New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
How American films depict Greek Americans has never been systematically addressed, but Dan Georgakas, of the Queens College Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies and founder of Cineaste magazine, and Vassilis Lambropoulos, Constantine P. Cavafy Chair of the Modern Greek Program at the University of Michigan, are developing an exciting new joint project to meet that need. American Image in American Cinema is a filmography of American fiction films that feature Greek Americans.
Once again bringing much-needed public attention to Greek studies, Georgakas, who is director , presented this significant advancement in Greek American studies at the April 27-8 conference, Reimagining White Ethnicity: Expressivity, Identity and Race cosponsored by the Queens College Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in New York.
In his talk, “The Greek American Image in American Cinema” (part of the session “The Greeks of New York City: Contemporary Trends and Historical Contexts”), Georgakas explained that he and Lambropoulos have received and continue to receive invaluable feedback for the filmography from a score of interested scholars and students, here and abroad, who have helped locate the great majority of American films that deal with Greek Americans. An ongoing project, the archive will be updated annually for new films, addition of missed films, and corrections.
“This filmography can help the grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants discover how Greeks on the screen have been entertaining, inspiring, scaring, and intriguing mass American audiences for some eighty years. The list includes great surprises and even more rewards,” says Lambropoulos.
Georgakas began his talk by saying, “How American films depict Greek Americans tells us more about American culture than about Greek Americans”, and went on to focus on five conclusions which some serious Greek American moviegoers may or may not have noticed, the first being that beginning with the sound era, the Greek American image has been mostly positive.
Many famous actors have played Greek Americans, he noted, naming Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Robert Wagner, Al Pacino, Matthew Broderick, Gene Kelley, and Jay Leno (!). “In most films the Greek guy ends up with the girl”, Georgakas said, and the girl is “rarely Greek”.
Georgakas pointed out that there have only been five films that featured a Greek American woman as the main character. This is in sharp contrast to Greek films and the achievements of Greek American women, which indicates Hollywood’s stereotypical view of ethnic women as downtrodden housekeepers limited to the role of mother.
There have only been between 100-150 films with Greek Americans, he said, which is a bit more than one a year in the sound era and the character might be on screen for only a few minutes, which is typical treatment of most Euro-ethnics in Hollywood.
And Greek culture rarely gets shown, he said, pointing out that only 3 films have any long sequences in Greek, and the others have just a word or two, with very little about Greek culture, except ”usually something about coffee, feta, or yogurt”.
The truly independent films–made for under $100,000–are often far more accurate and bold, said Georgakas, citing three indie films, Bill Kyriakis’ 1954 film with Athan Karras, Dark Odyssey as the best of these, Do You Wanna Dance?, which shows a modern priest, and It Could Be Worse, which deals with a gay man coming out to his family.
Movies, in brief, usually present Greek Americans as seen by others, not as self-projected, says Georgakas. This is a result of the circumstances that movies reflect contemporary cultural assumptions. Hollywood screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, and actors usually do not have any special knowledge of Greek America. They only reproduce the dominant cultural stereotypes of their times, and their presentations reinforce or validate those images.
Georgakas and Lambropoulos believe that the filmography they have developed allows scholars to examine how mainstream Americans have perceived Greek Americans at any given historical moment and to establish any long-term patterns that may have emerged during a century of filmmaking.
Their definition of Greek American is any immigrant to America or any offspring of an immigrant, however far-removed, who claims Greek identity. They have not included any fiction films that are less than feature length or any documentaries. Nor have they included films set in Greece or Cyprus unless Greek Americans are characters. They have included silent films known to them, but have not scrutinized silent film production systematically.
Their long-term goal has been to establish the basic production credits and plot analysis of each film. They have also indicated, where appropriate, how that film reflects any thematic cycle they have uncovered. In order to make the filmography practical, they have set up a rating system based on the letter G (for Greek) to indicate the nature of each film’s Greek American dimension. These rankings are not to be confused as rankings based on artistic or social merit.
A super brief description of the archives’ rating system:
GGGGG indicates a film whose major character is Greek American and whose Greek heritage is a central element in the film’s plot line, such as Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef; GGGG indicates a film with a major or minor character whose Greekness is integral to the film, but is not its central theme, such as City Hall; GGG indicates a film with a major or minor character who is clearly identified as a Greek American, but whose ethnicity is not vigorously explored, such as Mr. Lucky; GG indicates a film with a minor Greek American character whose ethnic identity is barely noted, such as Milk; G indicates a film with a very minor character who could be of any ethnic heritage and may not even have a speaking role, such as A Streetcar Named Desire.
“The filmography is a great resource for the teaching of Greek American culture, the European immigration to the U.S., courses on ethnicity, gender, and class, and, of course, the future of a multicultural society,” says Lambropoulos. “Beyond teaching, it’s also a more general resource for the study of the Greek in American popular culture…we have all heard stories about how Greeks have been perceived in mainstream America but here for the first time we have full documentation of the Greek presence in the quintessential American medium, film! Now we can meet the businessman and the attorney, the soldier and the gangster, the housewife and the sponge diver, the scholar and the politician. Their attitude to their Greekness is often complex, their sense of identity anything from non-existent to very strong.” In most cases, however, says Lambropoulos, being Greek is something they cannot escape, something they need to negotiate with people around them.”
The films’ synopses are taken from third party sources (individuals, indexes, press releases, web sites, and other materials) and the entry for each film is written by Georgakas with a second look by Lambropoulos, Steve Frangos, and Elaine Thomopoulos. Basic research is primarily the work of Georgakas and Frangos. Anna Moniodis and Maria Kassaras did considerable initial research locating and gathering data on some 50 of the films, while many other individuals, including colleagues in Greece and Australia, have assisted in identifying specific films.
To become immersed in this fascinating guide go to: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/modgreek/windowtogreekculture or Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies (Queens College). Click Academic Programs. Then click Projects.
Comments, additions, and corrections to American Image in American Cinema, are welcome. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.