Gratuitous driving in film

Cast and crew filming a driving scene for the movie Ted

Cast and crew filming a driving scene for the movie Ted

It seems everywhere you look there’s another movie set in Boston, usually starring one of our favorite sons: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg… We’re proud to have our city star alongside the actors in these movies, and especially proud of the hard-knocks portrail Boston gets in popular media. Movies like The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and The Departed emphasize the raw grittiness and character of Boston’s neighborhoods. Even Ted, takes advantage of Wahlberg’s character’s modest upbringing as a contrast to his girlfriend (Mila Kunis), a South End advertising executive.

Why, then, do Affleck and Wahlberg – both famously Bostonian – insist on featuring driving so prominently in their films? Instead of embracing our anti-Los Angeles, walkable, transit-serviced urban core, these Boston filmmakers succumb to the same car-dependent plot gimmicks as movies set in any generic city.

We’ll grant that bank robbers are likely to use a van to make their getaway. But it felt like half the scenes in The Town were set around vehicles. The high-speed chase through the North End is absurd and patently Hollywood. When Affleck takes Rebecca Hall on a date, they take their car. And when his character marches into his brother’s house telling him he needs his help, that they’re going to beat up some guys, and that he can’t ever talk about it, the brother’s response is: “Who’s car are we going to take?”

Still, Affleck’s transgressions are minor compared with Wahlberg’s in Ted. We may be guilty of overthinking this movie about a talking stuffed bear, but it’s difficult to ignore the film’s reliance on driving here. Setting aside for a moment the casual depiction of buzzed and high driving in several scenes, or the no-consequence distracted driving car crash, the characters in this movie drive everywhere! Both Wahlberg and Kunis, who live in the South End and work in Boston, drive to work every day. At one point, the couple drive from their home to the Gaslight Brasserie, which would be a 10-minute walk.

Only slightly less egregious, Kunis gets angry at her date after a Norah Jones concert at the Hatch Shell and defiantly declines to ride home in his car with her. The date is incredulous at the thought – how will she get home? But don’t worry, she’ll just take a cab. It’s out of the question that she could find some other way to get to her brownstone a mere mile away.

So what’s the problem? For one, it undermines authenticity. These cinematic depictions of our city are something we’re proud of and we’d prefer they get it right.

But more important is the perception it creates. This reliance on driving in even the most walkable of US cities simultaneously reflects and perpetuates an auto-oriented narrative of our lives. It is apparently inconceivable to these filmmakers that a guy would take a girl on a date using the T. It underscores the notion that the default way to get from home to a restaurant is to drive – even if that restaurant is only a few blocks away. And it reinforces the idea that driving drunk, high, or distracted is comedic and not that big a deal.

This is not a new phenomenon. Characters in Seinfeld – set in New York City of all places – drove with regularity. No doubt some of the appeal of driving in film is that it affords the director a chance to set a scene with both characters facing the camera. Scenes on couches have the same effect. But this presents a great opportunity for other modes of transportation. Characters can sit side-by-side on buses and trains. Or they can walk shoulder-to-shoulder. With a little creativity, this can even work with bicycles:

Over time, we expect Los Angelinos will come to understand how people in other parts of the country actually live and get around. But until then, it’s up to the actors and directors who so proudly come from cities like ours to correct lazy writing and directing. Here’s hoping Ted 2 gets it right.

22 thoughts on “Gratuitous driving in film

  1. Rob
    January 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Great post, and something that has annoyed me for years. Seinfeld in particular was ridiculous. The characters lived on the upper west side of Manhattan, a neighborhood served by two major subway tunnels with 24/7 frequent service.

    Part of the problem was that the real Jerry grew up in suburban Long Island, and co-creator Larry David was raised in car-dominated Sheepshead Bay in southern Queens.

    1. January 23, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Another reason “Louie” is the quintessential New York sitcom. (Though “All in the Family” had frequent references to subway travel.)

  2. January 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    It’s funny. I noticed this in Ted and it really bothered me.

  3. Davistrain
    January 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Movie production is mostly based in Southern California, not NY or Boston. Although we are making some headway in getting people into transit, many of us Californians still think “buses are for poor people” and “Oh, is there a subway in LA?” Also, the logistics of film-making encourage the use of automobiles. Imagine having to set up a location shot in a subway station, schlepping all the paraphernalia down a stairway. In the movie biz, time is money. Many years ago someone commented on how TV shows and movies really are fantasies: “Ever notice how there’s always a parking spot in front of the building where the action takes place? Never happens in real life.”

    1. TonyG
      January 23, 2013 at 9:37 am

      “Ever notice how there’s always a parking spot in front of the building where the action takes place? Never happens in real life.”

      There’s a name for this: Doris Day Parking.

  4. January 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Don’t forget “Good Will Hunting,” though – Matt Damon loved the Red Line so much he’d take it through Dorchester to get home to Southie from MIT.

    1. Anony Mouse
      January 23, 2013 at 11:49 am

      The Andrew T stop is in Southie.

      1. Noah
        January 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm


  5. Noah
    January 22, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    That always bugged me about Cheers. Everyone drove downtown, drunk as they might have been.

  6. January 23, 2013 at 2:47 am

    So much gratuitous driving everywhere! Thanks for pointing out that film is another arena where normal transportation is assumed to be driving a car, even when that would be really abnormal. I look at websites: lots of places (even bicycle shops!) give only “driving directions” on their websites, detailed turn-by-turn descriptions of how to get there from every freeway. But no mention of the bus stop at the front door, the bike trail one block away, the light rail station in the basement.

  7. TonyG
    January 23, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Nice post, and something that I seem to notice, too. In fact, since I notice it i NYC or Boston settings, it often makes me question the need for driving in others settings, in cities I don’t know.

    It reminds me of a friend who wrote a novel set in Provincetown, where the locals would drive down Commercial Street – and park on it! – to get some lunch. During the summer. (Since I happened to know the author, I knew that he actually hated Ptown and rarely went.)

  8. Tad
    January 23, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Driving is the ultimate level of human achievement and status. Well, flying in a plane is right up there too. Think about kids in high school. Try to find one that is not extremely eager to achieve that coveted status: driver. Better yet, car-owning driver. Thanks for this correct and important article. Hopefully it makes a few people think just a bit.
    Oh, and my bike and I get Doris Day parking everywhere we go!

  9. Davistrain
    January 23, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    “Thinking about the kids in high school”–actually, not all teenagers are champing at the bit eagerly awaiting the day they can get a driver’s license. Here in So. Calif., the LA Times ran an article a few years ago about how some young people here in (gasp!) the LA Metro area were postponing or avoiding applying for a license. Even in Orange County, an area not known for a great transit system, bicycles and bus passes have been making headway among the young.

  10. January 23, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Remember also that car companies provide cars for product placement in movies and TV shows.

  11. January 24, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    It’s been a long time since I watched The Departed, but I recall a tense scene with one character following another on the Red Line. I think this is scene is good evidence that filmmakers needn’t rely on gratuitous driving because it really built up the tension with “will he be recognized” and “will he lose him” and other aspects of being on public transit and not totally in control of the situation.

  12. Kaleberg
    January 28, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    It was hard to watch The Town without thinking about that actual Harvard Square bank robbery in which the getaway car got stuck in rush hour traffic, and the robbers tried to get away on foot. It was in the Globe some time in the 90s.

    Besides, Boston drivers are the most noxious drivers I’ve ever dealt with. Parisians and Teheranis are sweety pies in comparison. New York drivers are just in a hurry, but Bostonians are in it to keep you from getting where you are going, even if it means they have to go out of their way to do so. There was even a book written about it, Wild in the Streets.

  13. Phil Koop
    February 5, 2013 at 8:45 am

    An opinion piece about gratuitous driving and not a single word about 2-wheeled transportation! Are there no bicycles in Boston?

    1. Davistrain
      February 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      Could it be that bicycles are too quiet? Many movies (although few that we will hear about on Oscar Night) have lots of engine-revving, tire squealing car chase activity, often culminating in a fiery CRASH! If someone on a bike has a mishap, it’s more like a “thud”. Also, here in the LA area, bicycles are usually associated with low-wage immigrant workers, Mormon missionaries, and what we used to call “Lance Armstrong wannabe’s” in dayglo jerseys and skin tight shorts. There have been photos of celebrities on bicycles, but I’ll bet that most of those who aren’t named Ed Begley Jr. have a BMW, Mercedes or other up-scale car for most trips.

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