Sunday, December 28, 2008

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Milk"

Third in an occasional series. Note: title of series usually implies "movies I've been anticipating for a long time" not "I sense that you, the reader of my blog, will be in agony until you read my thoughts on this movie," although I know that in this case, at least one of you has been anticipating my Milk review...

Movie title: Milk

Reasons for anticipation: I am a San Franciscan now! Harvey Milk is a bona fide San Francisco hero, and I had the amazing opportunity to see a movie about his life at the Castro Theater, the gorgeous old movie house that is the centerpiece of the neighborhood where Milk made his name. Additionally, I always feel like I ought to go to Gus Van Sant's movies--he's from Portland and went to my high school--even if I haven't actually seen very much of his filmography.

My verdict: You don't have to be a San Franciscan to think that this is a really good movie, but that makes it even better.

Elaboration: OK, I've been in San Francisco for four months, but I hadn't actually set foot in the Castro until I went to see Milk. One of the things I love about this city is how tightly the neighborhoods are packed together without losing their individual character, and the Castro is no exception. Where else will you find people passing out flyers for a "Repeal Prop 8" vigil taking place that night in Union Square, while chatting about a part of the male anatomy that sounds like "Balzac" but isn't? Or bars/cafes that, at midday on a sunny Saturday, have absolutely no women inside at all? (Indeed, I was a little disappointed that there was a line for the ladies' room at the Castro Theater...)

There was also a line to get into Milk--the Castro is a big movie theater, but still, I have never seen that many people so excited to see a movie, when it's not even opening weekend! Though Harvey Milk died thirty years ago, he still lives in the city's memory. When I volunteered for the Obama campaign I met a retired gentleman named Alec who used to work in San Francisco city planning. In the course of his job, Alec had met and done business with Harvey Milk and the rest of the Board of Supervisors. "I liked Harvey," said Alec. "He tended to support our side."

Like many San Franciscans, Alec grieved the assassinations; still, he was careful to tell me and the other young volunteers that he feels ambivalent about Harvey Milk's death. Or perhaps, ambivalent about people who want to characterize Milk as a gay martyr. Homophobia played a role in Milk's death, but Dan White wasn't merely an anti-gay zealot. Instead, he was mad that Milk had convinced Mayor George Moscone not to give White back his seat on the Board of Supervisors after he resigned. So at the same time as Alec deplores the killings, he also admits that Moscone and Milk could have tried to handle this sensitive political situation with more tact.

The screening of Milk began with an unexpected treat: a concert on the vintage movie-theater organ, featuring movie-diva songs like "New York New York" and "Over the Rainbow," plus a Christmas medley. (Bad pun alert:) The organist pulled out all the stops! Seriously though, he took full advantage of all of the different voices that the organ can provide--sheer bliss for a girl who grew up associating the organ with that generic Catholic-Mass sound and wondered why her church organ had so many stops if the organist never used most of them.

The movie got an amazing response from the crowd--I don't think I have ever before been at a play or movie where people hiss the villain at his/her entrance, but that's literally what happened when Anita Bryant, the sugary-voiced anti-gay pop singer, first appeared on screen. Credit must go to Gus Van Sant's smart use of documentary footage, which makes everything seem more immediate for people who remember the era. He doesn't want us to be distracted by seeing a Hollywood star impersonate Bryant, nor does he want us to think that her words come from a screenwriter's artifice. No, he presents Bryant exactly as she was, and that is damning enough.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the "You gotta give 'em hope" speech Milk delivers in the movie is something that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black invented after witnessing the rise of Barack Obama, but it, too, is the authentic words of the real Harvey Milk. Still, it is really startling how much the movie seems to mirror the issues raised by the 2008 election. As Isaac of Parabasis wrote, "It is remarkably well-timed to have a movie about a political organizer who learns that the key to effective organizing is to provide "HOPE" while fighting an anti-gay ballot proposition in California. It may, in other words, have stumbled into being the Movie of the Year. Not necessarily the "best" movie of the year, mind you, but the movie that best encapsulates our year."

Milk is unapologetic about its characters' homosexuality and Harvey Milk's status as an outsider, so that it made me reflect on what has been both gained and lost over the last 30 years. Now that gay people have more rights and are more accepted by American society, we expect our gay politicians to be "upstanding citizens," and if there's any whiff of scandal from them, it's worse than it is for a straight politician. Yet Milk shows Harvey dating Jack Lira, a cute Mexican guy who is much younger and obviously mentally unstable--something that I think would cause a scandal nowadays, even in San Francisco, but did not do so 30 years ago.

If I have one criticism of Milk, it's that things get a little heavy-handed toward the end--Harvey achieves a kind of closure with his ex-boyfriend the night before he dies, which makes his death seem more bittersweet than the shocking and brutal act it was in reality. Still, I must hand it to the filmmakers for taking advantage of San Francisco's geography to determine the last thing that Harvey Milk saw before he died, and using it to craft a supremely moving climax. The location shooting and art direction is excellent: it's always nice to see our beautiful City Hall onscreen, and Harvey's apartment has many architectural details that scream "San Francisco."

Until those final minutes, Milk is the rare inspirational biopic made with a light touch and several good jokes. The filmmakers recognize the way that members of underdog groups--gays, Jews--have always used self-deprecating humor as a defense mechanism, and this sensibility permeates the screenplay. There are also some lines guaranteed to bring down the house in San Francisco, though I don't know how well they'll play elsewhere. At one point, Milk asks his political staff "What is the biggest problem in this city?" Cleve Jones, a young aide, responds, "The way it always smells like piss in the Tenderloin?"

Sean Penn's performance is really as amazing as everybody says it is; though he's known for playing intense and brooding characters, he excels as Harvey Milk, who is a true extrovert--someone who thrives around other people and genuinely wants to help them. Again, because of the movie's use of documentary footage, all of the actors have to feel "super-authentic" so that they don't jar when placed next to the 1970s footage, and I think they succeed admirably. Josh Brolin, as Dan White, is creepy because he resists the temptation to "act creepy"--to see a soft-spoken, square-jawed dad-next-door shooting his colleagues is even scarier, I think, than to see an obvious "deranged psycho killer" type do it.

Back in October I visited City Hall for the first time and saw two gay men getting married on the steps of the beautiful Rotunda. And in just a few days, my old hometown of Portland will become the largest-ever American city with an openly gay mayor (Sam Adams). And so, rest in peace, Harvey Milk.

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