September 21, 2010

Find a City, Find Myself a City to Live In

by Vadim Rizov

The Town (of Boston!)

Many directors would love to be considered the preeminent auteur of their area. Ben Affleck is not one of those people. Gone Baby Gone restored his reputation and got him critical waves and The Town ended up outperforming expectations to be the weekend's number one movie. Nonetheless, in pre-release interviews he was sheepish about his relationship to the city. Asked whether he'd keep returning, he hedged: "I don't know. I'm nervous. I don't want to be pigeonholed as Johnny Boston filmmaker." Still, he knew what was at stake: "New York doesn't so much care about a New York movie or a New York book or New York story. But Boston knows. Boston knows if you're from there."

Boston certainly does: one reason for Affleck's nervousness might be the burden of waiting for his hometown's verdict. Peter Keogh said it "might be the best movie set in Boston since The Friends of Eddie Coyle," even as he lightly rapped Affleck on the knuckles for not getting his neighborhood accent quite right. Ty Burr was less impressed: "I don't care what anyone outside the greater metropolitan area says," he growled. "The Town takes place in Movie Boston rather than the real thing," noting local audiences laughter at trailers suggesting Charlestown—Affleck's setting this time out—was basically Compton in 1992. This kind of on-the-ground authenticity fact-checking justifies local film criticism, concluded blogger the Cinetrix: no one from outside could do it, regardless of their other critical acumen.

Law Abiding Citizen (of Philly!) Indeed, that kind of spot-checking is necessary even for silly C-level blockbusters. Consider last year's Law Abiding Citizen, a non-Shyamalan chance for Philadelphia to get itself on-screen properly. It was scoured thoroughly by one R. Kurt Osenlund of Bucks Local News, who concluded he'd never seen the city shown so "handsomely" on-screen, from magisterial City Hall on down, and spotted the mayoral cameo. "If I didn't know better," he noted, "I'd think the movie was made specifically for Philadelphia audiences." As for everyone else? They're just watching a high-concept Gerard Butler movie.

How to watch movies and judge their regional authenticity? On a certain level it doesn't matter: it's a peripheral rather than a core part of the experience, and a nice bonus for locals, but not much more. Start to think of it neighborhood by neighborhood and you'll go crazy: to an outsider, the fact that Gone Baby Gone is set in Dorchester and The Town in Charlestown doesn't signify at all. The former film's more racially homogenous than the latter, but whether that's a function of the plot or location is impossible to parse.

Slacker (of Austin!) It's certainly irritating if directors get your city wrong, more so when viewers of those films refuse to believe the movie is wrong. Lots of people think Slacker is a "typical Austin movie," even though it's nearly 20 years old and became archival footage after five. Closer recent approximations would be Beeswax or Harmony and Me, both of which conspicuously avoid showing any presumable "local landmarks" and stick to the suburbs and coffee shops, which is indistinct and (in its indistinctness) very true to large swaths of non-conventionally-photogenic Austin. So how's that for authenticity?

Problems run deeper than that. Take Omaha, as depicted with ruthless precision by Alexander Payne in Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. Much of it is, in fact, strip-mall sprawl and ugliness; there are nice parts too, none of which you will ever see in a Payne film. (As if in penance, his next project is shooting in Hawaii.) Does Payne have an obligation, as one of the few auteurs of Omaha, to present a well-rounded portrait? Tim Blake Nelson certainly does unlikely wonders with rural Oklahoma in his recent Leaves of Grass, a place people not from the area think about as often as they think of Omaha.

About Schmidt (of Omaha!) We need cities to combat not just the oft-generic American suburban layout, but the tendency to make Toronto or Los Angeles stand in for everyone, everywhere. Judging how they're represented, though, tends to fall under the rubric of "things and people impossible to find on a studio set." For everything else, we'll need local critics.

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Posted by ahillis at September 21, 2010 10:17 AM


Great post, more in depth than my take on the issue, too. I have to disagree with Affleck, though, regarding New York not caring about a New York movie. Or maybe it's just us outsiders (I'm originally from CT, which still isn't really close enough) who are so fascinated by film studies classes devoted to NYC in film and obsess over books like Celluloid Skyline and the anthology City That Never Sleeps.

Posted by: Christopher Campbell at September 21, 2010 3:01 PM
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