Doodad Kind of Town

"My Life in Ruins": A Meme Response, A Review, and a Travel Memoir All in One
June 14, 2009, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have two abiding passions in life. One is film. The other is travel. And over the years, my cinephilia has done a lot to feed my continual wanderlust.

Many of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit were chosen based on how amazing they’d looked to me in films.

My excitement over last summer’s trip to China was fueled at least as much by “The Last Emperor” and “Farewell My Concubine” as it was by the opportunity to sing with a North American choir performing inside the Forbidden City.

On the one day I spent in Venice, nine years ago, I was as consumed with thoughts of “Summertime,” “Room with a View,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as I was with experiencing the actual place itself. Just being there – seeing those 14th century buildings, walking those narrow cobblestoned streets, riding in a gondola on the Grand Canal – felt like I was stepping into a movie I’d already seen many times. It was otherwordly and magical. And five years later, when I saw Lasse Hallstrom’s “Casanova,” I was just about beside myself with the joys of seeing it all again.

A couple of weeks back, Daniel Getahun at Getafilm challenged me to the Movie Period/Place meme in which I’m to answer the questions: “What’s my favorite cinematic period, and what movies portray a place that I would love to visit in real life? Essentially, during which movies have I thought, “Wow, I would really love to be there and experience that place at that time”?

I must admit, I have struggled with my response to this one. How to choose just one period, just one place? My interests are all over the place and change from day to day. Wouldn’t it have been cool to be at the opening night of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in 18th century Vienna as in “Amadeus”? To have had a seat at the legendary Round Table in New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s, as do the characters in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”? To have frolicked at the Carnival in Venice as in “Wings of the Dove” or “Casanova” (two completely different periods there.) As Daniel himself notes, “You almost become paralyzed with the possibilities.”

So I’ve decided to break through my paralysis by cheating a little. I may not be able to settle on a time period other than the present,but I know where I’d go if could pack my suitcase and take off today: Greece. And I was able to experience that country vicariously/cinematically last weekend at the multiplex with “My Life in Ruins.”

I’m not going to pretend it was a good movie. I won’t even try to defend it artistically. As movies about Greece go, I’m sure it’s no “Zorba”or “Never on Sunday” (two films I’ve never managed to see, although both are referenced in “Ruins.”) And, with only the slightest variation, it fits neatly into the overworked rom-com template that is brilliantly pegged in this clip from “Family Guy”

Busy Business LadyClick here for more amazing videos

That’s pretty much the plot – except that Nia Vardalos isn’t a Busy Business Lady exactly, but rather an out-of-work professor of Classical Studies named Georgia who is reduced to a tour guide job at a broken-down, Athens-based touring company. Georgia, who admits she hasn’t had sex ‘since forever’ is predictably uptight, rigid and perpetually pissed off. She subjects her tour members to dry, school-teacherly lectures and drags them to temples and museums, when all they really want is to eat ice cream, buy tacky souvenirs and lounge on the beach. For Georgia, it’s all that “busy business” of ancient Greece (builidng the Parthenon, starting the Olympics, creating democracy) that makes the country great, not its modern propensity for relaxation and sipping coffee frappe drinks. She’s just begging to be set straight.

Fortunately for Georgia and her long-lost “kefi” (Greek for ‘mojo’ or ‘joie de vivre’), the shaggy and taciturn bus driver isn’t put off by her knee jerk crankiness. In due course – with a shave and haircut, and monosyllabic grunts that gradually progress into extended, soulful conversations – he reveals himself to be a handsome hunk with the heart of a poet. Soon Georgia is ditching her stiff, blazer-and-shirt tour-guide ensemble for a floaty white summer dress and abandoning her academic diatribes to undulate through the tour bus while delivering sexed-up embellishments to boring old Greek myths.

Any surprises yet? Probably not, and I don’t think you’ll be any more shocked to learn that every person on that tour bus is a living, breathing Tourist Cliche from the materialistic Americans in their sneakers and fanny packs to the lager-swilling, unintelligible Australians to the snooty Brits. And Richard Dreyfuss is along as the Wise Old Guy who encourages Georgia to “get in touch with your wild thing.”

Vardolos had a big hit a few years back with “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” a film not much fresher or more sophisticated than this one. And from the looks of the sold-out audience at the multiplex last weekend, she’s (initially, anyway) going to bring in the same audience. But I’m not sure Vardalos herself has sufficient charms to keep those audiences coming back. She’s likable enough, but she’s not so much a skillful comic actress as a competent straight woman with a limited range of slow-burn reactions to her co-stars’ eccentricities. She’s destined to succeed or fail based on how funny her supporting cast manages to be. And despite the presence of normally reliable performers like Dreyfuss, Rachel Dratch, and Harland Williams, the “Ruins” cast doesn’t hold a candle to the lovable, nutty MBFGW family.

And yet…

Despite the fact that “Ruins” leaves no travel film or rom-com cliche unturned, I had a pleasant, good time. Not one eye-roll in the entire 95 minutes. And that’s because it allowed me to relive memories of my own 2005 trip to Athens and Santorini – and made me positively hungry for a return trip. Everything in this film made me nostalgic for Europe in general and Greece in particular.

There’s a shot early in the film that captures what I liked most about Athens – the juxtaposition of the ancient with the contemporary, the otherwordly feeling you get when you look up from just about any modern street in Athens, and glimpse the timeless majesty of the Parthenon looming above you.

When the film characters wander through the Agora, bitching and moaning about the heat and asking when they could get ice cream, I sort of felt their pain. But I also wanted to point them not to the nearest ice cream vendor, but to the friendly taverna where we sat sipping cold, crisp moschofilero and nibbling on bowls of almonds after our own sweltering walk through those ruins. In fact, the one thing these characters maddeningly don’t do – which they really should – is have lovely, leisurely meals at open-air tavernas, passing platters of dolmades, lamb shanks, tzatziki with bread for dipping, burgers stuffed with feta and tomato and horiatiki salads. Yum! The food was one of my favorite parts of Greece, and eating out-of-doors only made it more enjoyable.

And I don’t buy the “Ruins” premise that the people with “kefi” come to Greece for ice cream and tacky souvenirs while only the dull, stick-in-the-mud types come there actually wanting to learn something. Puh-lease! If you aren’t thrilled by the Parthenon, fascinated by the ancient ampitheatres and temples or intensely interested in the museums, you really shouldn’t go to Greece. You just stay home and go to a diner for a gyro sandwich. That’ll be enough for you.

Another missed opportunity for all kinds of tourist-comedy hilarity: no one rides a donkey in this movie. I’m really surprised this was left out. I rode a donkey up the steep cliff to Oia on Santorini and I can promise you, it’s an experience that pretty much writes its own comedy script. ‘Cause your average tourist gets pretty freaked out. I’d gotten slightly separated from my friend and so ended up on a donkey between a screaming Englishwoman (“Oooh, I’m terr-ee-fied!”) and a screaming Italian woman (unintelligible shrieks of Italian terror); immediately I made the decision to be the calm, rational woman in the middle. (After all, as I tried to explain to the screaming Englishwoman, the donkeys do this every day and they don’t want to go over the side any more than you do.) I suspect there are scenes like this at the Grand Canyon,too, although I’ve never ridden a donkey there. But, trust me, the view is worth every second of anxiety and then some. In fact, it’s just a shame that “Ruins” never makes it to any of the Greek island,because that’s where the truly beautiful scenery is found.

It’s probably a sign of how badly I need a vacation that even the hotel-from-hell scenes got me all nostalgic for past trips and the clean-but-just-barely-serviceable hotels in which my friends and I have occasionally stayed while travelling on a budget. We’ve tried in vain to watch CNN on a snow-filled, 6-inch TV screen in the Czech Republic, dragged heavy bags up four flight of stairs in crumbling old bed-and-breakfasts in England and Ireland, struggled to get water pressure – or just some hot water at any pressure level – at least once in about every country we’ve visited. But even the sub-par experiences are all bathed in a post-vacation glow of shared memories and uproarious laughter now.

The final shot of “My Life in Ruins” is my favorite. It’s the Acropolis at night, all lit up against a blue-black sky. I have very fond memories of sitting at (yet another) open-air taverna at the foot of the Acropolis about 10:00 at night, gazing up at the illuminated Parthenon while sipping wine and laughing with a table full of friends. I would love to be at that table again soon.

Perhaps I’ll just slip over to Expedia now and see if I can find a cheap flight to Athens…

7 Comments so far
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Terrific – marvelous, Pat. Thanks for giving my little meme such big thoughts. I taught sixth grade social studies (Ancient Civilizations) for a few years and Greece became a dream destination for me (along with Rome and Egypt). The Athens Olympics and, believe it or not, even Mamma Mia! added to my desire to go there. While my unfulfilled wish might have been met a little bit more by My Life in Ruins, I opted out of seeing it. The area just seems like such a fascinating crossroads of civilization with a very distinctive culture. Plus I would love to see artifacts and architecture that old. Thanks for this trip, and again for participating during what I know is a difficult time right now.I've often found that traveling, even if only through movies, is often a hopeful comfort.

Comment by Daniel Getahun

Daniel -Thanks. It was a pleasure to participate in your meme. I really enjoyed doing this post, it brought back a lot of nice memories.If you get the opportunity to go to Greece, seize it! It's a wonderful country, and with your knowledge of the ancient history, you would really love it. One of the friends I travelled with is a drama teacher who's very well versed in the ancient Greek origins of theatre and in the mythology – she was every bit as good as a tour guide in teaching the rest of us about what we saw.

Comment by Pat

Hey there, I have a business proposal for you and you don't seem to have your e-mail in your profile. Could you kindly contact me at jenniferviensATyahooDOTcom when you have a chance.Thanks a bunch!

Comment by Jenn Viens

Patty, I know that this post has been up for several days.But it was a combination of a number of things – along with searching for the precise combination of words – that kept me away until now. Just wanted to state for the record how much I enjoyed it and what a wondrous monumentally clever piece that it is. I haven't seen MLIR (though I adore NIA – she's a marvelous comedian) but I love the way that you simultaneously weave the film critique, the meme criteria and the travel portion together so seamlessly. It's magical. I envy your adventures overseas, Patty. I've never been off the continent and there are so many places (even in the States) that I passionately want to visit. That day is coming…But kudos to you on an awesome read. BTW, we did go to the AMARCORD screening STRICTLY on your recommendation. Wouldn't have braved it otherwise…and we both loved it. My boy said to tell you that you have exquisite taste (duh…) and that if our paths ever cross through some strange twist of fate that we'll take you out to dinner at the Italian restaurant of your choice. That offer stands as long as he and I are together. Then I'll take over the responsiblities if that should ever hit the dust. Fabulous to have you back, my girl. Hope everything is as good as it can possibly be.

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda -Thanks for your kind words. Lovely, as always, to hear from you.I am SO glad you and your boyfriend enjoyed "Amarcord"! It really is a beautiful film, one of Fellini's very best. Maybe someday we'll get to share that Italian meal. I am a traveller, after all, so you never know! And if you ever get to Chicago, we can do a spectacular meal here!

Comment by Pat

I figured the movie would be horrible, but I am a sucker for on location films that showcase the surroundings. I recently saw Angels and Demons and although it was almost comical how cat and mouse it was, the shots of uniterrupted Rome were gorgeous. I know you love Nia and Greece, so I was looking forward to your review on this. Thanks again for another great review. Oh and the Family Guy thing-hilarious. In spite of myself –that show tickles me sometimes.

Comment by Parisjasmal

Jen -I know what you mean about "Angels and Demons" – it made me want to run out and book a trip to Italy. Well, actually it also made just want to run out, period. Haven't seen a lot of good movies at the mulitplex lately.

Comment by Pat

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