Television, which already shoulders the burden of causing most of the ills of modern industrialized society, was once again used as a convenient scapegoat in "Avalon." That was disappointing because this wonderful movie, a haunting, evocative, Proustian document, deserves better than that shopworn cliche.
The thematic use of TV is evident, from the decision of the first generation Americans among the Krichinskys to sell them in their store, to the next generation teaching another new young
immigrant the operative channel numbers before she learned to speak English.
There was the pathetic replacement of the family Thanksgiving feast at the dining tables with a meal on trays in front of the glowing box, and the boy who represented the youngest generation preferring a parade on the nursing home TV to his great-grandfather's recital of the story of his arrival in the United States, the central family myth.
In subsequent interviews, the movie's writer and director Barry Levinson confirmed his dim view of television, seeing it as a destructive force in American life.
Part of my reaction to this was personal. Hey, what does this guy who lives thousands of miles away on some multi-million dollar estate in hoity-toity Bel Air, Calif., know from television? I'm the one living in a semi-detached in Baltimore, and he comes back here to make a film that lectures me about the dissolution of the American family?
But then it occurred to me that my house in Baltimore is several hundred miles from my grandmother's nursing home in Atlanta. And, indeed, that home is a hundred miles away from her ancestral home in South Carolina, a town that bears her family's name.
"Avalon" has often been called a film about the immigrant experience, but it actually chronicles a much more universal American phenomenon, a general diaspora that occurred after World War II.
My family can in no way be considered immigrant; it goes back to the 18th century in this country. But for almost all of those years, virtually every member of generation after generation was content to live in the same county of South Carolina. Then came my father's generation and all three children moved away, spreading across the country. The next generation has scattered further. None now lives in that county that once defined home.
Television did not cause this dispersal, though it is emblematic of the technological changes hastened by military research during the war. Added to a variety of other forces -- the pent-up frustrations of the Depression, the relative affluence of the post-war country, the G.I. bill, etc. -- the new technology sent Americans out across this country in unprecedented numbers, even as it sent the Krichinskys of "Avalon" to the suburbs.
One of the most crucial elements was the emergence of the automobile as a necessity, not a luxury, for the American family after World War II. And that is acknowledged in "Avalon" as the oldest generation is nervous about cars. Their lurking mechanical hulks provide a dominating frame to the scenes of suburban streets.
While Levinson effectively documents what was lost in this massive social shift, it must be acknowledged that something was gained.
Consider, for instance, the limitations of his particular generational point of view. He sees the coming of his grandfather and great uncles to America as a wonderful, seminal event. But as he mourns in "Avalon" the loss of a few decades worth of tradition does Levinson ever stop to consider that his grandfather's emigration probably tore asunder hundreds of years of tradition of having Krichinskys in a particular village in Russia? He certainly gives no indication that the destruction of those traditions was worthy of grief.
So, why did they leave, emigrating from Russia, or moving from Darlington, S.C., or abandoning the city for the suburbs? Was it in selfish pursuit of personal wealth and comfort? To an extent, certainly.
But it must also be recognized that the types of traditions that Levinson seems to put on a pedestal can also have their dark side. Certainly those villages in Russia held a wealth of rich legacy, but they also harbored anti-Semitism that would always place a limit on the achievements of Levinson's ancestors.
And a child born in a small town in America often found himself in the midst of a large, extended family that could certainly be a supportive structure but too often became an entangling web that could trap and hold the individual, forcing him into a role and an identity that he might not want.
The generation in "Avalon" that represents that of Levinson's parents certainly felt similar restraints living in the close quarters in the city. The suburbs represented their ability to become self-fulfilled individuals, far from an evil ambition.
Levinson is on target when he cautions us about television's willingness to try to replace whatever disappears in these disruptive moves. The medium is so powerful and pervasive that stands ready to provide us with family, with friends, with ideal mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, with buddies at the corner bar, elements we might have lost in the breakup of our communities. But television's ersatz replacement will never be satisfactory.
And "Avalon" is right when it warns us not to allow television to provide us with our myths. There is nothing wrong with TV being a part of those myths, as the movies were for Levinson's film alter ego -- remember the cliffhanger? But the central myths of our lives are too important to arrive electronically, they must arise from the richness of interpersonal relationships.
But, ultimately, and perhaps inadvertently, there is as much celebration as mourning in "Avalon." The America of the years it covers was the only country where a man could get off the boat in a big city and join his brothers to make a living as a paperhanger, watch the next generation become successful entrepreneurs and move to the suburbs, and a member of the next leave the hometown and move to Hollywood where he can return home to make a movie about all of it.
So something is lost in all those moves and disruptions, just as something is lost when television images attempt to replace the reality of experience. But something is gained, too. Television can diminish reality, but it also enhances our lives, taking us places we would otherwise never go, showing us things we otherwise would never see.
And a country that allows you to break free of family and tradition and set out on your own is a place of such wonderful, exciting possibilities and potential that they were setting off fireworks to celebrate on the day Sam Krichinsky got off the boat.