Does "The Town" Contribute Positively or Negatively to Boston's Image?

by Christopher Campbell
September 20, 2010 3:10 AM
6 Comments
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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?


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6 Comments

  • mplo | August 11, 2013 9:32 AMReply

    "The Town", imho, conveys the message that anything goes, as long as people can get what they want and get away with it, whether they've got a right to it or not. Moreover, "The Town" also conveys the message that it's okay to terrorize, traumatize, seriously injure, kill, and even stalk someone like a predator, put the romance moves on a poor, scared bank manager in order to manipulate her into not cooperating with law enforcement people who'd help her by bringing Doug MacRay and his men down and to a prison term, but to stalk this same person like a predator, and come off to her like a decent, law-abiding citizen when they're anything but that.

    I also believe that, in addition to conveying some of the worst stereotypes (the slobbering Boston-born Red Sox fans, the idea that every family in C-Town is into the bank/armored car robbing business in some way or other, the slatternly, drug-addled, drunk skanky gal who sleeps with too many men (Jem Coughlin's sister, Krista), and the angelic-looking bank manager of pureness of heart and unattainable beauty who steals the heart of the leading local thug who robbed her bank at gunpoint while wearing a mask, and becomes an accessory to his crimes, refuses to break it off with him even after learning who he really is, and spends his stolen money on the renovation of a C-Town hockey rink for the kids in the community (Claire Keesey).

    Moreover, "The Town" also conveys the message that people don't have to be held accountable for their actions and behaviors, and that whatever they do is okay, and that it's okay to lie to, stalk people like predators, and to manipulate them into not cooperating with the Feds.

  • Huffy | September 24, 2010 11:27 AMReply

    "Given that Boston is basically a city filled with talentless hack"

    Might want to add an "s" smart guy.

    Personally I'm already growing tired of this trend. I could care less about movies giving the city a bad name but at the very least they could make an effort to set them in neighborhoods that are actually crime-ridden. Southie and Charlestown still have rough areas but it isn't like the 80's anymore.

  • cindy | September 23, 2010 10:43 AMReply

    Well, as has been said over in the comments on the Globe story - it's just a movie, after all. It's loosely based on real people and somewhat connected to actual events. Anyone who would seriously form their opinion of a city based on what is really a handful of movies, probably bases their geography knowledge on Wikipedia articles, anyway, so...

    "My" city? It's not "The Town", but that's not to say that that isn't someones else's. I live in Dorchester, but not Dennis Lehane's Dorchester - doesn't mean it doesn't exist, though. I wonder if LAers crank about people thinking "their" city is nothing but tanned & toned rich people yapping about their trainers and fancy cars. Oh wait - it's totally like that - I've seen the movie.

  • The Thoroughbred | September 21, 2010 4:19 AMReply

    A gentrified Charlestown and South Boston? Wow. That's not the Boston I grew up in. But time's change and I moved away 20 some odd years ago and have never revisited Boston. Great films aside - and kudos to Affleck - I still have no desire to visit the "upgraded" sections of town where Irish Townies live as I was educated in the Anglophile, Boston-Brahmin belt and lived in Roxbury and Chestnut Hill and still remember the bad name the Irish racism has given Boston.

  • Ryan | September 21, 2010 1:29 AMReply

    I'll take a wild guess and suggest the first comment was from an outsider, but perhaps I'm mistaken. I, personally, haven't seen "The Town" yet, but a friend of mine did recently. It's too bad I don't trust his opinion regarding film to save anyone's life, much less my own, or I'd regale you with tales of my friend weeping in ecstasy as he recounted his favorite scenes from "The Town". In other news, I've never cared for Ben Affleck's acting style. Perhaps someone more informed on acting could elaborate on why it isn't actually good, or maybe why it is and why some idiot named Ryan think's it isn't. Also notable is how I much prefer the acting of Ben's lil' bro, Casey Affleck, who I feel has shown his abilities in films like Gone Baby Gone and that other one whose title is 20 words long. Anyway, if someone else manages to outcomment me in terms of overall comment length on this latest Spout post I'll be duly impressed. Have at it! lulz...

  • jl | September 20, 2010 8:24 AMReply

    Given that Boston is basically a city filled with talentless hack, elitist pricks, and idiotic sports fans, I would imagine a film about bank robbers is an improvement.

    But the chowda, yeah, I'll give 'em gold stars for the chowda.

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