By Craig Joseph
Screening Avalon has always been like watching an entertaining version of my own life. I remember sitting at my grandfather’s feet, surrounded by cousins and older relatives, listening to his tales of coming to America. I can recollect numerous family dinners, observed from the kid’s table, during which several generations talked over one another – laughing, completing one another’s sentences, and occasionally erupting into a fight with someone storming away from the table. I’ve watched a cadre of great-uncles and great-aunts (not just good-aunts) recline on the couch after meals, having inane conversations that go nowhere (“Stagecoach”). Family circle meetings (“It’s like a foinace in here”), bringing cousins over from the old country, humorous struggles with the English language: I’ve laughed and proudly owned the resonances with my own family’s immigrant experience.
So I was surprised to find melancholy creeping over me this time as the credits rolled. Ostensibly, this stems from losing my last grandparent this past fall; I have a few great-aunts and great-uncles left, but I’m conscious of a generation of folks disappearing from my life. I miss what they’ve brought me: a respect for tradition, the Arabic language, Syrian food and culture, an aggravating sense of thrift, an indomitable will to succeed and make a good life. And above all, the stories.
Mine has been a life framed and fueled by family stories. And what struck me about this viewing is how much my identity has been shaped by these stories – and how that identity is in danger of becoming lost when those stories are forgotten. This isn’t a new lesson; throughout the Old Testament, the prophets remind the Israelites (history’s first, best immigrants) to hold onto their specific identity as the children of Yahweh whenever they enter a new country. They’re not to get caught up in the practices, behavior and thought patterns of others, but to remember who and whose they are by obsessively retelling the story of how God has been faithful to them over the ages, always saving, always providing, always forgiving.
Barry Levinson dramatizes many threats to necessary remembering. The unchecked advent of technology (here, it’s television) depersonalizes our interactions, finds us staring at screens and TV dinners rather than faces across the table, and family legends get replaced with a diet of sitcom stories. The frenzied pace of contemporary life and our inability to be patient cause us to speed past traditions: we don’t visit because our loved ones are too far away; we elope instead of planning the big celebration; we cut the turkey before everyone has arrived. There’s also a critique of the American Dream run amok; sometimes the will to succeed and make a fortune gets too big, and gratitude, thrift, generosity and moderation – that which characterized the first generation’s efforts – are thrown out the window. Despite it all, grandfather Sam stands quietly in the background throughout, imploring his children to remember, “I came to America in 1914…”
I want to be Sam. I want my nieces and nephews – and maybe someday, my own children – to know where they come from. I want them to look at old black and white pictures and know every person – his or her passions, quirks, eccentricities and dreams. I want to speak the language, eat the food, remember the reasons for why we’ve chosen to live the way we have. I want to preserve the stories. And Avalon helps me do so.