Anthony Breznican is a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and the author of the fantastic novel Brutal Youth — if you were a teenager who struggled in high school, this book will be a friend to you.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as we talk with Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican about the movie that’s changed his life, Avalon. If you haven’t seen this movie — and chances are, you probably haven’t — don’t worry, as we’re going to give you all of the details and information you’ll need to enjoy this conversation. And hopefully, if we’ve done our jobs right, you’ll want to see the movie.
[music: “The Family,” by Randy Newman, from Avalon: Music from the Motion Picture]
Ms. Percy: There are very few movies that really capture what it feels like to be part of a family — especially, to be part of an immigrant family. Every time I think about Barry Levinson’s movie Avalon, which is about a family that comes from Russia — every time I think about this movie, I automatically want to start crying, because it’s not so much what happens in the movie. There’s nothing really plot-twisty or suspenseful or horrifying or, really, even dramatic that happens. It’s just because you’re following this family over a period of many years, and throughout that time that you’re with them, you become part of that family. And because life is full of births and deaths, it means that, inevitably, you’re going to see some of these characters die. And that is actually the tragedy of the movie. That’s why you cry when you think about it.
Ms. Percy: The main characters in Avalon are Sam Krichinsky, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Jules, his son, played by Aidan Quinn. Another really important character is the character that Elijah Wood plays — a very young Elijah Wood — which is Michael.
If you’re lucky enough to have had a grandfather that really played an important part of your life, you’ll feel love for Sam, because he embodies the grandfather that you wish you had, for those of us who didn’t have that grandfather, and for those of us who had that grandfather, the grandfather that you really recognize.
I think the character of Sam, for Anthony Breznican, is his grandfather. There are so many similarities between Sam and Anthony’s grandfather. Sam was an immigrant and a wallpaper hanger, Anthony’s grandfather was the son of immigrants and a house-painter; and they both really loved and taught their grandchildren, unconditionally.
Ms. Percy: Anthony is someone who loves movies very deeply, so I knew that he was going to pick a movie that has transformed his life and that’s shaped him, but I had no idea that he was gonna pick Avalon. And the moment that he said he chose Avalon, I immediately was afraid, [laughs] because I knew that it was gonna be a tearjerker of a conversation.
Ms. Percy: I’ve been reading your work for many, many years, and especially, have really, really loved your writing around movies. So I’m especially curious to know how you answer this question, which is, where does your love of movies come from?
Mr. Breznican: I guess I just really love stories. That’s maybe one of the defining things about me, and I didn’t even realize it until later in life, when I was a teenager. But I really love just stories, so movies, TV shows, books. My grandfather was a great storyteller. He was a house painter by trade, but he could hold a room and just enthrall an audience without meaning to, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like he would be, ever — I never saw him onstage, but I saw him perform all the time at little family gatherings and holidays — Christmas; the Fourth of July, people gathered after the fireworks to have watermelon and beer and Coca-Cola — he would start telling a story about something. And so stories have just always been meaningful to me. I think they’re how we orient ourselves in life. A good story helps you understand the world a little better. And movies are a part of that.
Ms. Percy: And movies are a huge part of that, yeah. Well, it’s really meaningful to me that you talked about your grandfather, because reading some of your writing about him, it was so clear to me that Sam, the character that Armin Mueller-Stahl plays in Avalon —I don’t want to say he is your grandfather, but there are so many parallels. And I wonder if that was one of the things that really, really touched you when you first saw Avalon.
Mr. Breznican: Well, absolutely. And people ask me all the time, because I write about movies for Entertainment Weekly, “What’s your favorite movie?” And I think — I feel like they expect me to say Star Wars, because I write about Star Wars.
Ms. Percy: Because you’re the official Star Wars reporter, yeah.
Mr. Breznican: Or to say something — name some Oscar winner, like a classic film. And Avalon — it’s from 1990, right? Or ’91?
Ms. Percy: It’s 1990.
Mr. Breznican: It didn’t win any awards. I don’t think many people saw it. I don’t think it did tremendous box office. And I didn’t see it until I was in my 20s. But it’s the movie I treasure most, and I watch it a couple of times a year. I always watch it around Thanksgiving, because so many of those family scenes in the film are set around Thanksgiving.
And by the time I saw it, my grandfather was gone. He had died when I was 19. And I talked about stories orienting you in your life and giving you purpose or understanding of the world, but he himself did that for me, and so his death was one of the most traumatic losses I’ve ever suffered. And I’ve lost two other grandmothers since then, but they lived into their 80s and 90s, and they had good, long lives. And his ended at 71 — which, when I was 19, seemed very old, and now that I’m 41, doesn’t seem that far off. [laughs]
And Avalon is the story — the two men — the grandfather, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl has this great relationship with his grandson, who’s played by Elijah Wood when he was like ten years old. And the grandfather tells these stories. The movie begins with him telling the story of how he came to America. And my grandfather was born here in America; his parents were Belgian immigrants. His father was a glass manufacturer who was brought over from Belgium to help manufacture window glass. So he was part of that immigrant experience, and his parents knew what it meant to leave their home and come to this new country and set up a life. And there are so many similarities between him and the grandfather, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl.
Ms. Percy: The house-painting; the wallpaper-hanging.
Mr. Breznican: Well, yeah, when that happened in the movie, I was like, “Oh, come on!” [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Exactly. I was like, “They wrote this for you. Barry Levinson wrote this for you.”
Mr. Breznican: Because I was already like — oh, he tells this story about — Sam Krichinsky is the name of the character. He tells this story at the beginning of the movie, about coming to America, and that reminded me so much of stories my grandfather would tell about being a kid in Ford City, Pennsylvania. And then he’s a wallpaper hanger and a painter, and I’m like, “Come on! This is too — am I being punked here?” [laughs]
But that’s — sometimes the universe gives you these interesting little cosmic coincidences. But they’re Jewish, in the film; my family was Catholic. But otherwise, they’re exactly the same. [laughs] And it reminds me how similar people are, really. We think we’re so different, or we have these different cultures — but really, they’re all sort of variations on a theme. I think people, families, are so much more alike than they are different.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, and it’s that whole notion of: the more specific you are to your experience, the more universal it becomes — because when I watch this movie, I don’t share nearly anything with them, other than being an immigrant. That is it. And yet, I relate so much to the dynamics, to the way they talk to each other. I think part of it is, it feels improvised. I don’t know how much of it was improvised, but a lot of the scenes feel like you’re just kind of — it’s almost like Barry Levinson, who directed and wrote it, set up a camera and just left and just allowed us to see what was going on in this family.
Mr. Breznican: The thing that I think hurts it — and it’s something I love about the movie, so I would not describe it as a flaw. But in terms of reaching an audience and connecting with a broader audience, the fact that it doesn’t really have a plot…
Ms. Percy: Yeah, it doesn’t.
Mr. Breznican: …is something that works against it. It’s not like they’re on a mission, or there’s a ticking clock.
Ms. Percy: Or like there’s this horrible conflict that they have to face or overcome.
Mr. Breznican: Yeah, it’s just the story of one family, an extended family, that comes to America, becomes a part of America, and then, over time, due to the changing culture, separates from itself. And the way that pulls the family apart is beautiful and tragic. It’s sad, but it’s also wonderful. It’s what happens. It’s like throwing rose petals into a river. They hang together, they swirl around each other, but then, gradually, the current pulls them apart. And it may be a little bit tragic, but it’s just the way of life.
Ms. Percy: And also, I feel like, in many ways, even though there isn’t a plot, what you’re saying is so true. As I was watching the film, I was so conscious of the fact that it was gonna end. And I just kept hoping that it wouldn’t end like life; that there wouldn’t be death, [laughs] just because I could see that that’s gonna be the tragedy, is that we all do die, and we lose the people in our lives that we love. And that tension carried me through the film. I felt this tension the whole time, watching it.
Mr. Breznican: Yeah, because they’re far in the past, and we know that Sam Krichinsky is not gonna be alive in 2017, and so we wonder where this movie’s gonna leave off. And I don’t know if we want to spoil the ending or not…
Ms. Percy: [laughs] I know.
Mr. Breznican: It’s a movie from almost 30 years ago.
Ms. Percy: 1990. Can we spoil it? Yeah. [laughs]
Mr. Breznican: Yeah, but the fact that it doesn’t end with Sam being dead. Actually, where they leave him is so much more emotional than him in a casket, or his gravestone.
Ms. Percy: Exactly.
Mr. Breznican: You see him at the end of his life, but the conversation he has with his grown-up grandson is one that I find very hard to even think about without getting emotional. It’s such a — it’s so beautiful, but it is sad. And I like that feeling. That’s why it’s one of my favorite movies, is because it grabs me by the heart, Avalon, and it has not let me go in the 20 years since I’ve seen it.
Ms. Percy: Ooh. Right now I’m holding it in, Anthony, holding it in. [laughs]
Mr. Breznican: Hold it together! Hold it together! [laughs]
Ms. Percy: When Sam is seeing that grown-up grandson for — well, not for the first time; but for us, we see the grown-up grandson for the first time in the kind of senior citizens home that he lives in now. And he says that “If I knew that things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.”
Mr. Breznican: Ugh.
Ms. Percy: Ugh. That line.
Mr. Breznican: “If I knew that things would no longer be there, I would have tried to remember better.” Sam, at this point in the movie, is — he’s got to be in his 90s. And he’s not all there, but enough of him is there that you can still detect the man that we know from the earlier parts of the movies. And what I thought was cool was, his grandson is talking to him, but his great-grandson is in the room too. And the little boy is watching — I think he’s watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV.
Ms. Percy: On TV, yeah.
Mr. Breznican: So he’s not even really paying attention. And later, as he’s walking out with his dad, he says, “That guy talks funny.”
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Yeah.
Mr. Breznican: And his father says, “Well, he wasn’t born here.” And he starts telling the same story that we heard at the very beginning of the movie, about how Sam came to America. And that — even — I’m not even watching it right now, but that chokes me up.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] I know! We gotta — we gotta stop it! We gotta stop it. [laughs] It’s so true.
Mr. Breznican: But when Sam is sitting — Sam is there in his room, and he’s just kind of rambling. He’s just sort of spinning off memories. But he has a moment of lucidity. And he says, “I went back to the house on Poplar Street, where Eva and I used to live” — his wife — “and it wasn’t there. Not even the street was there.” In that time, so many things had changed in Baltimore that — “not even the street.” And he mentions going to this other place, where he lived with his brothers, and another shop he used to frequent. And they were all gone.
And that’s when he says, “If I knew things would no longer be there, I would’ve tried to remember better.” And what’s so heartbreaking about that is, nobody in this movie remembers things better than Sam Krichinsky. He’s the one who tells the stories. He’s the one who has all the details. And that’s why it’s so tragic, is that life slips by you. It just drifts by so quickly, and you can just try and grasp onto it as much as you can, but you also have to live in the moment. And I think, clearly, the thing he’s not missing are the streets and the buildings, it’s the people that were there with him. They are all gone. And if he knew that he would be the last one, without any of them, he wished he had remembered them, and through remembering them, had them with him still, because when you remember something, it’s there. It’s there in your heart and in your head.
And I just can’t think of a more beautiful movie. So whenever anybody says, “Hey, what’s your favorite movie?” and I don’t say Star Wars, and they look a little disappointed, and instead I say, Avalon, and they go, “What’s that?”
Ms. Percy: Exactly. [laughs]
Mr. Breznican: …I actually feel — I don’t know if anybody has ever actually, on my recommendation, sought it out, but I just think, “You are so lucky, because I wish I could watch this movie for the first time again, because it so moved me.” But every time I watch it, it still has that same power.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, this is always the magic of a great film, is that every time you watch it, it gives you a new gift. It gives you something new. And watching it this time around, in preparing to talk with you, I was so struck with how the adults in the film talk to the children. They don’t talk to them as children, and especially, Sam. Sam talks to his grandson like he’s a fully formed person. He doesn’t talk down to him. He treats him with this respect that really feels powerful to me now, as an adult that is watching it. And I wonder, as you’ve gone through the years, watching this film over and over again, how have you grown together? What do you get from it now, the older that you get?
Mr. Breznican: Well, now I have kids. I have a daughter who’s going to be eight in a few weeks, and a son who’s four. And my son’s name — he has a very unusual name; it’s Prosper, which sounds like a made-up Hollywood name, [laughs] like Apple or something like that.
Ms. Percy: Exactly. [laughs]
Mr. Breznican: But Prosper is an old Belgian name, and my grandfather, his name was Prosper Hubert, and my son’s name is Prosper Joseph. He’s also named after my uncle — my uncle who introduced me to the movie Avalon — Uncle Joe. So in some ways, that movie is really tied in with my life, and it always will be. So I have this little boy and this little girl. They’re too young for the movie — I just don’t think they’d be interested in it now. But someday, they’ll be teenagers, and we’ll watch it together, and they’ll see their old man just melt down in tears [laughs] over this film.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Like, “What is wrong with dad?” [laughs]
Mr. Breznican: “Geez, get it together.” But hopefully it’s something that — my daughter is very sensitive to this kind of thing, so I have no doubt about her. But my little boy, I hope he also sees it and realizes why his name means so much to me, that I would name him after — that I would burden him with this — what my grandmother said was a terrible name, is because I had such deep love for this man that he will never know. But if he sees this movie, he’ll get some sense of that relationship.
Ms. Percy: Anthony Breznican is a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and the author of the fantastic novel, Brutal Youth — if you were a teenager that struggled in high school, like I did, this book will be a friend to you.
Next time we’ll be talking about the endlessly quotable and beloved Bridget Jones’s Diary. So get your reindeer jumpers and granny panties ready. As always, you have two weeks to watch — or rewatch it — before our conversation and you can find it on all the usual streaming sites or at your local library. Renting movies for free is the only reason my brother has a library card, so follow his great example.
This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Marie Sambilay, and Tony Liu, and is an On Being Studios production. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. We’re also on Facebook and Instagram at thismoviechangedme — that’s: thismoviechangedme — all one word. And on twitter at TMCMpodcast. So get in touch, tell us which movies have changed you, what you’re connecting with on the show, or what you wish we’d do differently — we’d love to hear from you! I’m Lily Percy, do yourself a favor and practice self love tonight: cancel your plans and go see a movie instead.
[music: “Weekend Musicians,” by Randy Newman, from Avalon: Music from the Motion Picture]