From the Vault: Sideways

The representation of Armenians in cinema has often been problematic.

The culture, like all other minority groups, lends itself to stereotypes and exaggerations. In films and television shows, we are often referred to as being part of a criminal organization or mob, or as Spike Lee’s Inside Man points out, our culture is undistinguishable.

It’s often a surprise for audiences when Armenians are either mentioned or referred to, but it’s only rarely when the representation of Armenians is authentic.

Sideways is a film that prominently features an Armenian family, the Erganians. The film represents Armenians, not as a way of poking fun at the culture, but to enlighten viewers about their traditional culture. Sideways concerns itself with Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) who take a trip to Santa Barbara a week before Jack’s wedding. Miles, the film’s antihero is a failed author who still obsesses himself with his ex-wife, who divorced him several years before. Miles hopes their trip together will result in male bonding, which include playing golf and visiting vineyards. Jack, however, is much more playful than Miles, and hopes their trip will result in him hooking up with a girl before his wedding. The film, written and directed by Alexander Payne, makes us laugh during situations which otherwise wouldn’t be funny.

Alexander Payne comes from a Greek background. In Nebraska, where he was born, his parents owned a Greek restaurant. In addition, his first name is actually Constantine and their family’s last name was anglicized from Papadopoulos. I’d imagine “Directed by Constantine Papadopoulos” would be a tough sell in the film world. In either case, it’s apparent that culture has played a significant role in his personal life, particularly growing up in a state on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. That’s primarily why his representation of Armenians in the film doesn’t consist of exaggerations. 

It’s interesting to note that the film explores the notion of feeling trapped, which is expressed throughout the film in a number of ways. Miles, in some sense, is trapped in his lifestyle based on decisions he has made. The specific life path he has chosen has now left him feeling trapped as he seeks escape in other activities (writing a novel, becoming a wine connoisseur). There’s also the suggestion of the life of wine in its own bottle. The poster of the film shows a wine bottle tipped over sideways and shows a cartoon sketch of Miles and Jack trapped inside the bottle. In the film, Miles mentions his prized bottle of wine, a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc. There’s the suggestion that certain wines must be opened during specific time periods, further hinting that wine itself represents entrapment. In the end of the film, after going through a meltdown, Miles opens his bottle, providing audiences with a sense of release, now that the wine has “escaped” from its tight space. Jack, on a similar note, feels trapped in his life and upcoming marriage. The trip for him becomes an excuse to be with a girl before he gets married, but as the film progresses, he reassess his plans and wonders if marriage is right choice for him. In this sense, we are provided with an understanding of how marriage will further trap him, and to a lesser extent, how the Armenian family is at risk of being responsible for this entrapment.

Alexander Payne has claimed that one of the decisions to use an Armenian family was that it would localize the film. In other words, because Armenians are such a significant part of Los Angeles, their presence grounds the film in realism and makes the film inherently unique. It’s another effort in adding culture to the film, in addition to the world of wine that the film portrays.

In a number of scenes throughout the film, Jack comments on Christine, his fiancée. Jack’s comments toward her family all emphasize the family’s strict adherence to tradition. Jack tells Miles, “Christine’s dad has really been talking to me about getting into the family business, showing me the ropes… which is something, considering how long it took for him to get over my not being Armenian.” These sorts of comments show us the importance of culture and tradition in Armenian families. In the end of the film, when Jack marries Christine, their traditional wedding consists of all the ingredients; Armenian priest, bowing their heads together.

Sideways is a rare film in that its representation of Armenians is not only accurate but also authentic to its culture. The film itself is entirely accurate in its representations. The filmmaker himself made up the wine list for the film and all locations used are actual locations in and around Santa Barbara, including the Hitching Post and Kalyra Winery. The representation of Armenians in the film shows us this sense of authenticity as well. There are no caricatures with these characters. The church is a traditional Armenian church, the home in the film is typical of an Armenian family, and even the cars at the wedding are representative of the Armenian culture. The parking lot consists of black BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars. It’s never excessive, but it’s entirely accurate in its portrayal.

Sideways provides audiences with a window into the world of wine, leaving them thirsty for a glass of Pinot Noir after the film is over. In that sense, we can see how we are exposed to worlds with cinema. The Armenian family in this film, similarly, offers a look inside our culture, regardless of how brief. The fact that the representation of our culture is so authentic allows viewers with a sense of who we really are, rather than an exaggeration based on stereotypes.

Alexander Payne is one of the greatest filmmakers working today, primarily because of his focus on human stories. If nothing else, he has portrayed Armenians in an objective light, sharing our culture with the world.