If there hadn’t already been the “Beanstreets” films thirty years ago, branded as such for taking after Scorsese’s work, I’d think Boston was currently having its equivalent of NYC’s “horror city” era of the 1970s and ’80s (and what L.A. subsequently had in the ’80s and ’90s). What used to be in my mind a city primarily used for college films, specifically Harvard (though it’s in Cambridge, which as an outsider I always include as a necessary if not official section of Boston), now seems to only hit the big screen for crime thrillers. Some are even made by Scorsese, though “The Departed” is kind of like a child of both Boston and NYC, where much of it was filmed. And now Ben Affleck’s “The Town” is here to reinforce a negative association between violence and a prominent Boston neighborhood.
Now, I may be looking at and thinking of this in very simple and general terms, but really that’s what identity and image consist of: basic ideas, stereotypes, generalizations, trends and repeated iconography and representations. We can’t blame Dennis Lehane, whose books have been turned into the films “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” as it’s not his fault no other Boston stories are being adapted. We can’t really blame Ben Affleck who has gone from writing the academia-set story “Good Will Hunting” (with Matt Damon) to films like “The Town.” But with the latter, should he have better clarified that his new film does not depict the real modern day Charlestown? Or is that up to the Boston Globe articles that must include paragraphs like the following:
On Main Street on a recent day, nannies pushed strollers, dog walkers wrestled with golden retrievers, Townies and Tunies (the local term for non-natives) bought fresh fruit at a farmer’s market. When they wanted to get money out of the bank, they used ATM cards. There was no drama, and even the Townies-Tunies rivalry, most say, has died down.
That is a description of the current gentrified Charlestown, where Lehane lives. And following a quote defending works written by himself and Chuck Hogan, whose “Prince of Thieves” was turned into “The Town,” Lehane tells the Globe that he thinks Affleck’s movie depicts Charlestown so gorgeously that it will make people want to move there. Okay, I agree that these recent films do capture the beauty of Boston in a way that’s definitely contrary to the way NYC and LA were filmed in their darkest eras. But nobody outside of Massachussetts who is only hearing of the neighborhood from this movie is going to want to head to a place he or she thinks is full of bank robbers and other criminals.
It’s always fun to read local reviews of films set or shot in that critic’s area, because everyone has a different view of his city or state or nation than the people on the outside do, and everyone takes issue now and again with the way cinema depicts certain locations. Take this disclosure of an opening to the Globe‘s review by Ty Burr, for example:
I don’t care what anyone outside the greater metropolitan area says: “The Town’’ takes place in Movie Boston rather than the real thing. Movie Boston is a sub-Scorsese landscape of stubbled men walking down mean Suffolk County streets that exist primarily in the minds of good pulp novelists and bad screenwriters, and its authenticity depends far too much on Hollywood actors trying hahd to bend their dialogue around non-rhotic speech patterns.
I’ll admit that even having visited Boston about a billion times in my life I will still look at a movie like “The Town” and not know what’s more genuine and what’s not in its depiction. And for all I knew, Charlestown was still the bank robber capital of the world and not a place full of yuppies. And thanks to a run of films over the last decade, including “The Boondock Saints” and its seque, I definitely have been thinking of Boston as filled with seedy areas. Even the college movie ’21” makes Harvard students out to be criminals. And the documentary “Stolen” shows us art thieves. I now really can’t wait to see how the town is portrayed in “The Social Network.”
I’d love to hear from both Bostonites and outsiders. To the former, are you unhappy with how recent cinema has represented your city? And to the latter, do these films make you less likely to visit the city or more likely to avoid the Freedom Trail, which brings you out to Charlestown?