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.