Not totally swept just yet, perhaps — at least on the screen. Future productions set in Boston include The Fighter, David O. Russell’s rendition of the career of real-life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg), who bounced back from hard times to vie for a junior-welterweight title. Another project potentially in the works is Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s Black Mass. The true story of the unholy alliance between the FBI and Boston crime legend Whitey Bulger in the 1970s, it explores the primal Boston noir ur-legend that resonates in films from Eddie Coyle to The Departed.
But unlike Eddie Coyle, which captured then-contemporary Boston with near documentary precision, these upcoming noirs are set in a re-imagined past. Or in the case of a film like Surrogates, shot in Boston by Jonathan Mostow (and currently in theaters), they are set in the future, or perhaps an alternative present not far removed from the real thing. In this film, the streets are indeed swept clean; the buildings are all glossy glass and steel; the people are all beautiful. Even Bruce Willis has a flawless hairpiece.
As for crime and sex and violence, it’s victim free, the body count as negligible as a video game. And that’s because it is a kind of video game. All the flesh-and-blood people are back home, strapped into La-Z-Boys, living their lives vicariously through superhuman, android surrogates. The film is the ultimate anti-noir, removed as far as possible from the real world of suffering and striving proles and voyeuristically exploiting its glamorized semblance.
Today, my old stamping grounds in Roslindale are home to well-to-do professional people and yuppies. The Mad Hatter is no more, the neighborhood converted to lofts and artist studios. But have the tough ethnic neighborhoods vanished, or have they just changed locations and nationalities?
It may not be a noir, but Tze Chun’s critically lauded, micro-budgeted independent feature Children of Invention might be a sign of return to the reality of streets and families and hardship. It draws from deep roots in the Chinese-American community in its tale of the struggles of an illegal-immigrant, homeless single mother. But if the box office is any indication, the odds seem to favor Surrogates as the wave of the future. So far, it’s grossed more than $30 million. Children doesn’t have a distributor, nor did it benefit much from the tax breaks enjoyed by big-studio productions offered by the state.
Lehane remains optimistic. “I’d like to see what’s going to come out of the new ethnic fabric,” he says. “I think it’s a dramatically fertile area to go to right now. I’d love to see a Cambodian writer. Or . . . the Brazilians in Allston. I’d love to see something come out of the new ethnic enclaves.”
Is Chinatown or Allston the new South Boston or Charlestown? The discontent, disillusionment, injustice, and darkness haunting the city won’t go away. It awaits its next incarnation on the screen.
The Boston Noir panel discussion takes place Saturday, October 24, at 6 pm at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Auditorium, 700 Boylston St., in Boston. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.