Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My Life in Ruins – A Critical Note

For the last two years I have been working on an analysis of the film My Life in Ruins, now forthcoming in the Fall 2015 issue of the Filmicon: Journal of Greek Film Studies. I was drawn to the film for a variety of reasons. For one, it was of interest to note that this Hollywood film circulates key tenets of Greek nationalism, an observation which makes us reflect on how the enduring power of nationalism “travels” within the global entertainment industry. I also wanted to discuss the film within a transnational framework of analysis. The synergy of Hollywood with the Greek State in the making of the film, the commonalities of the film with the Hollywood genre of "heritage romance," and the issue of Greek American belonging in the U.S. and Greece pointed to the utility of a transnational approach to illuminate the construction of diaspora belonging in the film. The initial draft included a critique of the film, which I removed, however,  for the purpose of coherence in the work. Reading this critique will make fuller sense in the context of my overall argument. But I share this critical note nevertheless in anticipation of the longer piece. 

A commercial flop despite high expectations, My Life in Ruins apparently failed to capture the popular imagination. Audience “did not buy into the fantasy, the ideas and images it tried to sell” (1). While the causes of this inadequacy are beyond the scope of this commentary, one can readily recognize how the film leads itself to criticism. Despite the transparency of its weaknesses, I find it necessary to proceed with a brief critique in order to identify the ethical and political implications the film engenders. I do so in order to underscore the idea of belonging as always situated, as a position advancing the interests of certain collectives and undermining those of others (see Yuval-Davis, Kannabiran, Vieten 2006). 

The film’s pampering of the tourist industry and the State, for instance, carries serious implications about those parts of Athens outside tourist itineraries. Furthermore, My Life in Ruins erases the complexity of Greek society and its people. Though it appears to promote women’s interests in the emotional level, it harms them in the professional realm. What is more, It gravely compromises the intellectual and emotional valence of the academy. Its extolling of Greek anti-modernism insults working people who labor harder for less, even before the post-2011 assault of neoliberalism in the country. 

To elaborate, My Life in Ruins once again builds on Greece’s national topoi–ruins of classical sites and landscape–to brand Athens and export a desirable world image in the global competition for tourist and investment dollars. In post-industrial capitalism, cities promote selective aspects of the cityscape to attract visitors through cultural consumption. Because these urban zones are designed for leisure and consumption–a cornucopia of bodies at play and on display–the images hide alternative urban spaces where local and immigrant bodies experience poverty, violence, and surveillance in declining urban environments. “Polished Athens” hides policed Athens and legitimizes unequal spatial development (Karahalios 2011). Selective projection affirms investment in spaces of high consumption and remains indifferent to spaces of urban plight and the working poor elsewhere in the cityscape. Tourism and aesthetic nationalism reinforce each other in hiding the society’s complexity and thus alternative modes of diaspora belonging.

The film’s portrayal of Georgia as one who finds no meaning in the academy displaces alternative belonging. It denies, for instance, the academy as a practice of subjectivity, feeling, and community. What is more, the reduction of the academy as a problematic space intersects with the ideology of belonging via coupling with authentic ethnic maleness and in doing so it advances a problematic position for diaspora women. In exchange for heritage and love, women are instructed to occupy an inferior position in the labor market. They are called to reject the academic profession–an occupation wielding a significant degree of economic and cultural power–for a tourist industry profession caricatured as populist entertainment. Nationalism and tourism converge to narrowly demarcate the range of diaspora women’s professional options.

Note: Comment by the anonymous reviewer for Filmicon.

Works Cited

Karahalios, Harry. “Global Cities, Differential Peripheries: European Cinema and Urban Cities in Transition.” Presentation at the Modern Greek Studies Association Symposium 22, New York, Oct. 13-16, 2011.

Yuval-Davis, N., K. Kannabiran, U. Vieten (2006), ‘Introduction’, in N. Yuval-Davis, K. Kannabiran, and U. Vieten (eds), The Situated Politics of Belonging, London: Sage Publications, pp. 1-16.

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