Saturday, August 17, 2013

Zorba doesn't Live Here Any More – The Creation of An American Zorba

For the last year or so, I have been working on an article-length analysis of the film My Life in Ruins. I am interested in the ways in which this piece of popular culture draws from Hollywood genres, Western, and Greek narratives of identity to construct national belonging for the diaspora. In other words, this is a transnational analysis of the making of a diaspora subject.

During the analysis I realized that the film is as much interested in constructing diaspora as it is in projecting an image of positive American (white male) identity. This latter concern is necessary for ideological purposes. Because the narrative tells the story of heroine who is an unhappy American ethnic, and who eventually turns down an offer for an academic career in the U.S. (having found a sense of belonging in Greece), the film implicitly interrogates the United States, albeit vaguely, as an anomic society. Thus the image of Ivr (Richard Dreyfuss) as a fulfilled individual (professionally and maritally) serves the following narrative function: it restores the idea of the U.S. as a place where one can find happiness. In fact, a close analysis shows that the film does something more than this. Here is my analysis, building on some initial thoughts I posted in this blog almost three years ago, (in Greek): 

The film neutralizes its implicit critique of the U.S. when it attaches a host of affirmative attributes to male whiteness. The figure of Ivr delivers a template of desirable masculinity: wise, passionate, creative, playful, loving, tender, sensitive, fulfilled, and, as an unattached male, yes, open to sexual dalliances. This construction works relationally in a series of hierarchies, of which I have already identified the first: The gendered and classed pair American-male-professional/ American-ethnic-female-scholar corresponds to the contrast fulfilled body/closed off body. The second hierarchy builds on a reversal, demythologizing the global icon of Greek national identity, namely the figure of Zorba the Greek (1). It juxtaposes white masculinity with this celebrated portrayal of Greek manhood along the plane civilization/savagery to proceed with the metonymic devaluation of Neohellenism. To explore this latter duality, my discussion moves from the film’s tongue-in-cheeck critique of American society to its voluble indictment of, in fact orientalist gaze on modern Greece. 

The heroine’s interaction with the crude receptionist serves as a pretext for this critique. A male of savage sexuality (exchanging postage for sex) and vulgar manners, this character does not simply serve as a cultural type to focus a feminist and cultural critique. The figure stands metonymically for generalized national dysfunction. Significantly, this is someone absorbed by televised images of Zorba the Greek, transfixed by and bodily emulating the famous dancing scene. Heralded as an icon of modern Greek identity, Zorba could be read as a character who refuses to be subdued in the face of life’s adversity and loss. The lewd receptionist’s identification with Zorba stains the legendary male archetype of Greekness with pathological masculinity. In her indictment, the heroine reads Zorba in a literalist manner – the man dances in response to loss (not in spite of loss) – to condemn this image as a sign of a dysfunctional society: The country does not work (2). Once more, the encounter between Greek America and the homeland perpetuates the Orientalist image of Greece as a place engulfed in irrational abandon and unregulated passion. Rationality and agency is absent when the answer to failure is dance.

As an essential Greek male archetype, Zorba is bankrupt, in need of reconstruction. One alternative is the romantic Greek native, “Poupi” Kakkas (Alexis Georgoulis), who falls in love with the heroine. The other is Ivr, who restores meaning to whiteness against vacuous identity. My Life in Ruins quotes scenes from Zorba the Greek with the purpose of reversing the hierarchy embedded in the latter between the emotionally freed Greek native (Zorba) and the psychologically oppressed, westernized male (Basil/Alan Bates). The figure of Ivr resoundingly testifies that the west does not repress.

The text undermines the exalted indigeneity of Greek masculinity by rewriting Ivr as a (reconstructed) Zorba away from the national soil. The global icon of the ideal male is deterritorialized. The rationalized meaning of dance as the expression of a positive outcome (recall the occasion of the tourists dancing in the newly air-conditioned bus) is restored. As the credits fall, Ivr gleams while watching alienated Basil urging Zorba, “teach me how to dance.” It is him, after all, who has been instrumental in mentoring Georgia’s rehabilitation of self. The Greek Zorba has been dethroned. An American male has taken the role of a caring yet paternalistic mentor of gendered ethnicity. Male whiteness is not merely restored; its authority is also asserted as a cultural template for American ethnic women to emulate, including, as I discuss in the forthcoming article, the narration of heritage. The feminist critique in this narrative thread degenerates to all-encompassing Orientalism and the cultural domination it reproduces.


1. Peter Bien (2000) notes the inconsistencies between the literary and filmic Zorba. “The whole point of the book’s end is that the boss is liberated as an artist… He does not become like Zorba (as the film would have us believe)” (164).    

2. The Zorba image is contested in Greek America. My Life in Ruins registers the narrative of discomfort, aptly captured in Dan Georgakas’ personal response: Zorba the Greek “projected the Greek male as an instinctive brute, lovable at times, but totally incompetent and irresponsible” (236). Charles Moskos (1989) draws an unambiguous boundary between that image and U.S. Greek immigrants: “They had their share of rascals and more than their share of infighting, but Zorbas they were not” (185).

References Cited

Bien, Peter. 2000. “Nikos Kazantzakis’s Novels on Film.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 18 (1): 161–169.

Georgakas, Dan. 2006. My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City. New York City: Pella Publishing.

Moskos, Charles. 1990. Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. (Originally published in 1980 by Prentice-Hall)

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