The Town

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On Race, Class and the Hollywood ‘Whiteout’

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In Sunday’s New York Times, inspired, I suspect, by Black History Month, movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had a long piece on the glaring absence of black writers, directors, and actors in this year’s Oscar nominated movies. They refer to this phenomenon as a “whiteout.”  Some might say that Scott answered his own question—why there are no major movies this year by or about black characters (never mind the rest of America’s non-white racial panoply; Scott never mentions them)—with his rather insightful piece of a few weeks back, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” which argued that in the wake of the financial crisis, in the midst of mass unemployment, mortgage defaults, and forecloses, many American filmmakers became preoccupied by class, and that some of the best of this year’s movies (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town) were about working-class and underclass lives, the kinds of lives that the dominant American class mentality—we’re-all-middle-class-here—doesn’t acknowledge or examine all that often.

Yes, I know: there are still a great many statistics that demonstrate that race and poverty’s fault-lines still mirror each other, still have a causal rather than accidental relationship, and thus that class is not the new race: that race is the new race and the old race. But, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, and we can’t ask them to attend to too many weighty aspects of American life at once.  So, at least for this year in American movies, the answer to the rhetorical question in “Hollywood and the Year of the Whiteout,” “Is class the new race?,” is yes: For Hollywood this year class was the new race.

That doesn’t mean that this year’s “whiteout” isn’t a problem. But neither the problem nor the answer to the problem are quite what the authors here take them to be, though they touch on the real answer fleetingly.

The problems with the argument? First, and most obviously, when there’s a whiteout year in Hollywood, black isn’t the only color that’s missing.  And, second, the solution to the whiteout is not, as is suggested, a new black indie cinema movement—a few new Spike Lee/Lee Daniels-style black moviemakers. Or, at least, that’s not the full answer.

My sense is that the way out of the whiteout requires something more subtle, something unprecedented. The answer isn’t just a new coterie of black directors making movies in the line of Do The Right Thing or Precious. More serious films about black American life in our yearly cinematic output would be great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something else American cinema needs more now—something we’ve only had accidental and fleeting glimpses of thus far.

What we need are more serious movies with multiracial characters/casts that aren’t SCARE QUOTES MOVIES ABOUT RACE END SCARE QUOTES. We need more movies that simultaneously are and aren’t about race: movies that are dramas and comedies, about love, death, the usual human plots—and also happen to be about race. We don’t need only highly self-conscious, politicized movies about race, but movies that look at race the way Ben Affleck’s The Town look at class: askance—Affleck uses a popular genre, a crime-thriller, to smuggle a story that’s really about class onto the big screen. This is also how Lisa Cholodenko asks us to think about sexual orientation in The Kids Are Alright: The movie’s lesbianism is sort of incidental. The movie is about a marriage undergoing a crisis brought about by a daughter’s departure for college–oh, and the couple happens to be gay.  Cholodenko does not tell us that gay love, marriage, or family exist in a special category of experience unfelt and un-feel-able by heterosexuals: She tells us that the struggles marriage and children involve are a basic human experience, whatever the sexes of those involved.

I’m not saying that we as a nation have arrived at an idyllic, post-racial (or post-sexual orientation, or post-class) age in which we do not need MOVIES ABOUT RACE, but we could also use a less melodramatic, less strident cinema of race in the vein of The Kids Are Alright that’s just about sort of normal human plots inflected by the post-racial-ish reality that has come to define more and more of our lives.  Because in some American communities, in some American homes and workplaces—more and more, I think—a version of the post-racial age has arrived and it’s not because we have a biracial president. We’re married to and related by marriage to and work with and hang out with people of other races and nationalities, and at the end of the day our relationships with these people aren’t really all that different from our relationships with those of our own races. It’s sort of mundane, actually. Bi-racial marriages and friendships are actually pretty much like any other marriages and friendships most of the time.

Are there moments of fracture sometimes—a sense that your partner of another race is experiencing or feeling something you can’t? Yes, certainly. And are there strange moments in bi-racial relationships in which you suddenly feel as if your marriage/friendship is some sort of radical political choice—that you’re poster-children for something (usually caused by other people’s delighting in/awkwardness about your biracial-ness)?  Again, yes. And I hope that this new cinema I imagine would capture and explain such moments with the subtlety they deserve. But most of the time in interracial relationships, it’s all the same laundry-on-the-floor, bills, celebrations, in-laws, dishes, fights, compromises that the same-race couple next door are dealing with.  And I hope my new cinema would capture this too—how normal and humdrum inter-racial relationships can be.

This American experience has yet to make its way onto the screen, but we catch glimpses of it: A.O. Scott sort of touches on this idea of naturalizing race when he talks about 2009’s The Hurt Locker and its focus on “the volatile friendship between two soldiers, a hot-headed white bomb-disposal specialist played by Jeremy Renner and his cautious black sergeant played by Anthony Mackie.  Race in that movie was not a theme or a problem to be solved, but rather a subtle, complex fact of life.” This is what I’m talking about.  In an ever-increasing number of American lives it’s probably this kind of representation—race as “subtle, complex fact of life”—that feels most resonant. This understated mode (friends and coworkers first; incidentally, black and white) is a norm for more and more Americans and it should become a stronger presence in our movies.  Race, for some of us now, isn’t a be-all-and-end-all melodramatically determinative fact of life, but a fact nonetheless—one that inflects our lives in increasingly subtle, nuanced ways—ways that have only just begun to be reflected in our movies.

What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.

A Stew of Laziness: Ben Affleck’s The Town and the Elements of Bad Drama

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I am by nature an optimist, and so I usually begin watching a movie ready to be enthralled. It’s up to the movie to prove that such expectations are unjustified. I find with bad movies that usually there comes a point at which I realize that no matter what follows, there’s little chance that the film is going to be good. This can be a stilted scene which provides a deductive foothold (as in, “it’s highly unlikely that a good movie would contain a scene like that”) or it’s a plot turn so poorly-conceived that there’s no way the movie could possibly recover from it.

Last week I saw Ben Affleck’s new Boston crime drama The Town. After the first fifteen minutes of action I thought it might be good. Forty minutes in, though, there was no doubting the opposite. The point of no return came when bank-robbing tough-guy from the ‘hood Doug MacRay (Affleck) interacted with the putatively well-bred Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) for the first time over quarters in a laundromat. The pickup lines were stilted, the smiles preordained, the chemistry inert—and it was clear that if their relationship was meant to carry the bulk of the movie’s narrative tension, then The Town was sunk. And so, ninety minutes later, it was.

On the way home I was a little steamed. It was frustrating that the movie had turned out to be dud and all the more so given that The Town, with its stratospherically high 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, seemed to have taken in a good number of America’s cinematic tastemakers. (No need to mention it in the comments—I’ve already switched my loyalties to the more nuanced MetaCritic.)  Usually I’m happy enough to leave my assessment of a movie at the level of broad strokes—to say of The Town that it’s unimaginative and a touch lazy—but the more I thought about the movie’s flaws the more I found that they attach to many of the frustrating dramatic experiences I’ve had over the years, be it with the contrived plotting of the fourth season of The Sopranos, or with almost any of the melodramas Clint Eastwood force fed the American public this past decade.

Plot Arrhythmias: There’s a reason that kids learning to write fiction in grade school are taught beginning-middle-end structure. It fits the way we instinctively like our stories. With heist movies there are reliable formulas, typically involving a theft at the beginning which establishes the cunning and audacity of the protagonists, a long middle section in which emotional tensions within and between characters are explored and the stakes are set, and then a blow-out finale in which the protagonists undertake their most ambitious heist yet and either get paid or played depending on the type of mood the filmmakers are aiming for.

The Town fumbled this order and as a result never managed to generate narrative steam or a sense of emotional consequence. The movie opened with a less-than-scintillating but still entertaining bank robbery and it closed with a ‘heist-of-the-century’ shoot-out at Fenway Park. But wedged between these two requisite elements was another extended robbery sequence which gobbled up the middle part of the movie. This misplaced action occupied the space that should have been used to invest the audience in the characters. When it finally ended my friend looked at her watch.  It felt like the movie should have been winding down but there was still an hour left, which left The Town in the unenviable position of being flatfooted halfway through the race.

Overreaching: Movies, like people, work best when they’re comfortable in their own skin and don’t try to be something that they’re not. The Town was a muddle. It should have been a straight-up, fluffy, entertaining action movie. Instead the script tried awkwardly to fill out Affleck’s character with a backstory of maternal abandonment.  This was communicated most explicitly during an excruciating multi-minute monologue in which MacRay tells Claire about the day his mom left home, a monologue that could be used in film schools to dramatize the perils of staring in a movie that a movie that you also direct.  It was a high-risk gambit that failed, and by failing highlighted the overall shoddy quality of the movie (in the same way that cheap fixtures in a new house should give you pause about the attention that was paid to the foundation). I would have preferred that Doug MacRay had been a bad-ass, but then again part of Affleck’s charm has always been that even with his Southie accent, he’s still a bit of a sissy.

Narrative Dead-Ends: After beginning-middle-end structure, the most inviolable tenet of dramatic writing is Chekov’s admonition, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The Town flouted this egregiously. In the opening heist sequence Claire, the bank manager, spies a distinctive tattoo on MacRay’s best friend and accomplice, the volatile and violent Jim Coughlin. Later in the movie MacRay and Claire have gotten involved, and there’s some genuine tension created when the intricacies of this triangle become apparent: If Claire ever puts the pieces together she’ll have to choose between fingering Charlie and protecting her new lover, while MacRay has to choose between love and loyalty to his best friend. The blue-collar, bank robbing code he lives by requires him to tell Jim about this potentially incriminating witness, even if that means Jim would likely drop Claire’s body into the Charles River.

But instead of doing something meaningful with this setup, The Town titillates and teases, and then wanders off.  It never acts on the tension it’s created and as a viewer you’re left feeling like you’ve been manipulated by a cheap trick with no payoff.  This is unpleasant in its own right and it indicates the con-artist spirit in which The Town was produced. The filmmakers seem to have approached the movie by asking themselves, “how can we elicit a response from the audience” as opposed to the more appropriate question, “how can we tell a good story.”

Unoriginality: Here I’m not after Picasso-type originality; I just mean fresh like a new coat of paint on an old barn. A good heist movie needs an element of sexiness—like cool James Bond-style gadgets or an ingeniously imagined caper. In The Town, at the moment when things looked the direst for Affleck and company, I was ready to be wowed by an improbable means of escape. Instead, the best they could come up with was to have MacRay and Jim don police uniforms and blend in with the onrushing Boston PD. It was a ruse we’ve seen a hundred thousand times and I felt let down by the movie, but also by the filmmakers who couldn’t have put more than four minutes of thought into writing it.

A romance even the filmmakers didn’t believe in: The gaping hole at the center of The Town is MacRay’s relationship with Claire. The problems with it are many. I would say it’s entirely unclear why be-pearled Claire would be attracted to be-muscled MacRay for anything more than a weekend romp. But there is an antecedent problem, which is that Claire is a completely blank character. We get from the fact that she speaks without an accent and is derided as a “toonie” (a yuppie) that she’s an outsider from a higher social-class than MacRay, but this is only at the level of vague suggestion. Not a single concrete detail is offered about who she is or where she comes from or why she acts the way she does. Not one. It’s a stunning omission, really. I could have given the script to any of a hundred people and the first critique all of them would have made is the one often heard about female characters in Hollywood productions that Claire’s character needs to be at least a little more fully-imagined. Yet somehow The Town passed through who knows how many industry hands without anyone pointing out this bedrock problem or moving to address it.  It’s a telling indictment of big studio culture that it’s even possible that this could have happened.

From this root deficiency other problems sprout. The most damming is the stuttering way that MacRay’s and Claire’s relationship unfolds. They meet at the laundromat, go out for a drink, share a meal and a weepy garden confessional, yet many scenes in it’s still not clear if they’re friends or lovers. When they finally kiss, they do so in a way that suggests they’ve kissed before, but who knows.  The relationship was imagined as “Ben Affleck’s going to fall for a girl who’s above him and it’s going to create problems” but no one seems to have thought about how to execute this idea, to turn it from a stock concept into something that grows on the screen.

The Town was not the worst movie I’ve ever seen by a long shot, and most of its shortcomings are so common in big release movies and serial television dramas (even the most highly regarded ones like The Sopranos) that they could easily slide by without being remarked upon. But still, no matter how often I encounter poorly imagined fiction it still incites a visceral response. It makes me angry whenever I see something valuable and important treated cheaply. The Town gestures towards consequential aspects of experience—that childhood wounds linger, that friendships fracture under duress, that love sometimes stands at odds with other necessities in life, that there is power in storytelling—but it does so with the disregard of a knock-off artist trying to make a forgery just good enough to pass. And like the forger, the crime is not so much in the facsimile as it is in the pawning, the asking of the audience to invest emotional energy in a fabrication of life.

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