Monday, October 04, 2010
Can You Ever Come Home Again?
Every few years or so a seemingly seminal, and always grave, film about Boston comes out. Be it directed by Gus Van Sant, Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck or even the traditional New York-ophile, Martin Scorsese, they always seem to be both a partial love story to the city and a warning of sorts. They have depicted some of the seediest, nastiest neighborhoods inhabited by some of the most sordid of folks. Further, whether an original screenplay or an adaptation, there’s almost always a murder, double crossing and deception. Boston as a city in Hollywood’s recent cinema seems to have become a stand in for the worst of what America has to offer.
Take Ben Affleck’s recent vehicle, The Town, for instance. This film is yet another example of how Boston is depicted as less than savory locale with opportunistic and dangerous inhabitants. The strange thing about this representation is that Affleck has declared his love for his home state numerous times and in numerous ways. As documented by the Papparazzi, he proudly dons his Red Sox baseball hat around LA, attends his team’s games with frequency and even owns a home back east for his family to inhabit for part of the year. He also frequently shows off his native accent upon request (for instance, on Jimmy Kimmel Live). Yet, his two directorial efforts about his hometown seem to be anything but an unconditional love story. In The Town, Affleck plays a leader of a Charlestown bank-robbing gang. They are mixed up with uzi-wielding mobsters who commission them for one dangerous heist after another.
Despite the bank-robbing and guns, the movie pretty much plays like a romantic comedy. Boy meets girl (ok, so it was while he was holding her hostage) and falls in love with her but has to keep his true identity a secret lest she find out what he did. Given that premise I’m sure you know what happens eventually, so I won’t spell it out for you and risk spoiling it for the one person who has never seen a movie with this formula before. Not knowing that Doug (Ben Affleck) was the one who put a gun to her back, Claire (played by Rebecca Hall) falls for the bait and is taken with her mysterious suitor. He would like to make a change and go straight, but things begin to get complicated as he is expected to conduct more escalated robberies and eventually things are no longer in his control. To make matters more complicated he has to hide his burgeoning relationship from his best friend and fellow bank robber, Jimmy (Jeremy Renner) who risks exposing Doug to Claire for who he really is.
While most of the native Charlestown-ians are unabashedly evil people, there is a moral code to which they all abide. Throughout the film, a clear and present theme in the narrative is the sense that Charlestown is a place where people take care of their own. Loyalty to family and those like family is paramount as they trust each other with their lives on a seemingly hourly basis. Furthermore, being born and raised in Charlestown, for the locals, is a sort of badge of honor. Doug and his buddies display their heritage with pride. Be it with tattoos depicting the fighting Irish, four leaf clovers, or even the Charlestown Zip Code emblazoned in a tattoo across the outline of Massachusetts adorned with the Irish flag. They almost exclusively wear Red Sox and Bruins apparel and use their distinct accent as almost to mark their territory, getting stronger when holding their ground about something. To be a native Bostonian is something they are proud of and impostors beware. Not only do the locals claim to be proud of their upbringing, they put down the yuppie transplants who are gentrifying the neighborhood and refer to them as “Toonies.” These “Toonies” are outsiders who will never truly understand what it means to be a local.
If you were born and bred in Charlestown you hold some legitimacy with your peers and you can be trusted. However, deflectors will not be tolerated one iota. There’s one heated exchange with Doug and Dino Ciampa, an FBI agent (played by Titus Welliver) who crossed over from local to Fed and is now considered a traitor. Loyalty is the number one most important characteristic anyone can have in Charlestown, and if you betray that, you’ve betrayed your people.
Yet, despite all this, it seems that so often a strict adherence to this way of life is going to cause problems. (Sorry for the spoiler, but if you’ve ever seen a movie, ever, you know that a gang of bank robbers from a blue collar town is not going to have a happy ending for all parties.) While so many decry their loyalty to Charlestown and the way they grew up, there are still those who seek a better life. The only way to achieve this better life is to strive to get the hell out of there, not even to a suburb, but across the whole country.
I’m not quite sure why Boston has been deemed a city of despair, but it is interesting that while lamenting so many of its downfalls and having main characters want nothing more than to get out of the only city they’ve ever known, filmmakers keep coming back. They keep exploring how this city could be considered both “The Spirit of America” and yet have so many people fleeing.
Maybe that right there is the new “Spirit of America.” In our current society, so fractured by social and political issues, where the mention of The Tea Party no longer elicits unequivocal pride in our nation’s ability to stand up for itself against tyranny and injustice, but, rather conflicting messages of extremism and passivism for its opposers. Where national pride is debated across the cable news spectrum and where if you don’t agree, you can find your own outlet. Boston, therefore, in these films, stands as a microcosm of how we might see ourselves as Americans today. For the characters in The Town and in other Boston-based films (Good Will Hunting for example), one’s home town is a place that has nurtured and taken care of its inhabitants in the past, but it can not offer everything they need. These films seem to be saying that perhaps the way of life we once knew isn’t actually it’s all cracked up to be and we need to seriously rethink the direction we’re going.
So then, what are the options that these films offer? Do we deflect and become the traitorous Fed who is trying to solve things from the inside out? Are we willing to risk getting killed while clinging to some last hope for keeping to what we know? Or, do we just make it our goal to leave our shattered pasts behind us and start over somewhere new? Is one option nobler than the other? Is that the ultimate lesson though of these films -- to leave our pasts behind us and start over in hopes of finding something better?
In any event, The Town asks us to take a deep look into what we hold dear and implores the viewers to make a decision about which direction they want their lives to take. The Town is not simply saying that the goal for the characters is to escape a town which glorifies violence. Rather, this is a story about grappling with the desire to stay true and loyal to ones past and acknowledging that where someone comes from is important while also admitting that our futures are important as well. We can neither forget where we come from nor who took care and nurtured us when we needed it most. But it also asks us to also take a more objective stance and reassess our goals in life and make decision based on the now rather than the past. In other words, don’t let your past impede the greatness that can be your future.