'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Film Notes: Milk 

I finally went to see Milk last weekend, after my wife and I got someone to take care of our son for a few hours. I recalled that there was a bittersweet tone among those friends of Milk who attend the premiere of the film last fall. After seeing the film myself, I can understand why.

While Milk has become a mythic figure in death, he was someone in life who brought people together and encouraged them to seek personal fulfillment within a passionate collective enterprise. For him, gays and lesbians could not live happily as individuals unless they secured the rights of all gays and lesbians.

Milk was adamant that they had to come out to everyone, especially to their families, as a statement of personal independence and group solidarity. For him, to stay in the closet bordered on treason, and, if forced to choose between one's family and the gay community, the choice was obvious, as indicated by one of the most compelling moments in the film, as well as the YouTube video that introduces this post, a video that relies upon the audio of an excerpt of Milk's most famous speech.

The brilliance of the film is director Gus Van Zant's recognition that Milk built his movement not just through mass outreach, but upon an accumulation of intimate moments, such as the one when he first meets Cleve Jones, and then, later, when Jones, who initially disdains Milk, returns to participate in his political campaigns after seeing Barcelona gays and transvestites fight back against the Franco police while on vacation. It is hard to imagine anyone making this film other than Van Zant, as he is known for the idiosyncratic personal touch that he applies to his material in films such as Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Elephant.

Here, Van Zant investigates the intersection of the personal and political to compelling effect. Whereas another director would have insisted upon inflating Milk and his friends into larger than life figures, Van Zant deliberately diminishes them, and thereby humanizes them. Milk is the star, the diva, as he might have said, but van Zant instead focuses upon his ability to bring people together and empower them. Sean Penn's performance has been rightly praised, but it is his willingness to draw out the defects as well as the strengths of Milk's character that renders it masterful. Milk achieved his political success at great cost in his personal life. Penn conveys this well, raising it above the soap opera that often taints most film biographies.

As a result, Van Zant has sited much of the film within interiors: inside Milk's business, Castro Camera, within his home, amongst the cramped office spaces for supervisors and their staff within City Hall. Larger crowd scenes, such as protest marches and debates, are filmed with a focus upon the personal interaction of Milk and his associates. From such intimacy, the electricity that so energized the gay rights movement emerges.

And it was powerful, indeed. As gays in San Francisco and around the country celebrated their new found freedom of personal expression, often sexually polygamously, they feared, and rightly so, that they would be driven from the jobs and their homes, and possibly even killed, by a silent majority of resentful and bigoted people. They recalled what Hitler had done to them not more than 30 years earlier, while confronting police harassment and violence. The struggle to prevent the passage of Proposition 6 in 1978, an initiative that would have required school districts to fire openly gay and lesbian teachers as well as their straight defenders, crystallized this fear.

If they know one of us, they vote two to one against it, intoned Milk, mantralike, to anyone within earshot. Hence, his anger when the wealthy gay establishment advised that gay and lesbians keep a low profile during the campaign, and his belief that it was a matter of life and death to come out of the closet. Milk debated the initiative's proponent, John Briggs, up and down the state, in front of frequently hostile evangelical crowds, and turned the tide. But he knew that it was about more than Proposition 6 as he was really saying, If they know one of us, they will accept us two to one. He has been proven right, and the recent victory of Proposition 8 is partially atributable to the decision of the opposition campaign to follow the advice that Milk rejected in 1978.

If the movie has a weakness, it is the failure to fully bring across to the audience the rapid social transformation that occurred during the gay migration to the Castro. When Milk opened his store in 1969, the Castro had no independent identity, as evidenced by a scene in the film with a sign nearby promoting the Eureka Valley Merchants Association in the background. By 1978, the young gays and hippies that had displaced the original, predominately Italian American inhabitants were being priced out through escalating rents and home prices.

Milk spoke to this populist resentment, even as he toned down his image, cutting off his pony tail and dressing in conservative suits. He reached out to people across all walks of life, bringing together gay hustlers who lived on the streets, gay professionals, union members and senior citizens, among others. He placed the struggle for gays rights within a broader movement for social and economic reform. Back then, it really did look like you could change the world from inside Castro Camera. Now, it seems like it can't even be done from within the White House. No wonder there was a nostalgic, bittersweet sensibility among those who knew him as they watched the premiere.

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