Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I was expecting a masterpiece, from what I’d heard and read.

I don’t know about you, but too often when I see a film for which I have great expectations I end up disappointed, and vice versa. To some extent that was the case here.

It’s a masterful attempt to make Harvey Milk’s story seem epic—from closeted homosexual (until the early ‘70s) to “gay activist” (of the mid and later ‘70s) who, as most of us know, became a San Francisco city council member and was shot by fellow council member, Dan White, who also shot the mayor, George Moscone.

The fact that Moscone was straight, and that White was angry about a lot of stuff (and that his lawyers used the famous “Twinkie defense”—claiming his diet of junk food had effected his sanity), didn’t and doesn’t diminish Milk’s being portrayed then and still as a martyr for gay rights.

The story is in many ways relatively mundane and yet extremely complicated. Gus Van Sant captures both these realities fairly well, and the performances are terrific for the most part, but the screenplay leaves a lot to be desired for my taste. It’s one of those “this happened and then this happened” kind of narratives, with characters’ motivations often ignored, or contradicted (coming out of the closet will keep you from committing suicide, unless you’re the character who is way out of the closet and commits suicide for reasons that seem mundanely domestic as perhaps many suicides are, but nonetheless, the emotional impact the movie in that particular case is trying to convey gets lost in the superficiality of the character’s motives as acted out on screen).

And some of the concurrent history of gay rights activism is ignored as well to make it seem like Milk was just about single-handedly responsible for San Francisco having a gay neighborhood, in this case “the Castro,” and for gay rights in general becoming prominent on the local and national agenda.

I knew some of those involved in these struggles before Milk even moved to SF and “came out,” let alone got involved. In fact I was involved in events and actions and plans and writing and speeches and etc. before the political events portrayed in this film even occurred. These things were happening all across the country, mostly in major cities, but like the Civil Rights movement, there were all kinds of unsung heroes who were courageous enough to take a stand when nobody else was.

I understand this movie isn’t about them, but for my taste it needed to either reference all that in clearer and more narrative-ly relevant ways, or concentrate on Milk’s story in an even more personal way and reduce the constant nods to historic importance.

There is reference to the arrest and repression of homosexuals in the opening credits with footage and news photos of a gay bar being raided in what looks like the late 1950s/early ‘60s in Florida, I think it was. And there is footage of the local San Francisco gay scene, including the early days of “The Castro” before and after Milk arrived intertwined with the movie’s attempts to reproduce the look and feel of that period.

At times this works in creating a certain amount of historic reality. But it also, for my taste, made some of the new movie scenes look too posed and postured compared to the originals (especially evident, for me, in the real photos of the real characters flashed in the closing credits after photos of the actors portraying them).

Sean Penn does another one of his amazing transformations, which at times is more than Oscar worthy. But there are a few indulgent moments, the kind that can occur when his directors don’t protect him from the risks he takes as an actor (I believe that was the case in several scenes in MYSTIC RIVER for which he won an Oscar, and he may very well for this movie too), when suddenly I’m watching an actor taking a risk rather than a character being himself.

I love Penn’s artistic and political courage as an actor, director, writer, celebrity, etc. (and full disclosure, I knew him a little in Hollywood and he was always respectful and courteous with me). And I love Gus Van Sant’s equally brilliant creative risk taking, which often reaches the highest levels of artistic expression (and full disclosure here, I also know Gus and did a little writing on DRUGSTORE COWBOY which is one of his masterpieces for my taste).

But taking risks can sometimes make for unintended outcomes, like work coming across as seemingly indulgent where it was actually meant to be courageous and original (and very much the same things could be said about my work as well, not to put myself on their level but just speaking of artistic endeavor and accomplishment). Like Van Sant’s casting Robin Williams inappropriately as the shrink in GOOD WILL HUNTING. Maybe the studio forced that choice on him, or maybe he believed Williams was up to the challenge and thought it would work as an unexpected and original bit of casting, as sometimes has been the case with Williams in serious roles, but for me it ruined what is otherwise a great movie.

And Penn should have won Oscars for many roles, including the lead in DEAD MAN WALKING, maybe his greatest performance, and as a director on last year’s INTO THE WILD. And he certainly deserves it for several scenes in MILK where he is extraordinary in his characterization of what Milk may have really been like in private.

And there are supporting performances that are seamless in their mastery—Josh Brolin as the assassin Dan White, and James Franco as the conflicted boyfriend, for two.

And the cinematography is often exceptional as well (though the intertwining of historical footage and some daring lighting and framing makes for too many disparate “looks” that leaves some of the less adventurously filmed scenes look boring in comparison (which could have been intentional on Van Sant’s part, as he has attempted similarly disconcerting juxtapositions of styles in earlier movies that sometimes works).

In the end, it is a brave attempt to make a masterpiece that for me falls slightly short of that goal. In trying to tell an historically relevant story that is tragic (though some of the scenes attempting to convey that fall short while others succeed) and may have been heroic (though that aspect of Milk’s story comes across more as random or at times almost tedious) but is mostly mundane after the novelty of a Hollywood leading man, a straight icon, kissing and having sex with another man wears off (though it may not wear off for some, and wouldn’t it have been more remarkable and in keeping with the spirit of the film’s message and politics, if the leading man had actually been a Hollywood icon who is “gay” and “out”!).

But even if MILK is uneven, in my view, it’s definitely worth seeing, and timely, unfortunately, as recent anti-gay marriage laws continue to deprive gay men and lesbians from enjoying the full rights other citizens have.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

It may be that making movies about public personalities "because" their deaths signify something larger than their inherent interest could support (as art), is a mistake.

Milk was a leader, but a very straightforward, mundane sort of guy otherwise, I think. Stepping up to represent a new constituency may make "heroes" of otherwise uninspiring people, simply because they're in a particular position at a particular time.

Some of the best movie performances involve a stretch between the actor and the role. I kind of liked Robin Williams in the part of the psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting. Think of the psychiatrist in Ordinary People--Judd Hirsch. Hirsch is probably capable of good range, but I think Williams actually is capable of just as impressive a range as Hirsch. There was a kind of improbability in Good Will which Williams's presence enhanced; psychiatrists are often portrayed as grave, responsible and condescending, but they're not all like that. Will's character needed someone as fast on his feet as he was, otherwise he'd run rings around him. Williams has that quickness. As long as he doesn't get distracted by an extemporaneous riff, I think he's terrific in serious roles.