Page 14


BOOKS & THE CULTURE American Multiplex Boundless Vision, Boyish Despair BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN AVALON Directed by Barry Levinson METROPOLITAN Directed by Whit Stillman IT IS THE END of a long December day has spent working house to house. As he is about to get into his car, a mugger demands that Jules surrender the day’s proceeds. He cannot believe this is happening, and neither can we, so utterly devoid is Avalon of any malevolence. Misfortunes fires, bankruptcies, funerals abound, and one character, Jules’s long-lost uncle Simcha, materializes out of something called a concentration camp. But, though the people we see on screen may be mulish or foolish, they are presented with such affection for them and among them that, if only we could see his mug for a few more seconds, we would probably love the thief as well. Avalon is a triumph of sentimentality over history. It is a luminous story of arrivals and departures. “I came to America in 1914 by way of Philadelphia,” announces the opening voiceover of Sam Krichinsky \(Armin Muellermade his way alone from Russia to Baltimore, where his four brothers took him into their paperhanging business. As he tells it, again and again, this time to enraptured grandson Michael and his cousins, Sam’s entry into Baltimore was greeted by a lavish display of fireworks. “It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your whole life,” Sam insists, and we are inclined to agree, dazzled by a radiant visual flashback. So what if it happens to be the Fourth of July, and the colorful bombs bursting in the Baltimore air were not contrived as a welcome salute to the awestruck newcomer? “What a country is this!” declares Sam three decades later, his eyes still glowing with the celebration of independence. Later, when Michael gets a baby brother and Sam and his yenta wife Eva \(Joan Plowhim and his parents, the boy is distraught. Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio. “One way or another, we all have to leave,” explains the old man, in a film that is shaped around the comings and goings of human life. Avalon invites us to become part of Sam Krichinsky’s family circle, the extended clan who, gathered yearly for a Thanksgiving repast, are able to dine on his passionate memories. “If I knew things would no longer be here,” sighs Sam in the geriatric home where he ends his days, “I would have tried to remember better.” Like Hope and Glory and The Night of the Shooting Stars, Avalon is an exercise in creative remembrance so lustrous we forgive it its omission of darkness. When Eva points out that an event Sam is recounting actually took place in May, not winter, the flashback suddenly loses its snow. But the movie never shakes its ingratiating innocence. Writer-director Barry Levinson projects a world that does not know from the Oedipus complex, in which fathers and sons and grandsons are genuine pals. Levinson’s 1940s Baltimore, where upwardly mobile Jews belong to the country club, lacks any trace of anti-Semitism. Even when Sam breaks with his cranky brother Gabriel in a senseless spat over carving the turkey, the mood is bittersweet, and more sweet than bitter. Jules changes his name from Krichinsky to Kaye, and Cousin Izzy changes it to Kirk. The two begin a department store chain and are for a while extremely successful. The American dream does not metamorphose into nightmare, even when their largest store goes up in flames. “I can sell anything,” says the indomitable Jules, and, like the Luftmenschen in Levinson’s Tin Men, he returns to the trade of peddler, now of commercial time in the popular new medium of television. Television proves the agent and metaphor for changes in the Krichinskys and American society. When Jules brings the first crude model home from the store he has stocked with sets, the entire family gathers round, mesmerized by mere test patterns. Later, clamorous family convocations are hushed by the power of the electronic box. Ultimately, only the nuclear family of Jules, wife David attend the Thanksgiving dinner, and they do so in silence, transfixed by the TV screen set beyond their plates. Sam lives to see his great grandson, but also the loss of family bonds. When he learns that Michael has named his little boy Sam, he reminds his grandson of an Eastern European Jewish taboo: “You’re not supposed to name him after the living.” “I know,” replies Michael, as though the ancient Sam in effect no longer lives or else the blasphemy no longer matters. Assimilation in Avalon is accomplished with minimal anguish, because not much of substance is seen to be sacrificed. It is always the secular American feast of Thanksgiving, not a Passover seder, at which the Krichinskys assemble. Though scattered and distracted, the family continues, and it is Michael who now tells little Sam the legend of their patriarch: “He came to America in 1914. …” As with the ballpark scenes in The Natural, Levinson transforms a fond man’s fantasy of personal history into myth, and he does so with a beguiling complexity of visual and aural montages. We view Sam’s arrival in 1914 in a gauzy reverie timed to the rhythms of a silent movie. Like Michael who gazes out the back of the family car at something wondrous, a diner being lowered from a crane \(a reminder of Levinson’s own fabulous emergence into film with we are forever wide-eyed at the precious life passing before us. Avalon astonishes with the revelation of archetype; this is no test pattern. IT’S AMAZING to see these things still go on,” says Tom Townsend \(Edward the . viewer with entree into an exclusive domain. These things are debutante balls, and they go on off-camera every evening in Metropolitan, an ethnographic comedy. It is a story of being up and in on Park Avenue during Christmas vacation “not so long ago.” Writer-director Whit Stillman defies the convention that an “honest” film must concern itself exclusively with characters who are impoverished, inarticulate, and in trouble. The very rich might, as Fitzgerald claimed, be different from you and me, but they, too, exist, and Stillman does a convincing job of taking the measure of their heirs. Because of “a bit of an escort shortage,” Tom is befriended by a group of adolescent socialites who gather nightly at Sally Fowler’s parents’ posh apartment and call themselves the SFRP: an acronym for Sally Fowler Rat Pack. Most of Metropolitan is set at their successive after-parties, following cotillions THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21