Milk (2008)

5 Random Thoughts on Gus Van Sant’s Milk

1) Does Your Life Only Count If They Make a Bio Pic About You?
If you wanted to know the Harvey Milk story, The Times of Harvey Milk is an amazing, Academy Award winning documentary that was made almost 15 years go. All you would have to do was track it down. Of course, unless you were gay or lesbian or concerned about the rights of gays and lesbians or perhaps you were from San Francisco, you probably never came across this film or even Harvey Milk’s name.

Harvey Milk is not the same as Rosa Parks. No one’s teaching him in schools and the documentary about his life has never received the accolades that keep it in the public’s consciences. If anything, the Times of Harvey Milk was made before documentaries became of notable box office interest.

If the general public ever heard of Harvey Milk is was as a moment in time, a cultural footnote, tossed into the dustbin of time. To resurrect his ghost now and to make it palpable to a mainstream audience, especially one that is continually asked to go to the polls to decide whether or not homosexuals should be given equal rights, seems like an extremely political move.

I just don’t know if a bio-pic is going to change people’s politics. Yes, Gus Vant Sant has crafted a very touching tribute to an important figure in American history. Yet, all biopics suffer from a pared down depiction of a life that reduces key events to dots that when connected only give an outline of the subject.

We learned that this success and this tragedy and this choice propel someone to greatness. In fact, I think this is exactly how we want to see our own lives. Like the cliche of having your life flash before your eyes you want only to see the most crucial events of your life.When we see ourselves as all being important and we lose touch or never even get in touch with others, at a deeper core level, something gets lost.

2) Is this a straight film or a gay film for straight audiences?
Van Sant is gay filmmaker who often has queer moments in his films, but not since Mala Noche has he really had a film so directly focused on homosexuality. At the same time, Milk is peculiar in its representation of the gay lifestyle, especially during the era in which it is set. While there are ample references to cruising and bath houses, they are never shown. Harvey Milk, falls in love twice. It’s quick; a simple glance leads to promptly to bed. Not that this is gay, but Van Sant’s use of this, at the very start of the film gives it added significance.

According to Milk, Harvey has only two lovers. He finds them instantly and never strays. He and his lover are portrayed as any heterosexual couple, caring for each other, loving fighting, etc. Most of all monogamous.

But, what is to be made to those references of more open homosexual lifestyle? When Harvey says he has to clean up, stop smoking pot and going to bathhouses, you suddenly realize Van Sant’s depiction of life in the Castro is very guarded. Maybe even closeted.

3) Is Hollywood still closeted?
My biggest point of contention with Milk is that once again a straight actor is asked to portray a homosexual. We’ve seen it before with Heath and we saw it in Philadelphia. I understand the need for a big name to draw in an audience and you could argue that an actor should be able to play any role they can embody. This past year we saw a white actor play the part of a white actor playing a black man. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a big name, out of the closet homosexual, to play the part of either a straight or gay man. This has been going on since Rock Hudson, even before, and it’s really no surprise today.I believe America is still more comfortable with it’s men being men – the kind that sleep with women, even if they occasionally play the part of a homosexual, because that’s just acting. That’s not real*

Still for all of Harvey Milk’s rousing speeches about Californian queers to come out of the closet in the hopes of gaining support for defeating proposition 6, few in Hollywood appear to be listening. Milk’s words seem to fall flat, especially within this film and its choice of casting. Could we not find one celebrity in Hollywood who is closeted to come out and play one of the lead roles in this film?

Given the recent political events surrounding last year’s Proposition 8 and the banning of gay marriage in California, the odd selection of a heavily heterosexual cast to play the parts of gay-activist in a bio-pic about a man who worked tirelessly to defeat similar bigoted propositions plays like a spit in the face of his legacy.

4) Van Sant needs to go back to mimicing Alan Clarke and Bela Tarr

I haven’t seen Paranoid Park, but Gerry, Last Days, and Elephant, while not perfect, felt more sure-footed (and subtle) than Milk. Strung together by a rather lazy narrative device, that oddly disappears for extended periods of time, Milk feels scatter-shot, and messy. The assemblage of various looks and modes of story-telling never gels. Van Sant’s film takes on the look and feel of The Times of Harvey Milk and that film’s mixture of source material, but Van Sant is constructing, not collecting information.

Being a film of constructed moments, the potential for dramatic embellishment is high and Van Sant rarely holds back. Worst case being when Milk receives a phone call from a distraught Midwestern teen who fears his his parents are going to send him away to get ‘cured’. First we see a medium shot of the boy on the phone. Then we see Harvey. Harvey tells the boy to get on a bus to a big city. The camera cuts back to the boy on this phone, this time in a wider shot where we can see he’s in a wheel chair. Certainly the most egregious moment, but not the only one. Where gentle handles are needed Van Sant is using fists.

5) Has Gerry become a new in-joke for Van Sant?
The name Gerry is not only the title of a film, but a re-0ccuring name in his later films. I caught reference to it here in a telephone call that Emile Hirsch places. He randomly asks if Gerry is there. It’s a throw away line other than the fact that I recall similar uses of the name Gerry in Elephant and Last Days

*Penn once played a cross-dressing small town outcast in The Beaver Trilogy. That’s another film based on a real person and one where Penn (or at least his character) directly says that it’s okay to act like a woman or ‘the other’ as a joke or a larf. As long as at the end of the day you are all man.

No one questions Penn’s manhood. We just commend him for his ability to transform himself. It’s always the good mark of an actor to be able to play ‘the other’. Penn has now played both a homosexual and a mentally handicapped person.

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2 thoughts on “Milk (2008)

  1. this is very well said
    But, what is to be made to those references of more open homosexual lifestyle? When Harvey says he has to clean up, stop smoking pot and going to bathhouses, you suddenly realize Van Sant’s depiction of life in the Castro is very guarded. Maybe even closeted.
    I didn’t really think about this while watching the film, but it is kind of disturbing, especially, by an openly gay director. Just another example of the marketplace determining all. Despite Sean Penn’s “I’m better than America” attitude, his starring role in this film is actually a confirmation of continued mainstream hatred for homosexuals.

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