Boston Neorealism: Beantown in Film

I had the pleasure of visiting Boston for the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (April 4-8) and found myself enchanted with ‘Beantown’s’ cultural milieu and contradictions. The juxtaposition of high-cultured ‘Brahmin’ Boston with an underlying soul of a working-class fishing town presents a deeply layered, contradictory tapestry: Harvard intellectualism alongside rabid sports fans; Cape Verdean immigrants alongside MIT engineers; buttoned-up Beacon Hill a few miles from rowdy, Irish-Catholic South Boston. With a (European) history nearly 400 years old, perhaps no other major American city features such an entrenched sense of local identity and a particular way of doing things (ok, a fair argument could be made for New Orleans).

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Films are often how we come to understand a place, through stories and themes represented in a certain way. There are many American cities that are brought to life by films that, in some way, bring out their character, their quirks, their beauty, their darkness, their madness. New York has been the stage for countless love stories; dramas; comedies; disasters. San Francisco has been torn apart by Godzilla; ripped apart by earthquakes; and burned to the ground in a ‘Towering Inferno’. Los Angeles has been conjured into a dream and nightmare; Seattle has been ‘Sleepless’, and ‘Fargo’ has been the stage for a great, gothic story of murder and deception. New Orleans seems to lend itself to ‘Vampires’ and ghosts; Washington DC, unsurprisingly, to tales of political intrigue, corruption, and the art of the deal.

I realized that I know Boston more from the way it has been represented through film than I do as a visitor, having spent limited time on brief visits to friends and family over the years. The stories that emerge on the silver screen about Boston seem to coalesce around particularly dark, and indeed, real themes: Boston is rarely the stage for comedies, love stories or frivolous disaster flicks. When the aliens descend on ‘Independence Day’, the death-beam destruction of Boston was not included in the plot.

Rather, Boston as a setting and muse for films has given rise to its own micro-genre, which I am calling Boston Neorealism, in the tradition of ‘Cinema Veritas’, or the cinema of truth. Boston films do not ‘filter’ its often-gray skies; they play up, rather than down, its inherent grittiness; class tensions and social ruptures are brought to the surface, not buried; and human suffering and the oppressive nature of the everyday are brought into sharp focus. Boston films are where dirty laundry is aired, where skeletons in the closet are found.

I think of the great era of neorealist films, in the years and decades after World War Two: Italian Neorealism perhaps being the best example, with its no-holds barred focus on poverty, suffering and misfortune in films like ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and  ‘Rome, Open City’. Through these narratives, the story does not necessarily end with a happy twist; lives are not spared; bruises are not covered. In Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, humor and love are woven together through visceral scenes of life under fascism. Scenes of laughter-filled feasts stick with me, as does the scene of one of Mussolini’s agents pouring hot oil down the throat of a suspected enemy of the state.

On the airplane back to the West Coast from Boston I watched ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016), and the themes and motifs of Boston neorealism emerged that seem to punctuate so many of the films set in, or around Boston. Gray skies and the relentless cold of New England winter, for one. In a gothic twist, the ground is too frozen to bury the dead – and the character Patrick must wait until Spring to bury his father, who spends the winter in a refrigerator. As if William Faulkner himself emerged to write this part of the script.

hero_Manchester-by-the-Sea-2016Fishing boats. Fishing boats seem to always feature in Boston stories, and a boat is one of the main characters in ‘Manchester’. In ‘The Perfect Storm’, a boat disappears in a great Atlantic storm, killing all aboard.

Irish Catholicism: no Boston film is without it, in varying shades. (In ‘Manchester’, Irish Catholicism was not a major plot feature, but still permeated the story).  However, in ‘Mystic River’ and more recently, ‘Spotlight’ – the Catholic Church and its history of sexual abuse are portrayed as anchors of Boston’s fabric. Working-class Irish-Catholic culture also plays a central role in ‘The Departed’, Martin Scorsese’s exploration of mobster / gangster culture in South Boston. South-Boston Irish identity also forms an important core of the character development in ‘Good Will Hunting’, a story about a boy from ‘Southie’ with serious math skills. In one of the most poignant scenes from the film, class struggle is on display when Will (Matt Damon) accepts a challenge from a braggart Harvard student at a bar in Cambridge – and ends up the intellectual winner. ‘How bout them Apples?’ (says Will), remains one of the most memorable lines from the film, and a metaphor for a smack in the face to Boston’s intellectual snobbery. These themes (as well as a winter backdrop) also appear in ‘With Honors’, where a homeless man engages with, and bemuses, a group of competitive Harvard students.

apples_featurePuritanism, morality, and discipline. In contrast to Irish-Catholic culture, Boston’s puritan heritage and its associated set of strict morals have given rise to a sub-genre of films which look at both history and the present day. ‘The Witch’ (2016) was a terrifying peek into the torment of a Puritan settler family in the New England woods (not far from present-day Boston) and the tension between religion, morality, and the temptation of evil. Salem (now a suburb of Boston) is the setting for ‘The Crucible’, based on the Arthur Miller play about paranoia in politics which was as relevant during the McCarthy hearings (around when it was released) as it is now. Ok, and ‘Hocus Pocus’, the witch-themed Halloween comedy. The straightlaced world of the New England boarding school have set the stage in ‘A Separate Peace’; in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and others – often featuring tortured adolescent men grappling with big questions of expectations, morals, personal autonomy, discipline, punishment, and resistance.

I look forward to the next Boston story, no doubt featuring winter, fishing boats, the Irish, and the tension between intellectualism / snobbery and working-class pragmatism. Neorealism – and truth in film – are powerful reflections of turbulent times, and at a time such as this, all catharsis is welcome. *

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