Unorthodox turkey carving may tear your family apart this Thanksgiving.
Well, maybe not the turkey carving alone, but with disregard of family traditions and customs, selfishness, commercialism, money troubles, family troubles, big business, advertizing, and television thrown in—it just might.
All of the above concerns (including the turkey carving) are touched upon in the 1990 Barry Levinson film Avalon, starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Aidan Quinn, Kevin Pollack and Elijah Wood. The story’s underlying theme, “if you stop remembering, you forget,” held true as I scrambled to take notes throughout two recent viewings. Thankfully, this film’s blend of comedy, nostalgia, beautiful cinematography and the music of Randy Newman, make for a memorable two hours combined with excellent, natural, performances from the large cast.
The film begins with the July 4th, 1914, arrival in the United States of Russian-Jewish immigrant Sam Krichinsky. Fireworks illumined the hopes and dreams Sam held for a new life in a land of unimaginable promise as his four brothers welcomed him to Baltimore and their home, Avalon. The five brothers lived and worked in communion, forming their own wallpaper hanging business to make ends meet. As each brother married, the Krichinsky family circle grew. They organized themselves to look out for the welfare of the family as a whole, pooling together their meager funds to save for necessities and emergencies—and to bring their beloved ‘Papa’ to America. With love, laughter, music, and each other, the family survived what they saw as the hardest of times.
These tales of the early days are narrated by the Sam of the 1940’s, now one of the Krichinsky patriarchs, over Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family. We see that not much has changed between the brothers and their wives; they are warm and fun-loving and their children and grandchildren appreciate their banter over family memories and the good old days. Though their Jewish heritage, rarely mentioned in the film, seems to have slipped away, the family remains steeped in tradition. The youngest children have grown up with the influence of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great aunts—all their family members—nearby, if not next door. Their life in Baltimore’s characteristic row-homes called to my mind Chesterton’s quote from The Club of Queer Trades:
There is something entirely Gargantuan in the idea of economizing space by piling houses on top of each other, front doors and all. And in the chaos and complexity of those perpendicular streets anything may dwell or happen…
Within these streets, young cousins Izzy Kirk and Jules Kaye (shedding their Krichinsky identities to assume ‘American names’) have struck out in business for themselves. Raised by their fathers with the notion that manual labor (such as wallpaper hanging) was degrading and ‘selling was security’, they have become salesmen. After an act of violence strikes the family, another threat is welcomed into the Krichinsky home in the form of a television set. What hours were once spent happily listening to tales of the old days and interacting with family members, are soon replaced with Howdy Doody and Milton Berle. Petty quips and short tempers at the dinner table are forgotten as members leave their half eaten food to stare at the tube. A sustained shot of the vacated family table is particularly poignant, as is the camera’s slow sweep of a neighborhood market as television advertisements blare “here is adventure, here is romance!”… watching other people live. Izzy and Jules jump on the bandwagon, opening a storefront to sell televisions and, later, other small appliance-touting their ‘guaranteed low prices’. As the store becomes more than they can handle, they begin skimping on the important things. The store must be open late to be competitive, customers are viewed in the abstract rather than as individuals to serve, they enjoy less and less time family time. The itch to expand and grow their wallets has the cousins making risky ventures. For the first time, the family is pulled apart to move to a new home in the suburbs. “We’re getting further and further away from Avalon.”
The children’s natural wonder has been replaced by ‘cliffhangers’; spending whole Saturdays at the movies and hours in front of the television has left them impatient, discontented and devoid of the common sense they learned from family influence and interaction. Stories are no longer listened to. The family circle meetings are strained through distance and money disagreements. When Mrs. Sam Krichinsky’s brother and his family, recently released from a concentration camp, arrive in the States in time for Thanksgiving, the realization of just how far this family has drifted in the course of the film sinks in.
Things were gradually accepted and allowances made without a second thought in the Krichinsky family. The movie presented itself in the same way; I began by merely watching, but by the end, the story became very personal and pointed. I felt sad staring into the screen as the blank faces of the characters stared back. The dialogue—discussions, arguments and flippant remarks—between family members had a great impact on me as well. In fact, this film has caused me to experience sensitive hearing: I cannot listen to a conversation or make a comment without thinking of the short-tempered, frivolous, or unnecessary nature of my statement, or how much time we all waste being unkind. (I’m almost sure this will wear off by tomorrow.)
This movie illustrates what is needed to survive: we must remember what is past, cherish family and our traditions, hold relationships with others as foremost, put our jobs and salaries in the proper perspective and not give in to the fads and fashions around us. If we ‘go with the flow’ of American life and so-called ‘progress’, we will rush headlong over the precipice. I am convinced we have to look back; further back than the ‘glory days’ of our parents and grandparents.
As C.S. Lewis wrote:
We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.
If I knew things would never be, I would have tried to remember better!