Lasman: Dropping “r”s and packing heat

In modern moviedom, there are few consistent early indicators that tell the audience what will transpire in the rest of the movie. I’ll save wailing Arabic soundtracks and the presence of Michael Cera for later. Few filmgoers will miss the significance of working-class Boston accents, which have become synonymous with brutal violence and clannishness, making the Massachusetts capital look like an English-speaking Mogadishu, with a few more brick buildings.

Oddly, this hadn’t occurred to me until I went to see The Town, directed by local boy Ben Affleck. Although well-acted and brilliant fun, The Town traffics in a pervasive fantasy image of Boston, familiar from The Boondock Saints, The Departed, Mystic River and a host of other films — an image whose cultural and racial politics beg further inquiry.

To set the record straight: the trailer’s assertion that “there are over 300 bank robberies in Boston every year” is pure fiction. The FBI counts 180 bank crimes in all of Massachusetts during 2009, most of which involved passing a written demand for money to the teller. Massachusetts suffered only around half as many bank robberies per population as New Jersey in 2009, and almost one-third as many as Maryland.

Again, according to the FBI, Boston isn’t the most violent city in America by a long shot (hail, Saginaw, Michigan!). Despite this, the box office has shown, time and again, that we like our violence non-rhotic and Red Sox-rooting.

Which brings me to one of the more salient details of fantasy Boston — its sports teams. Within the first 15 minutes of The Town, Affleck is seen sporting Bruins and Red Sox jackets, before a co-star dons Celtics garb for a particularly threatening scene. The leads’ logo-heavy wardrobe feeds the image of the barbaric Boston sports fan, infamous for wearing “Yankees Suck” shirts to games in which that clean-cut franchise isn’t even involved.

This is not to say that Boston fans aren’t often loud, belligerent and emotionally attached to their teams. I merely question the uniqueness of such behavior, as well as the implication that rooting for a Boston team shows a predilection for violence and criminality. The Town even stages its final and most orgiastic gun battle in Fenway Park.

Fantasy Boston is also an extraordinarily white, Irish and Catholic place. The Town even has its bank-robbing gang wear cumbersome nun outfits for one of their brutal heists. With wrinkled old-woman masks ghoulishly sagging around predatory eyes, the image — chosen for the film’s main marketing poster — highlights the characters’ ethnicity in a way that both The Departed and The Boondock Saints did with music. The Town has no non-white characters, and even includes a bona fide Irishman (played by a bona fide Englishman) to remind us how much Celtic cadences and culture inform the local brogue and bloodlust. Real Suffolk County is indeed majority white — 57.76% — but violent, imaginary Boston is almost entirely so.

I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a macho Irish culture in parts of Boston, proud of its affiliations. But why has American filmmaking developed an infatuation with this subculture, drowning out all other Beantown representations? Why would we rather watch a movie about Irish-American toughs from Charlestown than Avenue King Crips from Lynn? I wonder if this cinematic stereotyping stems from the same impulse as movies such as Gangs of New York — a desire for white film stars to recapture the romantic outlaw image, which (predominantly black) “gangsta” culture has largely conquered since the 80s. That movie also romanticized stereotypes of Irish criminality — but a similar film set in the present could only take place in Boston. With the gun-slinging Western outlaw dead and buried, we need bullish Bostonites to fill their boots.

Since Giuliani-era gentrification and pacification, newly-glitzed New York has had to relocate its cinematic darkness — my brother described it as the narrative contrast between a “hyper-paced, multi-ethnic supermarket” and a “more static, dimly-lit bar scene.” Boston, capital of one of the nation’s most progressive states, has become associated with the mire of tradition and bloodfeud, which must be rejected if the hero is ever to triumph — he must flee to sunnier, seemingly history-less climes, whether the California of Good Will Hunting and The Social Network, or Florida, where The Town’s protagonist ends up. An America distanced from its communal past and ancestral bonds has put these bogeymen in a fictional world of red brick, slate skies and dropped-r accents: an antagonistic imaginary city, fascinatingly repellent.

Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.


  • pablum

    It is unfortunate that the Massachusetts film renaissance has chosen to focus on uglier aspects. But *The Town*, *The Boondock Saints*, *Mystic River*, and *The Departed* are action-thrillers; only the latter was based loosely on the reality of the 1970s Irish mob. Action movies aren’t meant to be realistic. Not only did *The Town* take liberties with the reality of crime in Boston — as the author points out — but it’s set in Charlestown, today one of Boston’s nicer neighborhoods, where the average brownstone fetches at least a million dollars. That said, the film did justice to the genre — it was exciting, well-paced, and entertaining.

    Boston fulfills several roles in Hollywood: it’s exotic (either exaggeratedly Irish or hyperbolically colonial-European), white-ethnic (a role once filled by Italian Americans), and full of contradictions (overly-educated and worldly on the one hand, boorishly provincial on the other). Of course it’s all fantasy — we’re talking about make-believe, here.

    The only tragedy is that Bostonians now have to mute their accents in order to avoid being associated with pugnacious loudmouths; and, just as New Yorkers and our friends in Jersey, impressionable youth are beginning to mimic how they’re represented on the screen, acting out their own stereotypes. According to Hollywood, anybody who occasionally misplaces an ‘r’ is a gritty rock-breaker two words away from punching you in the face.

  • Summer

    > But why has American filmmaking developed an infatuation with this subculture, drowning out all other Beantown representations?

    I like that this column takes 3/4ths of its space to get to a question that it never makes any serious attempt to answer with more than a throw-away hypothesis.

  • FreddyHoneychurch

    I’d like to make a New Haven movie:

    It plays out in real time. Lights go on at a dance party. Oh no!, Po Po! Sitting, giggling, texting, showing IDs for 120 minutes (imagine *The Breakfast Club* for the new millennium). Guy gets tased. Coda pointing out that people are innocent until proven guilty. Roll credits.

    “There’s one street in New Haven … where police still wear the Crown!”