Monday, February 23, 2009

Milk (van Sant)

Why didn't somebody tell me he was gay?

I saw Milk at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and although I'm glad I did, in some ways I almost wished I hadn't, because it's made my subsequent attempt to judge the actual quality of the film almost impossible. Basically the audience had already made up its mind about the movie before it even began. "Harvey Milk was a great guy and this movie is a great movie!" Well hold on a second, can I just watch it first? This is why I sometimes think the only way to properly see a movie, contrary to popular wisdom, is to watch it alone in my room.

Harvey Milk didn't really have a character arc in this film. Aside from a brief scene at the beginning, he essentially started out believing in gay rights and he died believing in gay rights. That's not really a story. That might be a political stance you could support, but it's not a story. I think about my favorite movie protagonists and they're all conflicted and weak and confused and uncertain - like me! Certainty doesn't film so well. I think of Rick from Casablanca, or Charles Foster Kane, or T.E. Lawrence, or Travis Bickle. Now these are some guys I can get behind. These guys actually had some problems. It seems like Harvey Milk's biggest problem was other peoples' homophobia. That's cool, but it's not exactly going to move me.

A great biopic also has to teach me something about myself. Watching Gandhi or Malcolm X or Ray made me think about my own life and the struggles I've faced and the choices I've made and haven't made. I didn't relate to Milk in that way. I needed more of his inner experience. I wanted those long, quiet moments where I could contemplate the infinite mystery of the universe. Instead I felt like I was watching a historical tribute.

As such, it was terrific. Van Sant filmed Milk the way I think movies should be filmed: energetically, humorously, spontaneously, etc. I mean, a film like this could have been really bad. I think it deserved its Oscar nominations. Sean Penn is not an actor I've particularly cherished; as someone on Slate put it, "The man has all but Lewinskied Castro's cigar." But he didn't bother me in Milk at all, which is to say that he did his job. I never thought about Sean Penn during the movie; I thought about Harvey Milk. So am I supposed to lick Sean Penn's feet because he did what he was supposed to do?

There is a movie inside Milk that I enjoyed a great deal and it was the movie about Harvey Milk, Dan White, George Moscone and San Francisco politics circa 1978. I would have rather seen a movie that focused solely on the city government intrigue. I can see Gus van Sant and Dustin Lance Black jumping up in protest and shouting "But why marginalize the most important figure?!" I don't know, because it might have been more interesting that way? As a lifelong resident of the Bay Area and as someone who currently lives in the city in question, I found the illumination of local history fascinating. I've never seen a movie that made being a city supervisor seem so...glamourous, and...and... dangerous! Usually when I think of assassinations I think of presidents or dictators, not mayors and city supervisors. Shows what I knew.

It was also nice to see a film that was really shot on location in San Francisco, and not in the same eight blocks that are featured in every other San Francisco movie. Often I find myself walking around in some neighborhood or some park and thinking, "This would be a good shot in a San Francisco movie, why hasn't anybody used this street God damn it?!" There are tons of little pockets around the city that I think have yet to be exploited. Milk only scratched the surface, but it was nice to see a little sprinkling of it anyway. Unfortunately, I don't believe the city has made it very cheap to film here, so I doubt we'll be seeing too many more exotic San Francisco locales in Hollywood movies any time soon. Unless Cosmic American Blog generates the funding for its own award-caliber movie, of course. What do you say, guys?

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***

5 comments:

Sarah said...

I learned about a pivotal era in the gay rights movement. I was mildly amused for two hours. I will not likely ever think about this movie again now that the oscar buzz is over.

I think that sums it up.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

I guess you would need to start having adverts to raise money.
The movie I think was important because many many people will not have heard of Harvey Milk or known what his deal was. I certainly hadn't. This isn't stuff that is taught in school in California or anywhere else for that matter.
Milk becomes powerful in the duration of the film, and it almost feels like he avoids corruption, or at least the dilution of his legacy through his assassination. He may believe in gay rights from the beginning, but he doesn't know how to fight for them, and he hides his boyfriends away - later he stands confidently in front of crowds and politics his way around city hall. Milk fills out his role - we already know where he'll end up, and it would be cheap to put uncertainty where we have no evidence for it.

yoggoth said...

"I think about my favorite movie protagonists and they're all conflicted and weak and confused and uncertain - like me! ... I think of Rick from Casablanca, or Charles Foster Kane, or T.E. Lawrence, or Travis Bickle. Now these are some guys I can get behind." Your description is only accurate as applied to Travis Bickle. Lawrence and Kane were strong willed and confident to a fault. Rick falls somewhere in between.

"It seems like Harvey Milk's biggest problem was other peoples' homophobia. That's cool, but it's not exactly going to move me." This is one of those movie critic passages that don't really mean anything but probably sounded catchy while being written. Unless there is some particular reason a movie about homophobia couldn't move you? You're not black and yet you are moved by Malcolm X.

Little Earl said...

That is NOT one of those movie critic passages that don't really mean anything but probably sounded catchy while being written! What moved me about Malcolm X was not his suffering at the hands of racism; it was his RESPONSE to his suffering at the hands of racism. At first he was aimless, then he decided to hate white people, and then he realized that there was more to it than that. I was moved by his philosophical journey. A movie FEATURING homophobia could move me, but I don't think a movie ABOUT homophobia could. See the difference?

Also, my description IS accurate as applied to all four characters. Kane and Lawrence may appear confident but I think they are emotionally weak. Kane thinks that buying things will make him happier but it doesn't work. Lawrence thinks that taking over the desert and walking around in exotic robes is going to make him happier but it doesn't work either. They are restless and unsatisfied creatures. Harvey Milk, by contrast, seems like he's found his perfect spot.

yoggoth said...

See, that explanation of why you liked Malcolm X more than Milk should be in your review. Now I understand what you're talking about.

As for Lawrence and Kane, sure they were unhappy but they accomplished amazing things. Emotional weakness in private is different from actual social powerlessness.