generations of one family, the film tells the story of an immigrant, Sam, who arrives in Baltimore in 1914 to join his three brothers in the wallpapering business. His son, Jules, grows up to become a successful salesman -- he and his cousin are pioneers of the discount electronics trade. By the time Jules' own son, Michael, becomes a man, the family's fortunes have somewhat changed, as have their priorities. Jules loses his fortune when an electrical fire burns down his new (uninsured) warehouse store. He leaves the "roller-coaster" world of business empire building behind him and goes into media sales. We don't learn much about Michael as a grown up, except that he is married and has a small boy. But it seems clear that his parents' fortunes have left a deep impression on him.

Quite apart from leaving a bitter taste in our mouths for its portrayal of lines of shopping-frenzied Americans lining up for hours to buy their shiny, cut-rate televisions in the 1950s, the film is interesting for the way it charts the changing concept of community and family over three generations. The family in the story are extremely close-knit at the start. They all chip in to help each other come to the new world from the old one even though they don't have much money at their disposal. They all live in adjacent houses in downtown Baltimore and are completely involved in each others' lives.

But by the time Jules comes of age, attitudes have changed. With comfort comes a greater desire for privacy -- and heightened selfishness. The family moves to the suburbs and gradually breaks up into smaller units; brothers who were once close allies, fall out over such trifles as the premature carving of a Thanksgiving turkey; when Sam's wife wants to bring her long-lost, Holocaust-surviving brother to the US, the family refuses to chip in funds to help. "We can't be paying for every Tom, Dick and Harry," says one family member, disgruntled. Once the site of noisy discussion around a huge table, family dinners become silent affairs, consumed on trays in front of the TV. And Sam, in his old age, wonders if his family exists anymore.

Levinson's movie is full of nostalgia for a lost time. But it's also a sharp critique of the path that this country has taken over the past 60 years or so. I'm not suggesting that this country should try to return to the dreamlike concept embodied by the notion of the word "Avalon." But the film certainly provides a crucial perspective on recent social and economic history in the run up to November 4.


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