A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[6th installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress.]
If my Italian wife had always been one step removed from her adopted home, September 11th knocked her back a few more paces. We could feel the widened rupture, and Claudia's insecurity about living in Los Angeles deepened. Meanwhile, as directed by our president, Americans took to the shopping malls. It was a national post-traumatic stress period: everything changed, and nothing did. Though my now terrorism-obsessed, warmongering country wasn't riding high on waves of laughter and amour, comedians, after a respectful pause, resumed telling jokes. Singers sang, shows opened, and the culture went on its way, though things having gotten bleaker for the populace led to a stronger demand for escapist entertainment.
The biggest movie hits of the post-9/11 era celebrated superheroes (Spiderman, LOTR's Gandalf) in simplistic fantasies of Good defeating Evil. Conservative, retro-traditional romantic comedies like Sweet Home, Alabama prevailed. The most popular art house picture in the winter of 2001 was the European Amalie. Chock-full of cinematic inventiveness and whimsical schmaltz, it starred a big-eyed heroine capable of seducing and uniting half the secretly altruistic and compassionate denizens of an idealized Paris. Now that's wish fulfillment fantasy: the notion that French equals mensch.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, released in the spring following 9/11, was far afield from the harsh realities of terrorist threats and military actions in its sensibility, and it fed into this same comfort food need. It imagined a world where all ethnic and national boundaries are dissolved by the power of romantic love, where the immigrant Other is revealed to be just like us.
This Little Movie That Could still holds the title as "the most successful romantic comedy of all time," having been made for next to nothing and grossed gazillions, but it isn't much of one, if we define romantic comedy as a story whose primary question is, Will these two people become a couple? The movie's couple has no real conflict between them - it's a "girl meets boy, girl gets boy" story. While a few of the best laughs in Greek Wedding do involved courtship (e.g. writer-director Nia Vardolos's physical slapstick in her travel office as she spies on John Corbett), it's really a hybrid, a family comedy in rom-com drag, and the question it poses is, Can this couple survive the bride's family?
To critique this warm and fuzzy mush-ball of a movie is to throw rocks at a kitten, so I'll just note that its view of cultural collision - say, the lovably quirky father-in-law's penchant for using Windex as an all-purpose miracle cure - is about as cartoon toothless as its portrayal of a blissful Greek Orthodox and White Anglo Saxon Protestant couple who magically have every little thing in common.
You want to know what can really happen when a New York Jewish guy marries a Roman Catholic girl from Italy? Family, in terms of in-laws, wasn't the problem; the issue lay in trying to start our own. When we discovered that we each had physical issues that precluded our getting pregnant, I was ready and willing to embark on the arduous path of pursuing artificial means, but Claudia was taken aback. "We will have a child if God wants us to," she said. And that was the end of that.
You'd think such matters would've been discussed, early on, but that would imply that I'd been thinking, when I fell in love with Claudia. This absolute difference had struck a wedge between us, and it was widening into a chasm. Claudia was homesick, and the more she clung to me as a lifebuoy, the more inadequate a substitute I found myself to be. Her prideful tantrums met my weary exasperation, and close as we entwined ourselves in the warmth of the night, chill winds turned our breakfast table into a roiling mini-Atlantic.
Our own 9/11 came nearly a year after America's. We had shifted from being mostly happy to mostly unhappy, the dissimilarities between us sharper, and a trip to New York ended in a fight where the barbs drew blood. What seemed an endless river of tears followed. We weren't breaking up out of animosity, but because the dream we'd tried to live together had been proven to be unreal. And now it was over.
There's a transcription of a real dream in my journal from those days that even now brings a dread clamminess to the center of my chest: Claudia and I being forced to room in a house that was all dirt floors, windowless - a hole in the ground, a grave. My wife fled from this place, back to the bosom of her family in Rome. And I was left in what had been our home, alone with my memories. And the movies.
[To be continued]