[URBAN NOTE] “Why Hollywood is obsessed with Boston”
The Globe and Mail‘s Eric Andrew-Gee explains Hollywood’s fascination with Boston as a setting in terms of an interest in the idea of an American city bound by tradition.
Boston Magazine has suggested that generous tax credits lure studios to Massachusetts. But Boston movies are not just set in Boston; they’re about Boston, and what it does to you: the wages of loyalty, the tug of roots, the comforts and claustrophobia of home. The movies do not always romanticize this world. But even the harshest depictions of the city evince a grudging fondness for its grit and closeness.
Those qualities are twin manifestations of the nostalgia that’s hard not to see as central to the city’s cinematic appeal. It’s a nostalgia that can be wholesome and sinister in equal measure, pining for a time of closer civic bonds and richer local culture even as it fondly remembers a whiter, manlier, and more violent past.
It’s no coincidence that movie Boston is almost perfectly synonymous with Irish Catholic Boston; there’s something almost European and Old World about the communitarian ethos at the heart of its worldview. The opening shot of Gone Baby Gone, starring Casey Affleck as a working-class private detective trying to solve a kidnapping, speaks to this with disarming candour. As the camera pans over an American flag painted on the side of a water tower, Affleck’s voice propounds a most un-American credo: “I always believed it was things you don’t choose that makes you who you are,” he says. “Your city, your neighbourhood, your family.”
Sure enough, the characters of the Boston film boom are defined above all by their sense of place. Their parochialism is almost medieval: the Seans and Patricks of these stories never move away from home, speak with thick regional twangs, are forever draped in city sports regalia, and enact folk traditions seen as quaint by the rest of the country, like playing hockey and going to mass. For a North American culture homogenized by cable TV, shopping malls, chain stores, and increasingly by the sleek, antiseptic design of websites like Facebook, a splash of local colour is refreshing.
Patriots Day hints at the best of this Boston. It shows a city where the gentle strictures of tradition give a pattern to daily life, narrowing the infinite field of choice thrown up by 21st-century consumer culture. In an early scene, before the bombing, a Boston native tells his out-of-towner wife that there are three things you can do on Patriots Day: run in the marathon, watch the marathon, or take in a “Red Sawks” game (as he insists she pronounce it). She is charmed, and so are we: here is life made simple by adherence to the tried and true.