Saturday, January 24, 2009

Film Review: Milk

Directed by Gus Van Sant
With Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Only a year separates Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 from Barack Obama’s arrival in California, as a freshman at Occidental College. Only three days separates the launch of the film based on Milk’s life from the inauguration of a president whose community organising skills, personal charisma, and status as “the first x to be y” echo, curiously, with the experience of “the mayor of Castro Street.” For me, the film is inextricably bound up with being in San Francisco this past autumn, with seeing the crowds whoop and cheer on Election Night, and with seeing the posters for the film at the Castro cinema whose lights appear in so many shots. Working in the San Fran headquarters of the Obama campaign, I met several volunteers who had also been extras in the film. The buzz for the election and for the film integrated and intertwined, given urgency by the campaign to vote down Proposition 8.

This film could only have happened now: not only because Obama, a politician committed to Milk’s grassroots organisation and his alliance-building in the corridors of power, won on 4 November, 2008, but because the advocates of Proposition 8 also won. As B. Ruby Rich writes in “Ghosts of a vanished world”:

In that moment, Milk was edited by history: it's no longer the same film that premiered in October. It has gathered a new layer of sadness, a renewed sense of loss and betrayal, and a fervid new audience. In San Francisco, weekday shows at 10am have been selling out and, at the Castro, lines stretch down the block and around. People need to see this film.

Not just queer people: “all the uses” as Milk describes the movement he has built, all those who have been excluded and unrepresented. And all those who could recognize themselves in us; the film is not without its sympathy for Dan White, the working-class Irish Catholic city supervisor who shot Milk and Mayor Moscone shortly after resigning his position. Like Obama in his “race” speech in March 2008, Milk reaches out to White, hearing his confusion and sense of deprivation as the city neglects his working-class neighbourhood and its own Irish history. He extends an open hand and is met by a clenched fist, clenched dramatically around a gun in the final encounter.

That loss is literally dread-ful. Even though most viewers will go into the film knowing Milk and Moscone were assassinated – and those that don’t know will find out from news footage in the first minutes – the film creates a slow build that retains suspense as well as sorrow. The Hitchcock fetishist he is, Gus van Sant knows noir as the genre that wreathed San Fran in smoke, and inspired a thousand queer dreams of fedoras and silk stockings. Redolent of its late 70s setting, the film echoes not only Double Indemnity (the film opens with Milk dictating his story into a tape recorder) but also Chinatown, in a superbly fraught showdown on waste ground between Milk and homophobic senator John Briggs.

And there’s a terrifying sequence that will be familiar to anyone who has put their head above the parapet and then walked through hostile territory, as Milk walks down the Castro late at night shortly after receiving a death threat. We all know the story, but the potential horror of this moment is palpable in the nervy tracking shot, velvety with light in Harris Savides’ neo-noir homage. This is, after all, a film from Gus van Sant, who gave us To Die For, Psycho ’98 and elephant, all studies of psychotic killers whose sexuality and homicidal instincts were in some way entwined. Showing Tom Kalin how it’s done, van Sant doesn’t just ‘queer’ noir, but creates a New Queer Noir, by working to disentangle homosexuality and homicidality, not by undoing the queerness of Norman Bates but by revealing repression as the source of psychosis.

Milk even speculates that White is a deeply closeted queer, recognising something of his pre-San Francisco existence in White’s shuttered gaze. Josh Brolin plays White as a dead-eyed matinee idol, finally slumped on the sofa in his pants like the killers in elephant, his all-American looks soured by his solitude. Brolin of course recently played another fratboy looker gone to seed in willed isolation, George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s biopic. Stone was initially involved in a film about Milk in the early 90s, and this unlikely coincidence – Bush assassinating Milk – gives me pause (as does the original casting of Robin Williams, differently so).

van Sant, the quirkiest and most commercial auteur of the New Queer Cinema always felt that the film was his to make, and he was right. For all its big-budget, Oscar-nominated film-flam, this is a van Sant movie. His signature appears in the group of denim-clad young men who gather in Milk’s Castro Camera store, like politicised incarnations of the troupes of angelheaded hipsters in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. When that group of youngsters morphs into serious campaigners, there’s a 360º circling shot that’s identical to the slow circle around the Gay/Straight Alliance in elephant.

That’s an alliance that is barely sketched in this film, however, and viewers hoping for a Rainbow Nation representation will be frustrated. Milk’s circle were almost exclusively white men, with the exception of Michael Wong (Kelvin Yu). When Anne Kronenberg (the luminous Alison Pill) joins the team after Milk’s just lost his third campaign, van Sant sets out his stall: “Are you guys scared of women?” is her first question. Short answer: yes. And though Milk builds bridges with the Teamsters, with seniors, and with African-Americans in his speeches and meetings, all the main characters are male, and overwhelmingly young and white. And pretty – Lucas Grabeel is a star in the making, and James Franco is unrecognisably good as Scott Smith, Milk’s first longterm boyfriend and his pre-Kronenberg campaign manager.

That intertwining of politics and passion is hardly incidental to the film. Every campaigning scene is followed by one of kissing or cooking (or christening, in White’s case). The complex ways in which our personal lives inform our politics, whether our radicalisation or our conservatism, drive the narrative – although the film makes the point that the personal became political not by choice, but because the state always-already legislates the personal. While in Canada the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau commented that “the government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” the US government peered and pried and punished both domestic and public activities.

What the film avoids making from that entwining is the claim that (trailer voice here): “In a world divided by hate, one man sought to be free to love.” Milk constantly reminds his supporters – and viewers – that the civil rights movement is bigger than any individual figurehead, that his policies may have come from personal experience, but were also embedded in social observation and community needs, from housing to dog shit-free streets. As Milk steps from soapbox to City Hall, his ideas about coalition-building and community needs get wider, more inclusive, not smaller.

That transition to power is one of the most fascinating elements of the film, not least for the slow build of Penn’s performance as he moves from salaryman to hippy to business man to political operator, retaining his openness but maturing almost indefinably. The career path could be said to mirror van Sant’s own, from Super-8 superindie filmmaker to player in the Hollywood corridors of power, and the film analogically suggests that he has proceeded – like Milk – by building a team of collaborators who he carried with him. Cleve Jones, Dick Pabich, Jim Rivaldo and Danny Nicoletta, Milk’s strategists and speechwriters, all went on to become political forces in San Francisco, and the film documents the process by which community organisations draw on the strengths of each member.

Milk’s discovery of Cleve, played stratospherically by Emile Hirsch, is a case in point, from the caustic conversation when Cleve turns down involvement in Milk’s campaign in favour of tricking on Haight to his brilliantly shuddery account of seeing a march by transvestites in Barcelona in memory of gay people murdered by Franco. His comment of one of the drag queens, that “a rubber bullet tore through her scalp, but she kept marching,” has stayed with me as one of the film’s most vivid images, even though it’s only offered in words.

It’s more than that, of course, it’s a presentiment of what’s to come. As the strains of Puccini signal, it’s a film that’s built on an operatic scale, unafraid of broad emotions and sweeping statements (although it would have been immeasurably better if Puccini were the only music on the score; Danny Elfmann’s compositions are unbearable). On his last night, he sees a performance of Tosca; the camera dwells on Tosca’s suicidal leap, which recalls the suicide of Milk’s lover Jack Lira (a very odd performance from Diego Luna in a thankless role) but reverberates in the moment that Milk is shot, as a rack pulls the Tosca banners on the opera house opposite City Hall into focus. van Sant suggests that Milk conceived of himself as a martyr to some extent, a necessary martyr to shock people into awareness.

But, in one of those contradictions on which great narratives are built, Milk is not a martyr, but a murder victim. He doesn’t leave Tosca and throw himself at White. He goes home and – in a scene that cross-cuts contrastingly with White alone on the sofa (no junk food visible, despite the infamous “Twinkie defence”) – calls Scott and watches dawn with him. Watching the film, I thought the contrast was overdone, an over-simplification and an unnecessarily broad stroke. We didn’t need to see Milk apologising to the lover who left him because he was so focused on his political ambitions that the relationship had disintegrated. We didn’t need to have the operatic reversals of the narrative made clearer: Prop 6 passes, Lira kills himself; Milk reconnects to Scott, he gets shot. And the contrast between the supposed family man White and the stereotype of the lonely gay Milk…

That’s why, hours after I’d left the cinema, I found myself gasping with tears in memory of those dawn shots. Because bound up in the project of dequeering the killer, and in the project of glamorising community organisation, and in the project of celebrating a very real moment of euphoria in the face of fear and in the shadow of AIDS, is the film’s rejection of loneliness. That’s why any trailer that positions Milk as “one man” is a lie. Milk becomes who he does through relationships, beginning with individuals that he charms and coaxes, and stretching to crowds of hundreds of thousands. His charisma and sense of purpose are undoubtedly unique in their moment, making him a striking biopic subject as well as a good leader, but they are not accompanied by the arrogance of the “rugged individualist” on whom the American Myth has been built. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect letter to the new President.

Read the Guardian interview with Gus van Sant here.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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