Editors Note: I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge and reflect on the passing of Roger Ebert. Growing up in Chicago, his connection to the movies has been a consistent pillar since my earliest memories. And without question, his work, whether out rightly acknowledged or not, had a tremendous impact on this blog and my writing. His approach was empathetic and human, thoughtful and genuine. And, at least in part, because of these reasons, his was maybe the first celebrity death that felt personal and strange, and which I still find myself processing. But I will miss him and his work greatly.
By Tim Barlow
The movie Avalon begins grandly, celebrating an immigrant as he steps off the pier in awe of his new surroundings, born again unto early 1900’s Baltimore, on the 4th of July. He tours the city, taking in the excitement, ultimately landing later that night in the Avalon neighborhood, where his three brothers, having already arrived from the old country, are waiting to greet him. Family. Avalon.
From here, the movie is a sprawling epic, detailing three generations as they navigate American life in the first half of the twentieth century, surrounded by family. There are successes and failures, scary close calls and heartwarming laughs, but as the movie goes on, we can see the once close knit extended family slowly drift apart. They move to a nicer neighborhood, that is only one extra train transfer away, and leave the family business to try and break out on their own; relatable reasons, but the familiarity, and with it, the relationship fades.
Watching this all unfold, I couldn’t help but think of my family’s parallels: My Grandparents were raised in New England. My parents were both raised (at least in part) near Detroit. After they were married, they moved to Chicago, where they raised my siblings and I. Shortly after my wife and I were married, we moved to Minneapolis. Three generations of Barlow pioneering progressively West, successively pulling ourselves (up) from our roots, to be planted some place new.
During my twenties, as I set out on my own, putting the distance between ambition and the familiarity of home, I began to question the role, and with it, the point of family in my modern age. The safety of numbers, or the many hands needed to work the land, were relics of a foreign system, and besides I had close friends whom I understand, and who get me. People I chose. Is family irrelevant?
Back in Avalon, television has surfaced to play an interesting and clearly purposeful role. Making its initial appearance early on, there are gradually more and more moments when it’s glow has captured one or multiple family members during the course of a scene. Staring blankly, but contentedly as their familial surrounding fades into the background. Was this Barry Levinson’s response to my question? Is this self satisfied, but ultimately fruitless staring contest with a box what we choose when given the choice, when it’s all about us? What if I don’t always realize what is best for myself in the moment? What if I choose ice cream when I should be eating broccoli?
One of the things I so often fail to remember is that there is something powerful and good about the relationships we don’t choose. The ones that are decided for us, without our vetting or say. The people we wouldn’t have ever chosen or given a chance to, given the initial option, but who we now can’t imagine life without (or if we already are without, would give so much to have back). Maybe there is freedom in that lack of choice, freedom to spend time together trying to make it work instead of worrying about missing a moment to cut ties and look for someone who fits a little better.
But Avalon reminded me that this is a tough lesson to put into practice in the moment. Too often getting to a point where looking back on the forgotten traditions, the stories we’ve heard a hundred times, and the inane arguments played out at every single god-forsaken family event, we wind up lamenting over what might have been lost, from our newly, chosen position.