Of human kindness
Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008) is hands down the single best mainstream narrative film of 2008. Forget the various critic's circles, forget them Golden Globes, and I could give a flying fig leaf what the Academy picks this coming February; far as I'm concerned Milk is it.
Basically a biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political figure to ever be elected to public office, Van Sant's film pretty much touches on the highlights of the man's life--his move to San Francisco, his several attempts to run for city supervisor, his championing of gay rights in the face of white-bread, beauty-contest conservatives like Anita Bryant, his eventual fate in the hands of an unhinged gunman.
It's an inspiring, inspired film. Van Sant, who channeled Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr to great effect in films like Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003); who employed Chris Doyle--arguably the world's best living camera eye--to aestheticize teenage skateboarders in Paranoid Park (2007); who had the effrontery to do a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960) (easily Van Sant's most courageous, most foolhardy act--and not completely in vain, in my opinion), here pulls back from his experimental impulses to give us a narratively conventional, easily accessible film. Milk is important, Milk is informative (in a fleet-footed, unstuffy way) sure, but Milk, I'm glad to report, is also fun to watch. The opening in a New York subway, of Milk (a delightfully nerdy Sean Penn) picking up the very pretty Scott Smith (James Franco, haloed in curly hair) is lighthearted, breathlessly playful--you can tell Harvey is thrilled to have hooked (but not quite landed, at least not yet) so gorgeous a young man, and said young man is tickled to have so profound an effect over his admirer. It's the '70s, sex gay and straight is less a biological impulse and more an expression of freedom, and the A.I.D.s epidemic is years away.
Van Sant isn't concerned with getting the facts right (though he does overall, fudging only a little on timelines and streamlining the course of Milk's life), or making clear the more intricate workings of politics on a city, state, and national level (he does show some realpolitik: the way Milk, for example, made odd alliances--with senior citizens at one point, then with unions); instead he's intent on capturing the heady, headlong feel of the times. He uses archival footage and carefully mixes in re-created scenes; more, he achieves with cinematographer Harris Savides (The Yards, (2000); Elephant; Zodiac (2007)) a kind of distinct luminescence that evokes San Francisco of decades past without condemning it to amber nostalgia, or grainy documentary realism. The anger of the times is there, fueled by police raids, by televised broadcasts of Bryant's flagrant bigotry, by the occasional burst of homophobic violence (Milk at one point panics when he suspects a man walking behind of following him; at another point describes how a gay man had just been stabbed to death fifteen times) but the anger is leavened or at least modulated by an equally invigorating sense of humor "I'm Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you!" he tells straight audiences again and again as a way of both disarming their hostility and announcing his intentions (no, he may not persuade you to switch over and "play for the other team," so to speak--but he does want your support for whatever he has in mind).
The script by Dustin Lance Black, a TV writer (Big Love, (2006 onwards) and documentary filmmaker (On the Bus, (2001)), doesn't spend too many words telling Milk's story (what there is functions to convey key info, sketch characters, deliver punchlines). Black's framing device--Milk talking into a microphone of provisions to be made on the event of his death, plus a few other confessions--gives us an Our Town view of his life, of Milk ruminating over this or that event, expressing delight, regret, anger, grief accordingly. It adds a note of mortality, a foreshadowing early on of Milk's ultimate fate; it's a conventional device (one thinks of the protagonist in many a biopic, narrating passages from his own diary) that Van Sant treats with straightforward simplicity, letting Penn dictate how much he should act--or underact--for the scene. Penn doesn't lend much energy here, and that performing choice alone is telling--this is Milk at the end of things, not a little exhausted at the boisterous, bewildering life he's led.
The tape recorder may be the framing device, but the meat and heart and soul of the film is Van Sant's lovely, often poetic, images--men on streets, flinging their signboards high and defiantly yelling slogans; sitting side-by-side on stoops, arm round the other's shoulder; passing each other and throwing kisses (Van Sant gives us a '70s kind of casual, often bright-eyed eroticism, in marked contrast to sexuality today, which if not cheerlessly athletic can at times be downright grim). Often Van Sant employs more than just expertly stitched-together documentary footage to convey the drama of a scene--shown a scribbled death threat prior to speaking before a crowd, Milk decides to go ahead and deliver his speech. Van Sant frames Milk directly facing the crowd, the lens pulling the crowd close so that Milk appears to be addressing an approaching wall, an oncoming wave of faces; the sense of vulnerability and helplessness evoked is almost palpable. Later, when Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) welcomes his would-be killer to his office, Van Sant pans to their reflection on a clock face, the killer pulling his gun out and taking aim--again the sudden distancing, the startling sense of helplessness; much later Milk kneels on his office floor and Van Sant grants us a glimpse of the last thing the man sees--a banner for Puccini's Tosca (Milk's favorite opera). Such grace notes inserted throughout the film help make Milk a transporting experience--the conventional biopic done with unconventional skill and spirit.
Milk couldn't come at a more opportune time--as if life were imitating art, California had just passed Proposition 8, a homophobic law banning gay marriage (unlike the Proposition 6 dramatized in the film, this time there was no Harvey Milk to fight its passing). One wishes a happier ending with the present Proposition (repeal, in effect); otherwise we have this film which, intentionally or not, acts as a reminder of how it used to be, with people gay or straight uniting to fight conservative nibbling at their basic human rights.
Someone once commented: "Harvey Milk was in effect the Mayor of Castro Street; that was his nickname. Why then didn’t the filmmakers give the picture the title of The Mayor of Castro Street? It would have been more easily recognized, and more dramatic." Mayor of Castro Street would have been the title of a specific kind of film, I think, a political drama that outlines the career of a specific if crucial politician. Van Sant's Milk aspires to an impact more than just political--like the beverage, it wants to be cooling, nourishing, comforting; it wants to be a pick-me-up, after the long, arid spell of relative inhumanity in America's political landscape. You don't watch this Milk so much as you drink it, in long and deep draughts, to the very last drop.
First published in Businessworld, 2.6.09