Dr. Pat Deneen has a fine post (recycled from the leading journal in political science in the world) about the movement from family and community to individuality and choice in Barry Levinson’s AVALON in the mode of Ehrenhalt’s classic LOST CITY. It’s true that people spent more time outside on the stoop in the urban row house, because it was unbearably hot inside. And it’s ironic that they move to big suburban houses surrounded by nice land only to remain inside in air-conditioned comfort watching TV. Nobody can deny the irony of progress from not enough privacy to too much.
But in the spirit of the “things are getting better and worse” theory that animates the unflinching realism of postmodern conservatism, I have to add that AVALON is the sappiest or most “cloying” of Levinson’s Baltimore movies. Despite the beautiful filming and noble ambitions, it’s my least favorite.
So let me say a few things about what I can remember about the others—TIN MEN, DINER, and LIBERTY HEIGHTS. My memory will inevitably fail me here in many ways, and so let me apologize in advance for being vague and doubtless inaccurate.
In LIBERTY HEIGHTS, the dad is a tough, quick, and smart son of a immigrant compelled by circumstances, including intense anti-Jewish prejudice and no real educational opportunity, to make his living illegally—through burlesque on THE BL0CK and numbers. The intense animosity the Jews and the blacks had for each other is displayed clearly, as well as the the contempt the WASP and Catholic oligarchs (and of course the rednecks) had for them both. This contempt extends to even middle-class life in the public schools and so forth. Levinson portrays the prejudice of the time with considerable personal bitterness.
Self-reliant yet familial immigrants did what was required to succeed in order that their children could go to college and prosper more easily and more honorably as free and equal persons. The dad, in LIBERTY HEIGHTS, ends up going to jail on trumped up charges based on prejudice, having been very careful to secure his children’s future.
And then, of course: There’s the marvelously self-reliant activity of the tin man (the door-to-door seller of rip-off aluminum siding). There’s a certain nostalgia for that way of life in the film, but it is, obviously, very selective. I would love a porcher post for bringing back tin men, whose risky work required more intelligence than that of, say, the motorcycle mechanic.
One theme of all these films is what good immigrants the Jews of Baltimore were. They really did combine entrepreneurial drive in unfriendly circumstances with loyalty to family and friends. (Actually, the kids in DINER don’t have the drive of their parents, but their capacity for loyalty to their friends and family seems relatively undiminished.) And one of the themes is that the promise of America is real—a blessing, with all its downsides (from cruel prejudice for a while to too much choice and comfort later). These films are nothing if not a celebration of America as “a home for the homeless,” as our patron saint Chesterton says. (Consider that—in AVALON—the family’s Holocaust survivor naturally ends up in America, where the American family performs its duty to the European relative as a pleasure.)
So life gets better, if you work hard, in a free country when it comes to justice and prosperity. Community may decline, but it doesn’t have to at all. Finally it’s not “America’s” fault if it does.
I will close with a porcher moment about all these films’ loving and meticulous portrayal of particular places in Baltimore—such as the DINER—which have disappeared. Baltimore is certainly a particularly fit subject for the poet—combining as it does North and South and Catholic and Jew etc. etc.