Program Notes: Avalon (1990)

Avalon is a movie about becoming an American.

It’s also about losing, little by little, the connections to their previous lives that informed the original generation of immigrants.

When he began making Avalon in 1989, Director Barry Levinson had already had big successes with films like The Natural, Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam and Young Sherlock Holmes.

And in two previous movies — Diner and Tin Men — he had explored his own young manhood in Baltimore in the mid-1960s.

But Avalon was an even more personal project, a dramedy based on his own family and filled with moments that could only have come from first-hand experience.

The film opens with an eye-popping reverie. Old Sam Krichinsky (the sublime Armin Mueller-Stahl) is reminiscing about the day in 1914 when he stepped off the boat from Europe and first set foot in Baltimore.

The Golden Door film series complements the exhibit Emma Lazarus: Voice of Liberty, Voice of Conscience, now on display at the Central Library.

Film Screening:
Avalon (1990)
Saturday, Sept. 17 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Related Event:
Esther Schor: Emma Lazarus
Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

In his memory it’s the Fourth of July and the city is a magical world of fireworks, torchlight, music and red, white and blue bunting.

Except that memories are slippery things. Sam's reverie is interrupted by his wife (Joan Plowright) objecting that he’s got it all wrong. An event Sam describes has happening in the dead of winter actually took place in the spring, she asserts, and suddenly the snowy landscape we've been watching is all green grass and short sleeves.

That exchange sets the tone for Avalon, a film that humorously describes one family’s dynamic while ruefully observing its members’ accelerating march toward bland middle-Americanism.

It’s quite a crew. In addition to Sam and his wife there’s Sam’s kvetching brother (Lou Jacobi) and Sam’s two grown sons (Aidan Quinn, Kevin Pollak) and their wives (Elizabeth Perkins, Eve Gordon).

The film is seen through the eyes of young Michael (Elijah Wood in one of his first roles, serving as a fictional alter ego for the filmmaker), who takes for granted the ethnic idiosyncrasies and Old World attitudes surrounding him.

But like his father and uncle, Michael was born in the good old U.S.A., and among the issues Levinson mines here are the cultural changes that would forever change our ideas of family life.

Changes like television. When the Krichinsky clan first gather around their new set, they’re so mesmerized that they don’t realize they’re watching a static test pattern. By the time Avalon is over, chatty family dinners will be replaced by silent meals eaten in the blue glow of the boob tube.

But there are other dramatic shifts. Sam Krichinsky’s sons, on the path to business success with a furniture store, Anglicize their names so as to appear less foreign, less Jewish.

And Mama Krichinsky can’t quite comprehend why her daughters-in-law would prefer to live in their own homes, apart from their elders.

Avalon is episodic. Scenes unfold around holidays, around big events in the family’s history (the opening of a new store)...the sorts of things that would register strongly in a young boy’s memory.

But for all its lack of a well-made plot, the film carries an undeniable emotional narrative. It’s about coming of age, both as individuals and as a people.

The title refers to the Baltimore street on which the Krichinskys first set up house. But it also references the myth of King Arthur, where Avalon was an island populated by immortals. There the wounded Arthur was taken to recover from his wounds in an atmosphere of nurturing and safety.

Interestingly enough, Levinson made a sequel of sorts to Avalon. It was called Liberty Heights (1999) and it followed the Michael character (now called Ben Kurtzman) through his adolescence in a Baltimore suburb in the early ‘60s.

It is rarely seen, but highly recommended.

See Bob's general introduction to The Golden Door film series.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.