Sunday, 22 January 2012

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (dir. Joel Zwick, 2002)

I saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding in the cinema back in 2002, and I will always be fond of it because it signalled the end of a truly terrible drought on the romantic comedy front. The year before, my housemate and I had been to see Shallow Hal because it was the closest thing to a romantic comedy we could find, and it was... eh. We'd been desperately seeking something sweet and fluffy ever since and finally, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we found it! It's a slight film in many ways, but it's nice and it's funny and it's a relaxing watch. It also highlight some really interesting aspects of the reception of (Classical) Greek culture both within Greek emigrant families and outside.

I put Classical in brackets up there because it's my area of interest but really, in this film, Greek culture is Classical culture. Not being Greek, I have no idea whether this accurately reflects Greek culture, but in the film all the aspects of Greek culture that Toula's father describes to show off are Classical, mostly based in etymology or the achievements of the Classical Greeks. Her family keep up plenty of traditions that I assume are largely post-Classical - and of course, they're Christian so the Greek Orthodox side of things is mainly post-Classical - but the later history of Greece is only mentioned by the women, and only as an example of what it was about Greece that prompted them to leave in the first place. It's fascinating to me that the sense of cultural identity put forward in this film is so completely bound up in a specific period (and quite a specific culture - we're basically talking about Classical Athens here) but as I say, I only know what I see in the film, so this may be totally unrepresentative of how actual Greeks feel about their heritage.

Of course Classical Greece is pretty impressive, and Toula's father has plenty of material to draw on. His insistence that every word in the English language comes from Greek actually reminds me of growing up with my Mum reminding me frequently that much of English comes from Latin or Greek, and there are so many Greek words in the English language that he's got a point. He takes it too far, though - I love the scene where he insists, having been challenged by young Toula's friends, that 'kimono' is also Greek, and has a whole argument to back up this assertion.

The scenes with young Toula and her friends are interesting in themselves. We see Toula's father wheeling out all the things that we as adults find impressive about ancient Greece, things like the Greek origin of democracy and the word arachnophobia. He wants Toula to be proud of her heritage and her friends to be impressed, but that will never happen, because kids don't care about etymology or the origins of democracy. To encourage a child to be proud of their heritage, or impressed by someone else's, you have to give them something they can understand and connect with.

As teachers of the ancient world, this is something we have to think about as well. In addition to fiction and films set in the ancient world (like The Roman Mysteries for Rome, or Hercules for Greece) we need to wheel out stories and facts that will excite kids. I took part in a production of Oedipus Rex as a child - which is pretty weird, to be honest, but it was certainly memorable! Less controversially, kids might be more interested in hearing about the theories ancient philosophers had about the solar system or the fact that they had guessed about the existence of atoms, or instead of a dry etymology of the word 'arachnophobia', a lively re-telling of the myth of Arachne might appeal to them more.

Toula's parents' house

I did feel the urge to nit-pick a couple of times during the film. Toula says her parents' house is modeled after the Parthenon, complete with Corinthian columns... except the Parthenon doesn't have any Corinthian columns. The Parthenon is a combination of the Doric and Ionic orders of temple design, with Doric and Ionic columns (Doric are plain at the top, Ionic have a scroll design at the top and Corinthian have acanthus leaves at the top). The house actually does have Corinthian columns (which are often the most commonly used outside of Greece) and it's not exactly a huge error, but still. Also, on a broader academic note (Toula's fiancee Ian is a university lecturer), why are people in films always interrupting classes for random personal conversations? Seriously, no one does that, and if they did, I'd be pretty mad. (There was an episode of Friends once where Ross actually pointed to Phoebe that he had a class full of people waiting for him, which was mildly satisfying).

The Parthenon

On the less nit-picky and more honestly-this-is-totally-wrong level, whoever did the DVD menu was seriously lazy. They've put Greek under the English headings, but they haven't actually translated it, they've just transliterated it into Greek letters. Worse, they haven't actually transliterated it. They've downloaded a Greek keyboard code from the internet and typed out the words in English, with Greek letters coming out the other end. Except, the Greek alphabet doesn't have the same number of letters as English, and they're not always where you expect them to be ('y', for example, gives you a theta, which is a 'th' sound in ancient Greek - not sure about modern - not upsilon, which is a 'u' sound and is the closest to y, the letter usually transliterated as y in words like 'gynecology'). They couldn't have asked a Greek speaker to transliterate - or, better, translate - the headings? Or just not bother putting them on the menu if they weren't going to do it properly?

Random thoughts: I kinda love the idea of a wedding reception in Aphrodite's Palace. It's certainly more... thematically appropriate than a church hall. I'm pretty sure the Greeks didn't invent pottery, but their ancient pots are so famous and so ubiquitous it sometimes feels like they did. I love the bit following the obligatory tell-him-something-rude-means-thank you joke, where Toula's mum just slaps her brother up the head because she knows exactly what happened. The equally inevitable 'it's all Greek to me' joke is terrible, but at least it proves that Ian's family do have something that passes for a sense of humour.

I will always be fond of this film for warm, comfy feel, even if I do find the final gift from Toula's parents to the couple overbearing and creepy rather than loving and sweet (I would be very grateful for my parents' help in buying a house, but I would not want them to choose it for me without even asking. I have reservations about handbags as gifts because only I know exactly what I need in a handbag, so you can imagine how I would feel about someone else choosing my house). When you just want a heart-warming and relaxing comedy with no gross stuff, this is exactly what you need. And, of course, it spends much of its runtime celebrating Classical culture. Only one drawback; I'm really craving moussaka now...


  1. I vaguely remember this movie, pretty much only thing I remember is I laughed a lot! And I was VERY disappointed a few years ago when the same team behind this film (director, writer, actress) teamed up for another film (can't remember the title now, she works as a tour guide in Athens) which I found to be pretty terrible! :s

  2. I've not seen the other one but I've heard of it - not well reviewed! I might watch at some point anyway though, just for the blog

  3. This is a very enjoyable film, but it was something of a disappointment for us. My wife's family is large and a lot of the jokes were more, "Yeah, so what? That's completely normal." I also kept being distracted by the fact that the male romantic lead was the DJ from Northern Exposure. I kept waiting for him to go into long philosophical ramblings in a late-night DJ voice.

    As for the relationship between modern Greeks and Classical culture, it's a big part of their national identity, especially for older generations like Toula's parents. I'm not sure how younger people - most importantly younger Greeks, Toula is simply American - feel about it. I've had Greeks try to tell me that modern Greek is a direct and unchanged descendant of Classical Greek, even though it's a modern reconstruction and is pronounced completely differently. Actually, that is sort of reflected in the fact that a lot of Gus's attempts to tie things to Greece are utterly wrong, like where he derives the Miller family's name from the Greek word for apple.


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