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Opa!

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Yesterday, in a fit of I-don’t-know-what–sloth, maybe, or a violent need for self flagellation–I sat down and watched The Movie for the first time in over a year.

In a way, I suppose it’s odd that I can put it that way–that, considering the way I feel about this thing, I can write about the last time I watched it in a way that makes it clear I’ve watched it many, many times.

And I have watched it many, many times.  I’ve watched it because people like watching train wrecks, although it’s not a train wreck as a movie.  In fact, it’s pretty well done.  That’s part of what’s wrong with it.

I’ve watched it the way people watch things that make them angry because, sometimes, they want an excuse to be angry.

But this isn’t just an excuse.  This makes me legitimately angry.

In case you’re wondering, by now, The Movie is My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

If you happen to be one of the eighty five million people who love this thing–tough.  I know it’s very well made, and so heartwarming it makes me dizzy, but its portrayal of Greek Americans and Greek American life is so inaccurate, so one-sided, so skewed towards the least admirable people of that particular immigration that it makes my head spin.

I’m not saying that no Greek Americans exist like the ones in this movie, because they do.  I even have a few in my own family, and you have sometimes heard me complain about them on this blog.

But–Greeks who object to their children getting a college education, or studying things like art and the humanities?   Greeks who treat their daughters as worth nothing if they don’t get immediately married, quit anything like a career, and settle down to have jobs?  Which Greeks?  Where?

Okay, yes, I know.  Those Greeks do exist.  I do have them in my own family.

Well, sort of.  Even in the most anti-intellectual corners of my family, there was never any objection to girls going to college.  In fact, we were all encouraged to do it, practically from birth, and to put off getting married until we’d  “gotten an education.” 

All but two of my female Greek cousins went away to very decent colleges–a bigger percentage than what the boys did–and then quite a few of us went on to graduate school.  We’ve got a minimum of three PhDs among the girl cousins of my generation, and of those all but one married and had children, too.  The girls who didn’t marry either didn’t go to college or didn’t finish. 

And not one of us, advanced degrees in hand, quit it all to take care of the kids.  Quite the contrary.  My cousin Annie even went back and got a law degree to go with her doctorate.

Nor did we all study “practical” things, maybe because so many of us went to the kind of liberal arts colleges that didn’t offer practical things.  We majored in English and history and philosophy and let graduate school take care of the professional training.

I probably sound like I’m spinning my wheels here, but what bothers me about The Movie is its implication that it’s really all right, and very nice, to be not only anti-intellectual but anti-education, that we should cherish our Greek heritage as a heritage of island superstitions (spit on people for luck!), IQ-in-double-digits mulish suspicion of “book learning,” and culturally oblivious throwback attitudes on the roles and destinies of women.

When the movie first came out and I would blither like this, I would get told by people–virtually none of them Greek themselves–that the movie did in fact portray what Greeks were like given the Greeks they knew (wasn’t I a Greek they knew?), and that i was making too much out of what was really just a convention in romantic comedy.

And it’s true.  The immigrant-family-as-embarrassment-but-ultimately-good-for-us is a romantic comedy convention.  What’s more, the immigrant-family-as-embarrassment is another kind of convention, one deeply rooted in American literature. 

Writers from every immigrant community in the United States have managed to produce this same story–the story of the kid with aspirations to Better Things who leaes his embarrassing, unsophisticated, still-peasant immigrant family behind.  Philip Roth made a career out of it, and a form of the story predates the literature of the children of immigrants by a few decades, since that’s the same story that people like Sinclair Lewis were so fascinated by.

The one exception to this, interestingly enough, is the work of the African American writers who have come to prominence in the last fifty years.  For whatever reason, that is a literature of people who care about what happens to the people they leave behind.  And if you want a good example of it, see Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”

But Nia Vardalos does not care about the people she leaves behind, because she doesn’t want to leave them behind.  She wants to treat them like cute little pets, wohse foibles make great stories, and who should be loved and honored for the sweet unsophisticated cutey-pies they are.

All that book learning, Vardalos said, is best jettisoned as soon as it seems to be getting in the way of your real life.  Greeks can teach you what real life is, because they don’t care a damn about any of that stuff you have to go to school to do.

If you think I’m misreading My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I suggest you try Vardalos’s second effort, My Life in Ruins. 

For that one, she manages to go all the way to Greece to have her main character taught about Really Important Things in Life by a Greek tour bus driver and a bunch of tourists who make the cast of Dumb and Dumber look like mental heavyweights.

And just so that you don’t misunderstand the point here, the main character, played by Vardalos itself, has a PhD in classical history and is trying to get a job at a university in the states.

She even gets one, at the end, at Michigan, of all places–but of course she gives it up to go on being a tour guide and have her love affair with the bus driver.

In other words, all the tourists are right when they declare the history of classical Greece, the mythology, the philosophy, the art and architecture, “boring,” and when they demand trips to the beach and stories about the oracle at Delphi’s virginity–all those things are boring.  Real life is getting drunk on ouzo and having three-ways in the hotel rooms.  That’s what Greece has to teach us.

Ack.  Okay.  I’m being cranky today.

But that movie drives me crazy, and it drives me even crazier that the first Greek American to get a platform to make movies about Greek American life in Hollywood is this idiot, who seems about as determined as some of my cousins to declare the glories of mindlessness against the background of the Parthenon.

Written by janeh

February 15th, 2010 at 9:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Opa!'

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  1. You must like self-flagellation – you’ve said before how much you hate that movie, and you watch it, not once, but many times?

    OK, I confess, I actually have that movie on DVD, I’ve watched it maybe twice, and enjoyed it as a nice light comedy.

    The people I know who most liked it; liked it much more than I did, didn’t seem to be attracted by the cute but uneducated Greek immigrant theme. As best as I can remember, some of them at least saw parallels with the local experience, where in many families went from people forced to drop out of school after about grade 3 or 4 to people with university degrees and good jobs in one generation or maybe 2. So they were quite familiar with the idea of a drastic change in education and therefore culture within a family. I wonder if what really appeals is the picture of a family with drastic differences in cultures and values and still enormous warmth and love and unity.

    Because it doesn’t always work out that way. Even when the family maintains loving and loyal relationships between members with drastically different cultures and lifestyles, it’s often on a basis of mutual incomprehension. Many families collapse in mutual indignation and offense when one or more members choose a different lifestyle than the others.

    Maybe I’m putting too much on a comedy – I rarely watch modern film comedies because I’ve disliked most of the ones I’ve seen. I think, though, that in this case some viewers might not have been laughing at the ignorant Greek immigrants, but enjoying the fantasy of a big loving family who will always value and love you even when they don’t understand what you want to do.

    Cheryl

    15 Feb 10 at 10:14 am

  2. OK. Liked the first movie, though I don’t watch it once a year. Felt no urge to watch the second. Of course, I’ve never seen ZORBA THE GREEK either, nor a lot of more purely Anglo movies in which the hero leaves the big city to rediscover the more relaxed small-town to rural life. I guess I’m more a “work hard and get ahead” than an “ouzo by the beach” kind of guy–at least in movies, where I don’t have to actually work.

    Why did I like the first one? The utter incomprehension between generations seemed familiar. And deciding what’s a heritage to be passed on and what’s just grandmother’s mistake. Not a great movie, but I’ve see much worse.

    But you needn’t feel uniquely persecuted. I’ll see your two or three movies which portray Greeks as nice people without much worth ethic, and raise you as many moves as you’d care to watch–more!–in which everyone with a German surname is a clandestine Nazi, except for those who aren’t making any secret of it.

    Would an Irishman care to jump in here and say something about film and ethnic stereotypes?

    robert_piepenbrink

    15 Feb 10 at 10:38 am

  3. I’m not Irish, at least not for many generations back. I am southern, however. And in years past, perhaps a little less so now, many films set in the Deep South have had every racist, offspring of incestuous unions, illiterate redneck, corrupt politician, empty headed woman, child abuser, rapist, violent sob held up as indicative of those states and their people. Deliverance (which I liked, actually) The Dukes of Hazzard, Sweet Home Alabama, Tobacco Road, Hurry Sundown, Forrest Gump (which I also liked, strangely) are just a few. And there are many living examples of those stereotypes, hopefully not as many as in the ’50s and ’60s, residing there. Alabama, my home state, is home to some horribly racist and violent acts–1963 bombings, Selma; idiotic politics: the old argument over the Confederate flag, electing Roy Moore to the Alabama Supreme court, Rep. Gerald Allen’s proposed legislation that would prevent state funds for schools being used to purchase books with gay characters, and on it goes. But Birmingham is now home to an excellent Civil Rights museum, a first class medical school and research university, and the only county–Perry County– in the nation to declare a Barack Obama day on November 4. Alabama produced George Wallace and Bull Connor and Robert Chambliss but it also produced Harper Lee, W.C. Handy, Percy Sledge, Helen Keller. Still southern accents are often used on tv as well as in movies to depict willful ignorance or racism or ingenuousness in women. Slow talking equals slow thinking. Movies are made to entertain not to instruct.

    jem

    15 Feb 10 at 4:58 pm

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