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Friday, November 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Ethnic American Graffiti - Part 1: Her Big Fat Greek Stereotypes

My Big Fat Greek Wedding directed by Joel Zwick. Written by Nia Vardalos; photography by Jeffrey Jur; produced by Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman; with Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Gia Carides, and Andrea Martin; distributed by IFC Films.

… [T]he success or failure of any writing depends upon the residual. By that I mean what the reader has left in his mind after closing the book; what the spectator takes home with him after leaving the theatre or movie palace. Years ago in Chicago, I went with Father to see a matinee. He laughed so hard that he shook like jelly through the whole comedy, and as we walked up the aisle at the end of the performance, I turned and said to him enthusiastically, “That was some play, wasn’t it!” The tears of laughter still wet upon his cheeks, he turned on me and said indignantly, “What are you talking about? I thought it was rotten!”

It was years before I understood what he meant. Then I forgot it and very stupidly made Unfaithfully Yours. The audiences laughed from the beginning to the end of the picture. And they went home with nothing. Because nothing had happened….The audience ate my seven-course special and went home hungry.
– Preston Sturges

I first saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding when it came out several months ago; about 17 seconds into it, however, my first reaction was oy vey. I knew that going home “hungry,” to echo Sturges’s wisdom, was the least of my problems; I was clearly headed for a head-thumping, chest-constricting case of food poisoning. I was supposed to review the film, but I’ve always abided by Cahiers du Cinema’s notion of salutary criticism: if you don’t love a movie – book, piece of music, artwork – let it go.

Shortly afterward, I went to Greece; when I returned, three months later, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was still playing. Indeed, I learned that it was the sleeper of the year. One colleague at in particular insisted that I reconsider reviewing it since it had now taken on sociological dimensions, but I still resisted. (Andrew Sarris, who was a teacher of mine many years ago, taught his students that sociology is the evil stepmother of criticism.) One day, however, when I turned to the editorial page of The New York Times to discover an editorial comment on the film, I decided, ftanei pia, this movie is way out of control, and since I can’t say anything about it as a movie – because there’s nothing to say – I’ll address it as sociology (Andrew Sarris, please forgive me).

Where am I?
First of all, full disclosure: I am not only Greek American, but also Greek-born, just like Toula/Fotoula’s parents, Gus and Maria. For those sorely benighted few who haven’t yet seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula is the lead character (ably portrayed by Nia Vardalos, who wrote the screenplay), an ugly duckling (it’s that formula) who’s also an UNMARRIED (yes, every single letter capped and bold), THIRTY (ditto)-year old Greek American woman. This, according to the film, is the end of civilization as Greeks know it and catalyst to a long process of private and collective (indeed, apparently, societal) existential despair that can only be cured by remedies that run the gamut from matchmaking bordering on psychological abuse, through exorcism (there’s a lot of staurokopimata – people crossing themselves – in this movie), to, undoubtedly, if we follow the film’s own logic, burning as a witch. (In other words, welcome to the medieval Balkans transplanted right here, among us, in the good old US of A.)

Full disclosure, continued: I lived in Chicago as a very young boy in the Fifties. Like Toula, I still have a boatload of relatives – mostly first cousins, just like her – who live there and have done so all their lives. I also married a xeni, a “foreigner”; I can’t think of any close Greek male friend of mine who didn’t. I have so much in common with Toula, in fact, that I just can’t understand why this movie reminds me more of Mazar-i-Sharif than of Mytilini or Metsovo – not to mention Michigan Avenue.

There are two major differences between Toula and me, however. First, I’m roughly a generation older (22 years, to be exact); second, most of my “Greek” friends were, and are, in fact Greek, that is, elladites, native-born Greeks, virtually all of whom came here for university, remained for graduate school, and then stayed permanently – or not – to embark upon or continue their careers.

  Regarding the first point, I must say that, although my wife and I were married in 1979 in a Greek Orthodox church (like Toula and her husband), our wedding invitations were not emblazoned with the Greek flag nor was our reception Greek, but, on the contrary, distinctly, and purposely, ecumenical, both gastronomically and culturally, to reflect not only our friends and families but our own self-definition as human beings. As for the catering, it was done neither by my family nor Greeks, but by a small shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that was known at the time, not for its weddings, but for its unusual and creative approach to food. (This is not an invidious comparison, but a historical one, trying to establish a context for Greek weddings – big and small, fat and thin – that the movie ridiculously distorts.)

As for the second point, all my Greek friends ended up in occupations that, according to Ms. Vardalos’s script, are unheard of in Greek American Chicago in the year of Our Orthodox Lord 2002: journalists, filmmakers, producers, visual artists, graphic designers, musicians, and, oh yes, scientists, attorneys, psychoanalysts, investment bankers, and even academics (many of the latter, in fact). In the event, I can honestly say that never in my life have I encountered the kind of cartoonish clannishness in the Greek American community – and decidedly not in Greece, which I have been visiting (and occasionally living in) for roughly 35 years, which is longer than Toula’s ostensible age – that this movie purports to document, albeit “fictionally” and, of course, “comically.” (Let me be clear, by the way: clannishness, yes and always, but no more or less than that of an Irish or Italian or Latino or Jewish family. It is in fact the cartoonishness that grates – and offends – in this film, not the clannishness.)

But back to my wife: she, too, is “white,” like Toula’s xeno – albeit not as fully. My wife is only half-WASP; to be precise, my father-in-law’s family was Scottish Presbyterian (I hope that counts), whereas my mother-in-law’s was French Canadian Catholic. Both families, however, were immigrants to New England and working class – two concepts in relation to WASPs that are apparently impossible for My Big Fat Greek Wedding to contain within its severely parochial imagination. Which leads me to the first of an infinity of questions that this remarkably inane script provokes even in the most credulous among us: Does Nia Vardalos know anything about the United States of America, from Maine to West Virginia, Mississippi to Oklahoma, and Iowa to Alaska?

I know Ms. Vardalos is Canadian, and that the Greek communities of Canada are in fact less assimilated than those in the States, to a great extent because of the Canadian government’s own policy of multiculturalism, which is diametrically opposed to America’s ideology of the melting pot. (I say this not as criticism but with respect, admiration, and envy, both for Canada and its Greeks.) As a scriptwriter, however, I’m sure Ms. Vardalos has heard of research. Of course, her script began as a “performance piece,” and it shows. Long ago, in burlesque – which this movie is a perfect example of – this kind of “routine” (as in routine material) was called by the less sophisticated but decidedly more accurate name of shtick. Ms. Vardalos’s screenplay is in fact one extremely long, excruciatingly extended, painfully trite – and, frankly, pretty lame – shtick, which, in the end, is seriously unfunny precisely because, unlike great movie comedy (from Chaplin and Keaton through Lubitsch and Sturges and Wilder to Richard Pryor and Woody Allen), it does not reflect reality. (And speaking of Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, they’ve both proven, each in a radically different way, that ethnic humor is a rich storehouse of social observation, analysis, and, most of all, criticism – not to mention really funny comedy – when it stems from authentic social truth and genuine collective behavior.) Which leads me to my next question regarding Nia Vardalos’s characters: Who are these people?

Who am I?
Full disclosure, continued: In 1961, when I was 10, my parents moved to Astoria, joining the very few Greeks in the area (which was then mostly Irish, Italian, and, to a much lesser degree, Jewish). For over half a century, I’ve lived in or near Greek communities in the United States, and I’ve visited others in Canada and Australia, but I’ve never seen a garage owned by a Greek American/Canadian/Australian painted to resemble a Greek flag. I honestly can’t say whether this visual trope in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is bizarre, inane, lunatic, or perhaps even insidious, but I do know there’s a message there somewhere, and it’s insulting – and not in the way people might assume.

The issue is not Ms. Vardalos’s portrayal of Greek self-regard, which happens to be on the mark and irrefutable (and easily verifiable by anybody who’s ever met a Greek). The issue is Greeks’ rudimentary respect for the communities in which they live, especially when those happen to be in foreign countries. Greeks might be crazy but they’re not stupid – at least not suicidally so. (No people are.) Why would an immigrant Greek family – why would any immigrant family – living in a manifestly non-ethnic, middle-class community in a cosmopolitan American metropolis (in which, as it just so happens, the extended family also happens to own several businesses) so provoke its neighbors, not so much politically as, more relevantly for a zoned residential area, esthetically and communally?

In middle-class America? In middle-class anywhere? Has anybody ever seen any home in a middle-class residential community in this country whose façade was painted as a Chinese, Cuban, Indian, Italian, Irish, Israeli, Polish, Palestinian, Pakistani, or Puerto Rican flag? Why does Ms. Vardalos – or the film’s director, Joel Zwick – single out Greeks for this kind of genuinely obnoxious, truly anti-social, behavior, with its demonstrable disregard for the collective sentiments, rules of conduct, and commonly accepted principles of living together in inherently diverse communities? I mean, excuse me, but what exactly is the joke here?

  That Greeks are lunatic patriots? That they’re grotesquely insensitive to what anybody else thinks of them? That they’re obsessed with their flag? That they have no sense of style? That they want to impose their own esthetic – not to mention vision of the world – on everybody else? In the event, all of the above seems to me to apply equally (in some cases, more so) to Americans as a whole.

And, please, before anybody impatiently tells me to lighten up, it’s only a movie, let me quote the aforementioned editorial comment in The New York Times (“Greek Wedding: Made in America,” September 19) by staffer Carolyn Curiel, who describes herself as “a Mexican-American girl” who grew up in Indiana:

So when spurred by word of mouth to join the stampede to see the movie…I found…I shared a vein of experiences with the main character, the daughter of immigrants….That’s why I was laughing. But all around me in the theater, people of various backgrounds found their own connection, nodding and chuckling as this tale of love and family and clashing cultures struck chords about a diverse America, one in which only the most insulated would mistake Greek for Guatemalan, as one character does.

Yeah, as discomfiting as it might be for some, it turns out that people actually go (sometimes “stampede”) to the movies, and actually watch them, and even, occasionally, take them seriously – the funny ones especially, by the way, because from Aristophanes to George Carlin, that’s a basic point to and function of humor, it’s subversive, it gets into your head so easily, without notice, so “naturally” that it can convert you to the most radical reappraisal of the world in a way that no “serious” artistic mode can ever hope to emulate. It might seem innocuous, or even stupid, or just plain fun, but humor lingers, it hangs around, it quietly, humbly, self-deprecatingly provokes. That is its singular power, which is why when it resonates, whether in Chaplin or Joseph Heller, Keaton or Mark Twain, Sturges and Wilder or David and Amy Sedaris – to mention two contemporary (semi-) Greek American comedic mavens – it is not only funny (which, it should be said, is a great and wondrous thing in itself) but searing.

So, please, all you fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding out there, argue with me if you will, denounce me if you must (it’s your right, in any case), but spare me the “cute, little movie” stuff. This film not only happens to be raking in (hundreds of) millions of dollars but – what is infinitely more important – is in fact the only image that most Americans will ever have of the Greek American community. (Its distributors have also consciously tapped into Greek America; if you go to the movie’s Website and click on “Friends of Ours,” you’ll find links to at least six Greek American sites.)

I also don’t want to hear about exaggeration being the soul of comedy. The basis of comedic exaggeration – without which it is literally a non sequitur – is the real. One is supposed to exaggerate reality, a preexisting truth – and commonly perceived as such – which, when it is “broadened,” becomes funny and, not at all coincidentally, even truer. Indeed, that’s the point to exaggeration: the validation of truth. One cannot “exaggerate” the nonexistent, or the false; that’s fabrication, not exaggeration – and it is a classic dead-end in comedy. The great comedic minds build on the existing world; the better to undermine or even demolish it. (Even cinema’s most surreal, and arguably its greatest, comic genius, Buster Keaton – so beloved by Bunuel, a savage satirist in his own right – exploited our perceptual consensus of the “laws of nature.”) To undermine or demolish something, it has to exist, however; otherwise, it’s pure escapism, which is another legitimate genre, but is not comedy. I’ve mentioned Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, but a woman who has brilliantly mined ethnicity is Margaret Cho. The point here is not that you can’t do it, but that you have to know what you’re doing.

Why am I?
  As for the various anti-Turkish “jokes” in the movie, they’re extreme examples of how culturally retarded My Big Fat Greek Wedding actually is: their very anachronism damns them. At a “crucial” moment, for instance, Toula’s mother, who looks to be about my age, relates her village’s “suffering” at the hands of “Germans and Turks.” Huh? Germans and Bulgarians maybe or, more probably, Germans and Greek fascists – but Turks? The Ottomans were expelled from their last dominions in Greece in 1912. Even Toula’s grandmother – who hallucinates (what else?) bloodthirsty Turks everywhere – couldn’t be old enough to remember anything of the kind unless she were from Asia Minor. Can we finally put this moronic, mind-numbing stereotype – which is in fact the Greek equivalent of blackface – to its eternal rest?

And speaking of clichés, I really do have to return to this moth-eaten one of Zorbaesque Greeks (kaemene Kazantzaki, if you only knew the cultural horrors perpetrated in your name) and uptight, pole-up-the-posterior WASPs. (When will we finally be delivered from these ancient, rotting, stinking chestnuts?) The excerpt I quoted above from the Times that mentions a character who “would mistake Greek for Guatemalan” refers to the prospective bridegroom’s mother, a ditzy, haute bourgeoise dingbat, who is – equally predictably – so frigid and neurotically constricted in her body language that it’s clear that her son’s conception was the first and last excruciatingly painful time she’d ever had sex, let alone thought about it.

Originally, she asks Toula – as, yes, a Strauss waltz wafts in the aural background of the ever-so-modern-and-yet-tastefully-restrained living room in which the prospective newlyweds are sitting with the in-laws, sipping cognac (or maybe it’s armagnac) from snifters whose crystalline fragility can be discerned even by all us proles in the audience – if Greece is close to Armenia, because hubby had an Armenian secretary once. At this point, just to show that I’ve actually tried very hard to keep an open mind about this movie, I will say that this could have turned into a nice little piece of comic business if Ms. Vardalos’s script had stuck to the truth. Everyone knows that even among the most “educated” Americans, knowledge of the world can be pretty constrained and self-reflexive (George W. Bush). In the event, this Greek-Armenian confusion could have been turned into a genuinely funny moment, but, of course, in the end, Ms. Vardalos opts for a kind of intellectual slapstick that makes the Keystone Kops look sophisticated: wifey and hubby finally concur that the secretary in question was not Armenian but Guatemalan. Toula and her husband-to-be, Ian (that’s his name, all right), can only exchange bewildered and – in the latter’s case, of course, embarrassed, apologetic – glances at the parents’ gross confusion.

Did I fail to mention that Ian is the son and grandson of – apparently highly successful – attorneys? Kind of preposterous, wouldn’t you say? A highly educated, highly successful Chicago attorney who doesn’t know his secretary’s nationality – let alone the difference between Greece and Guatemala? Not only do I not buy it, I’d have to be an idiot to do so. Does the word, “globalization,” ring a bell? How about “multinational”? The acronyms GATT or WTO or IMF or NAFTA or EU? Until recently, I worked for a major global firm (which, for that reason, shall remain nameless); we had offices in about 160 countries – including Greece but not Guatemala. In any case, while many (most?) of our partners were pretty thick-headed in a lot of obvious ways, I think all of them could have given you a reasonable profile of differences between the two countries.

The point here, however, is not to mock Americans’ lack of worldliness, but to show how “insulated,” to use Ms. Curiel’s description, the stuffy, WASP, upper (upper-middle, middle-upper, lower-upper?) classes really are – and how truly alienated they’ve become from the “real” and “diverse” Whitmanesque America living and breathing and loving and…well, you get the picture…all around them. And speaking of loving and…well, you get the picture…the Mother of all loving and well-you-get-the-picturing is, of course, GREECE, which, in the end, seduces even Toula’s psychologically constipated in-laws – with its lusty traditions of life, love, and existential emancipation – in a cultural climax of howling intensity.

Who cares?
  In the end, Greeks triumphs over WASPs, family businesses over white-shoe law firms, and most of all, good old-fashioned family (that is, tribal) values against genuine independence, autonomy, and (it goes without saying) any real understanding of what it means to be Greek – or American. In any case, My Big Fat Greek Wedding represents the same circle-the-SUVs-round-the lawn, Bushwhacking, Nineties conservatism that should make all real conservatives see red. It may be a lot of things, but My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t How Green Was My Valley or The Grapes of Wrath. And I don’t particularly care that one’s (supposed to be) a comedy and the other two are famously anything but. Chaplin made comedies, too – and I’m not ashamed to admit publicly that the mythical last shot of City Lights still makes my eyes moist. When John Ford made movies about families, he knew in the depths of his Irish American, authentically conservative gut that they were rooted in communities, that the notion of a “self-contained family unit” divorced from a larger community was, in fact, a moral sinkhole. (I suggest Ms. Vardalos and Mr. Zwick take a look at The Searchers again.) I would think that Ms. Vardalos would know that as a Greek; I actually think she does, but that, somehow, it all got lost in translation.

One more (brief) point about the film’s portrayal of the distinct lack of opportunity in the contemporary Greek American community: the talented thirty-something filmmaker, Alexander Payne (ne Papadopoulos), is Greek American; so’s the actor Jennifer Aniston – and so was her godfather, Telly Savalas. And if we continue to go back generationally, need I even mention John Cassavetes? Or Oscar- (and Tony-) winner Theoni Vachliotis Aldredge or (another Oscar-winner) Olympia Dukakis? There are a lot of Greek Americans in the world outside of diners and coffee shops, it would seem, and there have been for decades now, many of them with singular achievements, and contributions to American culture and society, way before Toula was a gleam in Gus’s eye. Most important of all, many of these extraordinary human beings were – and are – women. It’s really kind of weird that Gus won’t even let Toula take a computer course at a time when, back in the reactionary and retarded “old country,” Athens just elected its first woman mayor and the larger region of Attica, in its first election ever to fill the new office of “super-governor,” also elected a woman. Is this comedy we’re talking about here or science fiction?

One last point (I promise): the fact that this movie was produced by HBO does not surprise; it’s really nothing more than a pilot for a typically lame sitcom. (I think you’ve probably guessed by now that, no, I am not a Sopranos fan.) What is truly sad, however, is that My Big Fat Greek Wedding was distributed by IFC Films. For those of you who are not schooled in the arcana of film production and distribution, IFC stands for Independent Film Channel, the PBS of the hipper-than-thou crowd that actually believes that there’s still an independent cinema left in this country. If nothing else, My Big Fat Greek Wedding puts paid to the notion of American “independent” cinema as anything other than the bastard offspring of that mercenary, debased, and dishonest beast called Hollywood. A big, fat, Greek wedding? More like one culturally anorexic Greek wedding and a big, fat, movie funeral for the rest of us.

Next: Multiculturalism without culture

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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