Denis Lehane: The (gritty) town

Why is so much of Boston in fear that the city is being typecast by fiction writers and filmmakers as a thugapalooza?

By Dennis Lehane
Boston Globe
September 18, 2010

With the release of “The Town” stories in the Boston media have examined (or ginned up, depending on your perspective) fears that audiences nationwide will leave the multiplex convinced that Boston is one big bank robber collective, as if we toss around dye packs like Milwaukee tosses around bratwursts.

State Representative Eugene O’Flaherty of Charlestown said in a recent article, “As long as no one walks away [from the film] thinking everyone who lives in Charlestown is a bank robber, because the vast majority of people who live there are decent, hardworking people.”

Globe film critic Ty Burr called out film director and Cambridge native Ben Affleck for making a film that takes place in “Movie Boston” rather than the real thing. Apparently he knows the difference. Then again, maybe he doesn’t. He then torched his own thesis statement when he wrote, “Is ‘The Town’ authentic? Hell if I know. I’m from Brookline . . . and the curse of the city’s clannishness . . . is that you can never speak to the reality of the next town over without somebody getting their panties in a twist.”

So, in the course, of one review, he managed to advance an argument he later undercut in order to prove that the tribal mentality of a city he admitted he doesn’t understand is silly. I hope you’re following this, because I’m lost.

The Globe editorial board took this fascinating logic one step further when it argued that films such as “The Town,” “The Departed,” “Mystic River,” and “Gone Baby Gone” (the latter two based on novels I wrote) are “strikingly remote” from the lives of most Boston residents. While it would be quite a surprise for residents of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, where 36 of this year’s 44 homicides have taken place, to learn how “strikingly remote” cyclical violence is in their lives, maybe it’s more helpful to ask whether those who fear the city is being typecast by fiction writers and filmmakers as a thugapalooza understand that the job of storytellers is to tell the best stories they know, not the most polite.

When we who write about the working class and underclass in Boston choose to do so, “crime fiction” (and its cinematic brother, film noir) often best serve our purpose. The crime novel is a social novel, custom built to address issues of class warfare and class distinction and the ills society foists on the people it flies over. When Dickens wrote about the underclass in London or Jacob Riis took photos of the NewYork City poor or published “How the Other Half Lives,” I’m sure there were those who would have preferred Dickens write about the Upper Crust and Riis take pretty pictures of ponds in Central Park, but that would be to miss the point. Dickens’s London wasn’t the London, it was a London. Same thing with Riis’s Manhattan; it was but one tale of many. And so it is with Ben Affleck’s Boston.

For the man on the street to be concerned that misinterpretations of the neighborhood in which he lives could affect his property values is understandable. (Though something tells me the housing prices in Charlestown are not going south anytime soon because of “The Town.”)

For members of the Fourth Estate to designate themselves cultural arbiters, however, suggesting with a straight face that we storytellers should tell “nicer” stories is dubious and, given the Globe’s own spotty history when it comes to understanding the neighborhoods that form the spokes of the Hub, a bit condescending.

In the end, I agree with the second half of film critic Burr’s contradictory argument. It is silly to get wadded up within the pointless and impossible-to-prove “Who’s the More Authentic Bostonian?” argument. I’ve read the reviews of“The Town” in many publications outside Boston. Not one questioned its authenticity or its Boston-ness, (its “Bostonticity,” if you will.) They merely reviewed it on its storytelling merits, for which it got mostly high marks.

Dennis Lehane is the author of several novels. His latest, “Moonlight Mile,” will be published in November.

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