HOLLYWOOD DEALS WITH THE ULTIMATE NON-VISIBLE MINORITY…
“Another Armenia, Belgium… The weak innocents who always seem to be located on the natural invasion routes.”
It began unexpectedly, during one of those lazy California afternoons, as the usual rerun of Star Trek (the original series from the 60’s) played in the background. All of a sudden, Shatner (Kirk) and Nimoy (Spock) were discussing Armenia on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The next time the episode aired, our VHS recorder managed to capture it. Through endless replays, the tape wore down and finally broke. But it had done its work- the question could no longer be ignored: How are Armenians, these quirky, eccentric and ancient people, (MY people no less) depicted in the newest and most crucial art form of the last century, and why was that important? Well…
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT…
‘Whoever controls the media, controls the mind. ” – is a quote attributed to the late Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, (who is also purported to have said: “Film spectators are quiet vampires.”) Consider Native American kids who during the cowboy show craze of the 1950’s found themselves cheering for the Cowboys, not the Indians.
People increasingly get less of their information from printed material and more from visual forms. This is a fact widely understood by organizations like the Jewish Anti Defamation League, or the NAACP. Every so-often a controversy erupts because of a racial slur or ill-timed joke. And although there are many of Armenian descent within Entertainment (and this has been the case from very early on), our Hollywood experience has been an eclectic one.
Armenians today are entering a new phase and mass entertainment is the playground of ideas. Perception is everything and Hollywood knows that all too well. That is why it spends so much money marketing its product to as wide an audience as possible. Everyone wants to make…
THE BIG MOVIE…
During the 1993 Academy Awards, screenwriter Stephen Zaillian strode onstage to accept his Oscar for Schindler’s List, Stephen Speilberg’s masterwork about the Holocaust. During his acceptance speech,Zailian did not mention the 1915 Genocide of his people that preceded, and many believe inspired, the later atrocity against the Jewry of Europe. Whatever his reasons, it left Armenian film audiences pining for a similar large scale epic telling of their collective cultural trauma. Those were the immense (and some would say unfair) expectations put upon Egoyan as he helmed his own unique look at the subject, Ararat.
Anyone is familiar with the history of making a mainstream film about knows how punishing the process can be. Even non-Armenian filmmakers who have expressed an interest in pursuing the theme of the “Armenian Question” by means of an epic project to be seen by millions, have encountered difficulties. Most recently it was Sylvester Stallone when he announced his interest in producing the film adaptation of Franz Werfel’s epic, Forty Days of Musah Dagh, an account of the resistance of a group of villagers in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. (Musa Dagh has been a hot potato in Hollywood since the 1940’s.)
Yet the situation is not as bleak as it seems.
Thanks to the efforts of Director Martin Scorcese, Elia Kazan’s masterpiece of filmmaking, America America (1963), an academy award winner and Smithsonian Institute inductee, is no longer an out-of-print collector’s item. Kazan called the movie his personal favorite and it is finally poised to find new audiences. Both America America and the history behind the film are featured heavily in a full-length documentary co-produced by Scorsese himself, and included in a lavish collection of Kazan’s work.
The story of America America centers around Stavros, a young Greek man in Turkish Anatolia doing anything he can to get to the land of “milk and honey” thus earning the nickname “America America.” Indeed, Kazan pulls no punches depicting the Ottoman Empire’s oppression of its ethnic and political minorities. Stavros has a number of Armenians as his closest friends and benefactors who form integral parts of his story.
Kazan’s film is still captivating with its priceless depictions of the myriad occupants of the Ottoman Empire. The controversial director treats his Armenians with a certain dignity. This runs counter to trends in the current mainstream entertainment, which frequently reverts to easy stereotypes of ethnic characters to appeal to a lower denominator. Take shows such as The Shield, the revamped Dragnet, and more recent Southland , which indeed focus on the darker aspects of the Armenian experience in the United States.
THE VISIBLE NON-VISIBLE
Nia Vardalos, writer and star of the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding, describes the phenomenon as the difficulties of making films as a member of a “non-visible” minority. In fact, this confused lack of awareness is parodied in Vardalos’ film when her character’s WASP in-laws don’t know the difference between Greeks, Armenians… or Guatemalans.
But the Hollywood relationship is more complex: Studio chiefs once hired William Saroyan to pen and direct an adaption of his influential book, The Human Comedy. Although ultimately fired from the project, he went to win the 1944 Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story.
Armenians, however, have a deeper history than the Genocide, and Hollywood again seems aware of this: In the 1964 spectacle, The Fall of the Roman Empire, a young Omar Sharif plays Sohamus, the conniving King of Armenia, who whisks away Sophia Lauren and then joins the rebellion against the cruel despot Emperor Commodus. Thisfilm, when remade in 2000 with Russell Crowe in the lead role, left out any reference to the Armenians and the part they played in the story.
Auteur director Woody Allen frequently included quips about Armenians in his work, such as Love and Death (1975), where his main character attempts suicide by inhaling next to an Armenian, or in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972), where an Armenian visits a therapist because he is in love with his sheep. (It should be noted that the therapist in the movie then falls in love with the same sheep.) Armenians also figure into the story in Sideways (2004), Thomas Haden Church presents Paul Giamatti to his soon to be in-laws; an endearing yet predictably bourgeois Armenian family. The film ends with both characters participating in a traditional Orthodox wedding in Montebello, California, complete with the stereotypical caravan of BMW’s and Mercedes’ overshadowing Giamatti’s beat-up jalopy.
Television is THE channeler of cultural stereotypes, and its depiction of Armenians has varied through time (yes even before Kim Kardashian).
In an episode of the classic television show Kung Fu , called “The Stone” (1973), wandering Shaolin Monk, Kwai Chang Caine (the late David Carradine) encounters Zolly, a vengeful refugee Armenian making his rounds in the Wild West. Zolly is a piano player who fled the injustice of the Ottoman Empire and vows that once he makes enough para (money), he will return to his homeland to even the score, “like Sassountsi Tavit!”. By the end of the episode, he learns that “to fight injustice anywhere is to fight it everywhere…”
The Genocide and its effects on later generations was reflected in the Television series: Lou Grant, starring Ed Asner. The show was known to tackle hard subjects, and in the episode titled “Inheritance” (1980), an Armenian couple go to court to prevent their niece from marrying a Turkish-American. The Uncle (Buck Kartalian, a.k.a cigar-smoking ape in the 60’s flick) gives a vivid description of the family’s tragic experiences of 1915 – reasons they could never allow their niece to marry a member of the atrocity-perpetrating race.
As the Armenian population in Los Angeles grew, its depiction on televised programs took on a darker role, especially in Police Dramas, which featured recurring appearances by the Armenian Mafia. In face most roles were stereotypical archetypes. Still there are moments where an actor can make an impression through albeit limited choices available by the material, such as in one Southland episode featuring Anoush NeVart as Agata, a mother confronting a possible murder situation involving her son Arshag (Raff Anoushian), and Ludwig Manukian as an Armenian landlord. During a Los Angeles presentation on her work, NeVart stated that with such roles, it was up to the Armenian actor to bring depth and nuance to an otherwise non-flattering situation.
In HBO’s acclaimed, You Don’t know Jack, Al Pacino attempts to give Jack Kevorkian a more human face. “Dr. Death”, however, is his own, particular cultural icon BEYOND his cultural heritage, even though the telefilm links his reasons to the Armenian Genocide. This is the second time Pacino has played an Armenian character. In the 1982 film, Author Author, he plays Ivan Travalian, an abandoned husband, and struggling playwright trying to raise five kids, only one of which is naturally his.
PRINT TO FILM
In a world where books and graphic novels serve as ready fodder for films, the relationship between the pen and camera is potent. This could be the bright light at the end of the tunnel in bringing back some depth to the depictions. Adaptations are many and frequent: Watchmen, the 300, Iron Man, Kick Ass, all started as comic books or graphic novels. Hollywood was adapting books from Day One and as society drifts more into the visual sphere, the chances of cross- pollination (and influence) are greater.
This leads us to Ender’s Game, an award winning book series that has been adapted to the graphic novel, and now, cinematic format. Penned by acclaimed Science Fiction writer Orson Scott Card, the story arc features, among other notables, a brilliant military strategist (from Maralik in Armenia), called Petra Arkanian. In describing Petra’s origins, Card stated that he wanted Battle School to be more than just Americans- in -Space, and that “ … In casting about for different cultures and ethnicities that my characters could represent, it was only natural that I would make this tough-minded girl – in a Battle School culture that was overwhelmingly male – from a nationality as tough in the face of adversity as Armenians have always been.”
In fact, in the books, Armenia appears in the near and distant futures in all its political and cultural incarnations. Card credits William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy for inspiring his eventual keen awareness of Armenian history.
Given enough effort and time, stereotypes can change. (Again, take those Native American kids from the ’50’s I mentioned earlier, until films like Dances with Wolves came along).
Entertainment has an effect on society, but it can end up being a positive one. While it can enforce stereotypes, it can, using the same tools, give a new solid perspective.
There is, after all, that old Hollywood saying: “It doesn’t matter what they call you, so long as they call you in time for dinner”. Depictions will come and go (just ask the Italians!) and audiences are fickle. In the long run, what matters is that, we were, indeed, sitting at the table.
©2011 -14, Roger Kupelian,
Roger Kupelian is a veteran Hollywood visual effects artist/filmmaker, best known for his work on the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and most recently Scorcese’s Hugo, which also won the oscar for Visual Effects. Kupelian has been hard at work bringing his own East of Byzantium universe (Armenian History on Steroids) to a wider audience. His graphic novel in the EoB series, WAR GODS , and soon to be published WARRIOR SAINTS.