Avalon (1990, Barry Levinson)

Avalon is not a success.

It very frustratingly waits until the very end of the picture to clearly not succeed. After trying real hard, there’s just nothing to it. Writer and director Levinson makes a whole bunch of big swings in how he directs the narrative, which is an attempt at doing lyrical structure–just one based on sort of protagonist Elijah Wood’s experience over three momentous years in his childhood—while still keeping some big epical trappings. There’s a rising action but only to get certain kinds of drama. Levinson also drops Wood as the even pseudo-protagonist like a hot potato in the third act, as his relationship with grandpa Armin Mueller-Stahl makes way for Aidan Quinn (as Wood’s dad and Mueller-Stahl’s son), but only barely. The film’s strength was Levinson’s way of orbiting these characters and finding imaginative ways into the scenes, particularly with Joan Plowright (who gives the film’s best performance as the matriarch of the family), and then he completely fumbles it for the hurried conclusion.

Avalon is really good throughout. The remembrance stuff Levinson gets away with is great. He’s got this ode to television tracking shot; he stops the story to do it, showing the way life was for these people before they’d be glued to the tube, and it’s beautifully melancholic. Levinson is sentimental about everything, he picks no favorites—but he does choose very carefully what he’ll showcase. The coming of television sequence has no bearing on the story—Quinn and cousin Kevin Pollak start their eventual discount department store with a TV-only storefront, but it’s a detail along the way in the story, not an ongoing theme, even though it’s a recurring detail. Very weird.

Instead the tracking sequence is just what Levinson did with this particular footage, what he very intentionally did with it, begging for attention. The sequence would seem a lot less intentional if the first act weren’t full of visualized flashbacks. The film opens with Mueller-Stahl telling the story of how he came to the United States, Fourth of July, 1914, Baltimore. Levinson, cinematographer Allen Daviau, editor Stu Linder, and composer Randy Newman create this distinct style for the flashbacks. You can feel the silent movie influence more than you can see it, though Daviau never loves color anywhere else near as much in those sequences. The vividness of memory.

The flashbacks are an indulgence, then a shortcut as Quinn has one to set up a couple other scenes later on, but then they’re nothing in the finale. Levinson gives up on them, but still tries to leverage them. It’s such a rushed finish. Levinson runs screaming from the narrative promises, all of a sudden desperate to make them vignettes. Avalon is a vignettes movie in its third act, but not in the first and second acts. The flashback sequences don’t work with the vignettes. Conceptually. Basically it’s just got a bad third act and it’s bad enough it’s kind of disrespectful to the cast. Levinson shafts every actor in the movie, leaving it all for a tepid stunt cast.

In just a few minutes, Levinson pulls the rug out from under Mueller-Stahl and Plowright, demoting them in what’s been equal share their film. In their place… he puts in filler, taking advantage of the lovely wistful techniques they discover earlier, using them to skip along. Levinson doesn’t want there to be any voice in Avalon except Mueller-Stahl’s, but he goes so extreme he doesn’t just end up silencing Mueller-Stahl, he straggles the narrative distance. Avalon has a point of view from jump, an unspeaking narrator guiding us through the experience; Levinson can’t make it work in the finish and doesn’t even try. It’s an incomplete.

Albeit one with some beautiful filmmaking and great performances. Even Quinn—whose Baltimore accent comes and goes. But it’s Plowright and Mueller-Stahl’s show. Elizabeth Perkins and Eve Gordon are good as Quinn and Pollak’s wives, respectively, but they don’t get anything to do themselves. Wood’s good. He gets a good arc and then gets chucked just like everyone else.

Wood’s absence is actually the most notable, because as Avalon> has just become his story. Levinson immediately wrestles it back from him.

Gorgeous editing from Linder, just wonderful cuts. He and Levinson do nostalgia well.

Avalon’s almost kind of great. Excellent pieces. Real bad ending.


2 Comments

  1. Debbie

    I gotta say I’m not the biggest fan of Barry Levinson’s films. They can be uneven, as you describe here. I do recall a lot of family members loving the movie when it first came out because they loved the story of a Jewish family in America. Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

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