Hollywood on the Charles

By Carlo Rotella | Boston Magazine |

AS TIME AND SPACE are measured by Hollywood, Boston and the other Massachusetts cities are strange, ancient places with distinctive physical forms, curious folkways, and alien languages, like Jerusalem or the cities of the Silk Road. Their quality of familiar exoticism only intensifies as New England’s industrial era recedes into history, joining Paul Revere’s ride and the transcendentalists. This is the bigger story, about the changing form and function of Rust Belt cities, moving behind the formula plots of the crime stories, comedies, and family dramas shot here. The state’s efforts to woo film and TV production by establishing a film office (founded in 1979, and now part of the travel and tourism office) and a tax credit are classic postindustrial economic development strategies. The decline of manufacturing opens up a gap that can be filled, in part, by other sorts of enterprise as the New England mill city becomes a backwater in the industrial economy and acquires a new role in the postindustrial economy. Becoming a backwater enabled and demanded the policy moves that put Massachusetts back in the center of the cultural action as a hotbed of film production, and it added a crucial layer to the local aura of history and character.

Old manufacturing capitals that don’t make things anymore have turned to providing services, information, images, history, experiences. You can see the process in action in the repurposing of factory buildings to house museums, arts spaces, loft housing, convention centers, and places to eat, drink, and shop — and make movies. And you can see the process onscreen in scenes like the long shot in The Fighter of Charlene knocking on the door of Micky’s apartment with dark mill buildings looming in the background. Whatever’s going on in the plot, scenes like this one are also about the possibilities for cheap production and resonant storytelling that opened up when the factories closed.

Consider New York City, which led the way in this kind of reinvention. In the late 1960s, it was known for documentaries and art films, but not for feature or TV production. But then John Lindsay, a mayor looking for ways to attract new business to a city that was losing industrial jobs and restore glamour to a civic reputation damaged by the urban crisis, declared that he would “throw open the city to producers from Hollywood.” He made a high-profile recruiting visit to Los Angeles, founded a City Hall office to help with permits and police assistance, and otherwise made it attractive to shoot in New York. A lot of feature films and TV shows took advantage of the new policies, among them a stylistically distinct subset that did all they could to give themselves a timely street feel. Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, Superfly, and other New York movies pioneered an influential new style, enlivening traditional Hollywood storytelling with elements borrowed from the documentaries and art films that had previously dominated the city’s filmmaking scene.

Boston is in an analogous situation now. Like New York, it matches a reputation for high-cultural sophistication and wealth with a gallery of stock street and neighborhood characters infused with local color. But the Boston boom is narrower, not only less stylistically innovative but also less inclusive. The New York movies of the late ’60s and ’70s offered a range of representative characters. Even among standard action heroes, there were white-ethnic regular guys like Popeye Doyle and the Corleones, black Caesars like Shaft and Priest, and migrants from the western played by Eastwood and Charles Bronson. But, so far, the Boston stories have been dominated by just two types: brilliant, fast-talking savants affiliated with Harvard or MIT (as in The Social Network) and white-ethnic working-class heroes, usually Irish. Good Will Hunting remains the template for Boston movies because it finesses the high-low split by making its hero both types at once.

  • Sean

    The truth of the matter is that the film industry was stunted and is now on the rebound after Deval and a few other short sighted cronies decided to “explore” rolling back the tax credit and/or capp

  • Robert

    Carlo Rotella is ill-informed and biased in his discussion of Massachusetts’ film tax credit. The Mass Department of Revenue has shown in its state-of-the-art studies that the film incentive has cost the Commonwealth hundreds of thousands of dollars just to create one full-time equivalent job. Moreover, Mr Rotella gets his facts wrong. New Mexico has capped its film tax credit and has never been more generous than Massachusetts’. Michigan’s credit is no longer 42 percent. It repealed its credit in favor of a much smaller direct grant. Finally, Rotella contradicts himself. If film producers allegedly deserted the state because of talk of curbing the credit, how can other factors attract the film industry? How can there be a “longer” answer? Massachusetts’ film “boom” has required a huge public subsidy, putting taxpayers on the hook. With respect to the film tax credit, Rotella is long on pro-film ideology and short on facts and careful policy analysis.