Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Cultural Loss and the American Dream: The Immigrant Experience in Barry Levinson's Avalon

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Cultural Loss and the American Dream: The Immigrant Experience in Barry Levinson's Avalon

Article excerpt

Barry Levinson's Avalon is an exploration in the most American of experiences-the process of immigration experienced by millions of new citizens (Nugent). As we follow the acculturation of Sam Krichinsky and his extended family, we observe the joy, the sense of wonder, and the feeling of limitless possibilities that were part of the immigrant experience in America during the first quarter of the 20th Century. But we also witness the social forces that erode, step-by-step, across generations, the rich cultural heritage the Krichinskys brought to their new homeland. The strong family ties, the traditions, the rituals, and the cultural norms are slowly replaced by the promises of a new, fast-paced, modernizing America. The loss, necessary and yet irreparable, teaches us much about the paradoxes of the immigrant experience (Bodnar; Gordon). This paper explores Levinson's artistic portrayal of those paradoxes.

Hollywood and the media have always portrayed the immigrant experience in a very positive light. The arrival of immigrants seems deeply woven into our contemporary sense of national identity. It confirms America's status as the land of opportunity, as the newcomers help create the contours of our own modernity. The many migrant strands come together to see America through two world wars and an industrial economic boom unlike any in previous history. The hardships of the experience, of course, cannot compare to the good fortune of freedom and social mobility associated with America's bounty. The whole journey has an ineffable quality-the horrible conditions of the old country are left behind, for the sake of the opportunities of the new homeland. Along the way, in a more or less unquestioning fashion, the immigrant is supposed to embrace the American culture and become a full-fledged participant in the nation-building process that defined the 20th-century United States. To some extent this portrayal of immigration is critical to our sense of patriotism. It upholds the notion of America's manifest destiny, of its uniqueness among nations. From colonial times Americans are not united by a common birthplace, but by the embracing of certain ideals and aspirations. That so many would yearn to join in this project is a clear indication of the staying power of those promises. Underneath the symbolism, the message is clear: coming to America is the means to personal redemption. Even grittier films-Moscow on the Hudson, Mi Familia, or The Godfather-that show glimpses of immigration's underside, end up reaffirming its blessings as well. It is in America that immigrants are finally allowed to flourish and succeed. It may take a period of re-adjustment, and there may be a certain amount of cultural adaptation to deal with, but the result is an affirmation of the American dream. People prosper, get settled, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. They see their children growing up in a prosperous land, where they can look forward to an unfettered future.

Needless to say, immigrant films deal in hope. They trade on the promise that motivates so many to leave their homelands. Furthermore, Hollywood is not alone in preserving the iconic image of the immigrant. The media contributes to its perpetuation as well. Legal immigrant stories tend to highlight their success; or, if faced with tragedy-someone gets killed or mugged-they highlight the enormous sadness for someone who came from so far to have his/her dreams cut short by misfortune. Every Fourth of July the news media profiles a group of immigrants at their citizenship ceremony in a courthouse, the governor's palace, or the steps of Congress. The commentary usually runs along the lines of how fortunate the new citizens are to have found a haven, and how proud they are to become Americans. Flags are waved, photo-ops are created for the local newspapers, and the symbolism goes on.

What is missed in these public images is the complexity of the immigrant experience. There is a bitter sweetness that comes from giving up one's identity, from letting go of old ways to embrace the American way. …

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