Film Analysis | Film Reviews | Local Industry | Massachusetts

Boston on the Big Screen

31 Jan , 2011  

Written by John DeCarli | Posted by:

With Boston taking a front seat at the Academy Awards on February 27th, it’s easy to see why more than just a tax credit has drawn filmmakers to its streets -- Boston has a film identity all its own.

Location, location, location. That old business adage is also true of show business: every city imparts a bit of its own unique character to the films that claim it as a setting. For years, directors like Woody Allen and Spike Lee have memorably captured the mystique of New York City on film. Los Angeles, too, plays a distinctive role in film history. Without the long cinematic pedigree of those cities, Boston has only recently begun to cement its onscreen persona, but despite its late start the city has emerged as a unique and original character in its own right.

Since 2006, a generous governmental tax credit has lured many film crews into Boston, and the recent crop of productions has helped established it as a true film city. With the release of no fewer than 18 major movies and TV shows shot in the city, 2010 was Boston’s most prolific year yet. People Magazine even named it the year’s Best Supporting City. The success of films like The Social Network, The Town and The Fighter, boasting strong box office receipts, critical acclaim and an impressive 16 combined Oscar nominations, attest to the city’s appeal, but what is it about Boston’s image that has so captivated audiences?

While Boston’s rapidly-growing catalogue of films vary in genre and tone (and in the quality of their characters’ accents), they, like New York and Los Angeles films, are united by the common themes and problems of their setting. New York films, about the erudite elite and lower-class neighborhoods alike, often emphasize the city’s overwhelming size. Whether the scale of the metropolis is venerated or vilified, skyscrapers loom, streets are congested and people are everywhere. Los Angeles movies like Crash, on the other hand, celebrate that city’s multiculturalism. Though they often feel self-congratulatory, these films find unity in L.A.’s diversity. Without the incredible bustle of New York or the lazy geographic sprawl of Los Angeles, however, Boston films have turned elsewhere for inspiration: to the city’s unresolved class conflict, ripe for dramatic embellishment.

Boston’s small size and unique collection of culturally distinct neighborhoods makes it a lightning rod for compelling class conflict. The film that best encapsulates this theme in Boston cinema is 1997’s Good Will Hunting, about a brilliant MIT janitor caught between the world of his local friends and the culture of academia. The film is interested in how characters break the mold their surroundings ascribe to them. It explores Boston’s split personality, trapped somewhere between its isolated, ivy-covered campuses and its gritty, working-class streets.

Many of 2010’s strong crop of Boston movies also explore the city’s class tensions. The The Social Network delves into another side of Boston’s town/gown conflict. Here social resentment subtly emerges as a motivation for Mark Zuckerberg’s tireless pursuit of perfecting Facebook. The film portrays Zuckerberg as an outsider struggling to distinguish himself in the stuffy, old-money world of the Harvard elite, brilliantly personified by the Winklevoss twins. The twins, sons of a rich, powerful lawyer, belong to exclusive clubs and wield power on campus that Zuckerberg covets. When they approach Zuckerberg to work on their website and intimate that they can grant him status he couldn’t hope to acquire on his own, something clicks in Zuckerberg. Though the film is careful not to reduce the creation of Facebook to one simple motive, it’s clear that the incident ignites in Zuckerberg a desire to prove them wrong. Indeed, the twins and the Harvard establishment are portrayed as short-sighted, although Zuckerberg’s victory also comes at a price.

The idea of moving between worlds and the fractured identities which that creates factored largely in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar-winning hit The Departed. Best known for his films set in and around New York, Scorsese made a splash by returning to the gangster genre and transplanting the action to Boston. While the director may have picked Boston for the tax credit, the city also gave him the perfect visualization of his heady motifs of identity crises, doubles and existentialism. As Boston’s own Mark Wahlberg says to police cadet Leonardo DiCaprio, whose character split his childhood between a sheltered upper-class life on the North Shore and the tough streets of Southie, “You were a kind of double kid, right? … You have different accents? You did, didn’t you? You were different people.” Throughout the film, DiCaprio grows increasingly unstable, caught between the police and a powerful Boston crime organization. He’s split between two worlds, and his inability to reconcile these two identities becomes one of the film’s essential themes.

Beneath the slick veneer and stylish action scenes of 2010’s The Town, as well, lies the representation of a segregated Boston community. The film features many tightly framed aerial shots of Charlestown, portraying it as an enclosed area, isolated from the rest of the city. Ben Affleck’s bank robber longs to get away from the life of crime Charlestown has made for him, but forces conspire to keep him trapped. His one chance of escape lies in his forbidden love for a “toonie” girl, an outsider from the more privileged Marblehead. In Marblehead “you were defined by whether or not your family owned a boat.” In Charlestown, “people with two toilets were fancy. We had one and it hardly flushed.” Though they’re only separated by about 15 miles, the two towns are worlds apart for the characters in the film. The Town contends that people are defined by their environments, and breaking away is never easy.

The visual representations of Boston also speak to the city’s multifaceted personality. For my money, the most interesting visual rendering of Boston comes from The Social Network. David Fincher’s cold, metallic palette combines the evocative grittiness of Boston’s ‘street films’ with the smoother tones of its ‘campus films,’ exploding the myth of Harvard as a verdant beacon of idealism and decency.

Whatever visual look or narrative themes they employ, Boston’s impressive catalogue of films proves that the city has something to offer any filmmaker or filmgoer. While the film tax credit may have been responsible for luring productions to Massachusetts, the location has in turn rewarded its films with a dynamic, compelling presence all its own. With the tax credit coming under attack, we shall have to see if Boston’s storytelling potential will be strong enough to continue to draw filmmakers on its own merit. Like any city, Boston has its problems, its social issues and interpersonal hang-ups that may never be resolved, but the problems it does have are uniquely its own. No city is perfect; all we ask is that it have personality. While any one Boston movie may succeed or flop, taken together the strength of the city’s cinematic output proves that Boston has a personality the cinema can’t resist.