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(Gus Van Sant, USA)
By Johnny Ray Huston
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the wedding of Harvey Milk, the extroverted, theatrical, political leader, and Gus Van Sant, the recessive, outright chilly film formalist. Van Sant has been engaged to the idea of a movie adaptation of Milk’s life for over a decade. His dedication in the face of various production roadblocks at least signals that Milk is a labour of love. That being the case, will the shape-shifting director steer clear of commercial conventions, or arthouse ones?
The answer is clear in Milk’s discomfiting opening credits, where documentary footage of ‘50s and ‘60s cop raids on gay bars is coupled with Danny Elfman’s lousy theme music. As gays and lesbians cover their faces and bow their heads to step into the backs of police vans, Elfman serves up cornball strings, and sax borrowed from Kenny G. Judy Garland may have been too obvious, but any gay signifier from the era would improve upon this smooth jazz, which does nothing to convey the sensibility and interior lives of the people on screen. Anita O’Day’s “Ballad of All the Sad Young Men,” anyone?
Fortunately, Milk markedly improves after this initial misstep. Some appealing aspects are unexpected—in particular, the enthusiasm with which it geeks out on the particularities of San Francisco politics, through scenes of creative groupthink that call to mind Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990). As much as it’s a gay manifesto, Milk is a screed in favour of city governments that honour neighbourhood interests over corporate ones. Amid a new presidency, the US could stand to look at SF. Especially since California’s recent Prop 8 battles are an echo of Milk’s Prop 6 story, and Barack Obama’s liturgy of change is influenced if not inspired by Milk’s idea of hope.
This is a San Francisco film, which brings up another Van Sant marriage. (Gay people should be able to marry as promiscuously as celebrities and Mormons.) For all his achievement and charisma, Harvey Milk is also a way for the regionally focused Van Sant to snuggle up to his unrequited love, Hitchcock. From Melanie Daniels being shooed into her gilded cage near Union Square to Madeleine Elster’s Mission dolor, specific regions of SF are central to Hitchcock’s psychodramas. Milk allows Van Sant to join in by reviving the renowned energy of Castro Street and the flux of City Hall in the ‘70s. He embraces the era’s brotherly affection and senses a teeming community both powerful and hard to control. But his treatment of sexuality is, unsurprisingly, muted.
Milk’s poster recreates an iconic image by the politician’s friend and fellow snapshot enthusiast Daniel Nicoletta. (Both Nicoletta and Milk’s Castro Camera store allow Van Sant to revive the photographic foregrounding of 2003’s Elephant.) The relationship between Nicoletta’s original and its facsimile is more revealing on a psychoanalytic level than the entire 105-minute photocopy of Psycho (1998), a gesture that kicked off a decade of mostly non-Hollywood Van Sant projects. By replicating the crookedness of Milk’s smile and matching his every dimple and wrinkle, Sean Penn wills himself into a friendliness and warmth lacking from his own persona. Milk’s dedication to verisimilitude is a matter of directorial sensibility (Jeff Koons brings acute self-awareness to a cameo as Art Agnos, who played a formative role in Milk’s conception of a public self) and also of its lead actor’s social circle. Notably, Penn is a friend of the recent VP candidate Matt Gonzalez, who, though ostensibly straight, has frequently paid homage to Milk—right down to an early soapbox speech at the corner of Castro and Market streets during a 2004 SF mayoral campaign.
If Milk’s well-executed political pantomime is milquetoast next to the epiphanies and especially the riotous fire of Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), the fault lies with Dustin Lance Black’s conventional script as much as Van Sant’s lack of affect. The only audacious aspect of Black’s screenplay is its decision to begin the Harvey Milk story on the night he turns 40, the time when, according to certain prejudices, gay men pass their sell-by date. But even though he bypasses Milk’s youth and shuffles the reality of his dance between businessman and hippie garb, Black still relies on pronouncement-heavy dialogue to condense history. Milk’s climactic stretch jumps between Milk’s troubled relationship with his last boyfriend, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), and his embattled interactions with fellow supervisor and eventual murderer Dan White (Josh Brolin). A critical juxtaposition of gay intimacy and public fraternal interaction is intended, but the effect is lost. Luna never overcomes a bad wig and stilted dialogue, while Brolin delivers the film’s most naturalistic performance.
Van Sant and Black place tragic moments of Milk’s life within an operatic framework, matching his murder with the finale of Tosca. Milk was an opera enthusiast, and frequented the War Memorial Opera House, a building that—as exploited by Van Sant—faces City Hall, the setting of his heroism. Perhaps more resonantly, operatic drag was at the heart of Milk’s radical forerunner in SF gay activism, Jose Sarria. The decision to liken Milk’s final moments of consciousness to those of a doomed operatic diva or hero is both characteristic of Van Sant—who often uses meta-textual elements to foster detachment or complicate identification—and a radical break from his tonal understatement. He doesn’t come off as an opera queen.
Elsewhere, Van Sant more seamlessly injects arthouse or experimental film elements into a mainstream product. An early scene when Milk meets his truest love Scott Smith (James Franco) in a New York subway could be a humane cousin to the many urban porn flirtations from William E. Jones’s vo (2007). A meeting between Milk, Smith, and the financially conservative A-List gay owners of the Advocate provides Van Sant with an opportunity to use a skinny-dipping Franco to pay homage to the LA splash of David Hockney’s ‘60s paintings.
The few sexy moments in Milk don’t come from Penn and Franco’s romantic camaraderie, but Franco’s flirtation with Van Sant’s camera. Naked poolside frolic aside, it’s a chaste affair, yet in the wake of the interchangeable skinny, anemic, relatively inexpressive waifs that Van Sant has often literally followed with puppy dog dedication through recent movies, Franco is a refreshingly candid presence. The specificity of Van Sant’s portrait of the Castro counters so many Queer as Folk-style presentations of gay neighbourhoods as generic malls, but aside from a shot that frames the body of murdered man in the reflection of a community activist’s whistle, he attempts few bravura stylistic gestures until the film’s assassination sequence.
Van Sant’s rendering of November 27, 1978 enlivens his camera—facing another example of American bloodlust come to roost in an institutional setting, he overtly mimics Elephant. A smaller formal decision is more compelling: he decides to present only the voice, not the face, of Dianne Feinstein, whose ghost-faced announcement of Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone’s deaths at the hands of White is part of official history. This tactic can’t help but call Steve McQueen’s Hunger to mind, since that film performs a similar discursive trick with Margaret Thatcher. Right down to their titles, Hunger and Milk are inverse reflections of each other: moving from Psycho’s (1960) narrative relay and the homoeroticism of Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950) into more orthodox passion play, McQueen’s film is a traditional political doc in unorthodox guise, while Van Sant’s is a mainstream picture that brandishes the occasional hidden agenda. Horrible concluding pun alert: Milk isn’t sour—it’s even a little sweet—but it could have been more fresh.