Monday, July 27, 2009


There are parts of Nia Vardalos’ new film “My Life in Ruins,” that are remotely interesting. For the most part however, this film seems to be short-sighted, peddling ethnicity for cheap laughs, and even more disquieting, exhibiting hints of an orientalist approach to Greek culture. If anything, the film’s worth is never better summarised that in the sobriquet Vardalos has given to the lead male character: “Poupi Kaka.” And yes, apparently resorting to scatology in order to resolve deep seated angst about identity seems to be permissible as well as effective.
The two main motifs of the film are not without intrinsic value. On the one hand, you have the Greek-American trying to adjust, not only to a ‘foreign’ pace of life in Greece but also an almost ‘foreign’ philosophy, despite the fact that she is, in a sense Greek. However, with slight, welcome relapses, the way this is done verges onto the sloppy, tokenistic and chauvinistic. Vardalos’ placement of the main character, Georgia in Greece after a major life crisis is acceptable. How many Greek-Americans/Australians or other diasporans have sought refuge in the comforting magic promise of Greece, whether this is to forget an old and hurtful relationship, or to begin a career/life anew? Further, conditioned by Anglo-Saxonic social norms, the Greeks of Greece often appear at first glance loud, obtuse, aggressive and rude to us and their pace of life seems frustrating, conditioned by complex social relationships, vested interest and regulatory chaos. Obversely, Greek-Americas/Australians are often seen as cold, uncommunicative and awkward by their metropolitan counterparts.
An examination of the way in which Greek diasporans relate to Greek society and a contrast and comparison of acquired as well as imagined cultural traits would have been fascinating, though, one would venture to say, such an endeavour would most probably been lost upon a non-Greek audience. As it stands however, Vardalos’ Georgia is untenable. She is a quiet and awkward Greek, is a sea of weird, ugly, aggressive or sleazy counterparts. As such, and because she doesn’t speak foreign-accented English she is best placed to bridge not only the gap between idealised ancient Greece and inexplicably crazy (for the film at least) Modern Greece but also the cultural chasm between her boorish and philistine tourists and Greeks.
The way Vardalos goes about bridging this gap is clumsy and contrived. A frustrated Georgia rails and rants simplistically at how everyone in Greece has time for a coffee, elevators and buses do not work and no one seems to care. Granted, the apparent prevalence of chaos in Modern Greece, to western eyes is a legitimate motif for exploration. Sadly, Vardalos renders this as nothing more than the whinings of a culturally dislocated and frustrated bourgeois princess. Apparently a sole Greek-American is the solitary custodian of the cultural conscience of an entire civilization while her native counterparts are only interested in being loud, money-hungry, dishonest and sleazy, with a propensity towards sexual harassment. The scene where a hotel manager stereotypically refuses to assist her because he is too busy watching Anthony Quinn dance the Zorba, and later demands sexual favours in exchange for postage stamps is as ridiculous as it is insulting to Greece.
The manner in which native Greeks are represented smacks of racism and Orientalism. Extending Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou’s paradigm in their ground-breaking study: “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000” further, it becomes evident that the ruling Anglo-Saxon hegemony seeks to legitimise its cultural and temporal rule over the globe by becoming the arbiter of how smaller, tributary cultures define themselves. Consequently, when we choose to present ourselves to the ruling discourse, we need to do so in a manner that panders to their sense of superiority. That is, if our ethnicity is to have any relevance to the Hollywood audience, we need to demean ourselves. It is therefore futile to point out that Greece is not just the place where “everyone has time for a coffee,” where “now, we dance,” or where people try to steal or con their way in or out of situations. Nor is it a land whose male population is readily divided into greasy and sleazy charlatans or drop-dead gorgeous hunks. Neither is it a land whose female population is comprised of big haired, wide mouthed, tremendously large-bosomed matrons who don’t respect others’ privacy or a slimmer version of Nia Vardalos. As for the topos and the landscape of Greece, that also must pander to the discourse set by the hegemony. Acceptable Greece is a land of beaches and the haunting ruins that the West has determined form the basis of its civilization. This is inadvertedly touched upon by Vardalos having the perceptive if somewhat crusty tourist played by Richard Dreyfuss, assume the guise of the all-wise, all-knowing oracle at Delphi. It is not the village or the back-streets of Athens. We need to be quaint, silly and stupid in order for Hollywood audiences to deal with us on a level that will ensure that they shall enjoy the experience. It is thus futile to point out or portray the fact that apart from people like Poupi Kaka and his nephew Doudi Kaka (for this denigration alone Nia Vardalos should be ashamed of herself), our people have a) successfully resisted and survived a brutal Axis occupation, b) given forth such greats as Maria Callas, Mikis Theodorakis and Nobel prize winner Giorgos Seferis, c) is a haven of peace and democracy in the Balkans.
One could argue that hysterical accusations of orientalism are refuted in the tokenistic and stereotypical manner in which Vardalos portrays the western tourists that her character is charged with showing around Athens. The two Australians in particular, are depicted as beer-swilling, incomprehensible rhyming-slang speaking, benign buffoons that seem to have been lifted straight out of a Crocodile Dundee Movie. The Americans, are portrayed as uncultivated but ultimately good-hearted folk, the Spaniard women as sexy man-eaters while the British family is depicted as uptight and sexually repressed, with their incorrigible daughter only learning to smile and loosen up after she becomes the recipient of Doudi Kaka’s amorous advances, in which she parallel’s Vardalos’ Georgia. These troglodytic tourists’ appreciation of Greece as a land of souvenirs in beaches is only transformed slightly into a schematic understanding of the glory of ancient Greek ruins (foundation of western civilization remember?) when it is reduced to the simple formula of the wind rustling through the columns of the Parthenon (columns, virgins, Freud would have a field day,) and only in step with Vardalos/Georgia’s own sexual awakening.
That Greece is a land of sexual awakenings is beyond question and is signified by the droves of young diasporans flocking there every summer for their annual migration, to breed and return to colder climes. However, Vardalos/Georgia’s Greek love tryst, though trite and prosaic is actually quite revealing. This awkward, uneasy, self-conscious, but intelligent girl, who has her career as an academic in tatters and huge hang-ups about her Greek identity and herself, has these magically resolved upon being the reluctant recipient of sage advice from a recently widowed elderly father figure (Dreyfuss) and of, well let us face it, a decent bout of sex by Mr Poupi Kaka, who is transformed from an impossibly hairy South American guerrilla-like being into a Greek Adonis who oozes sexiness and eclipses all other Greek males that have ever existed. As a result of her consummation, she emerges, well-adjusted, confident, and able to hold her own. Further, her frenetic sex with Mr Poupi empowers her to reject her nerdy academic job in Michigan and to remain in Greece as a tour guide, because suddenly, her mating with a top specimen has facilitated her relating to people. The wonders of sex indeed! One would be disappointed to see Greek-diasporan women portrayed in such a flighty, anti-feminist and ultimately derogatory fashion. Objectively, this does not make much of a story either.
Nia Vardalos has said that she is a proud Greek-Canadian-American on many occasions and there is no reason to impugn her statement. Nia Vardalos also knows what sells, not only to an Anglo audience but a diasporan one. The vast majority of the audience in my cinema was comprised of diasporans, mostly women. They were the ones that gasped loudest at the sight of Mr Poupi Kaka’s impossibly perfect pectoral and abdominal muscles. They were also the ones that laughed loudest at the racist jokes that portrayed Greeks in the most negative fashions. For some reason, we love to hate ourselves, or rather the people who we represent the place where our parents came from, ever so slightly, and take pleasure in seeing them denigrated. I for one do not. Its time that our compatriot film makers are encouraged not to resort to cheap and tacky racist taunts and scatology when portraying their own kind, in the search for some non-existent approval by the dominant group. We have a diverse, fascinating and engrossing 4,000 year tragicomic existence from which a multitude of motifs and themes can be mined. If our film-makers cannot make use of that then possibly they should review their understanding of Hellenism before attempting to portray it. We leave you for this week with a few memorable quotes from an otherwise eminently forgettable movie: "How many of you, like me, have come here to fondle as many nude statues as possible? This is comedy. The Greeks invented it, like moustaches on women." Oh, grow up.


First published in NKEE on 27 July 2009