All life’s riddles are answered in the movies.
—Steve Martin, Grand Canyon
SOMETIMES WE SEE AN ERA SHIFT RIGHT BEfore our eyes. The movie Avalon (1990) captures such a moment. The story follows four immigrant brothers and their extended family. The brothers form a kind of mutual aid society, supporting each other, bringing other members of the family over from the old country, providing loans to help start family businesses and enterprises, and finally celebrating and fighting together. On the day the family’s first television set is installed, they all gather around it and stare at the test pattern, unblinking and unspeaking. The elders think the new contraption is silly, but the younger ones are fascinated. A new age has been born. Previously, the extended family, spreading out in rings from the patriarchal grandfather through the brothers and their wives, the sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted children, was the center of life. Now everything revolves around the television set. Dinner is a TV dinner, served on a TV tray. Conversation dies as people stare instead at the screen. The extended family dies with it, replaced by the nuclear family of husband, wife, and child sitting in front of the television set. The mass audience for television consists of isolated groups of two or three individuals or often just a single person.