Thursday, October 7, 2010

More Movies: Milk

Gus Van Sant, 2008

Ebert: 4 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

My Official Preconception: I might be way off on this, but I think it might be an uplifting, socially responsible biopic of the important San Francisco political figure Harvey Milk. Which sounds dreadful.


Harvey Milk was, as most Gentle Readers of this online daily are likely aware, a leader in the Gay Rights Movement and the first openly gay man to be elected to significant public office (the city council of San Fransisco) in the United States. He was shot, along with San Francisco's mayor, shortly after leading a successful resistance to a California anti-gay rights ballot initiative by a emotionally troubled fellow councilman. This resume makes him a legitimate hero and martyr, and Van Sant's treatment of his life certainly veers towards inspirational hagiography. Milk is, a few discreet sex scenes aside, the kind of film a groovy high school history teacher might show you to teach you about grass roots democracy and about the tenor of times past.

For all that this movie is very well acted and directed, the most effective single passage may be the opening credits, which play over old black and white footage of police raids of gay bars. This is sad and moving stuff, and does a great job of establishing what gay men in the 1970s were up against. Use of period film (Anita Bryant!) continues throughout the movie, grounding Milk's life in the current events of his times.

What the film does not do as well is give much context to the existing gay community in San Fransisco. It kind of implies that after Milk and his partner set up a camera shop on Castro Street, Men Who Like Men began spontaneously streaming in from all over. In truth -- or so I have read -- there has been a strong gay community in the Bay Area dating, if not back to the two-boys-for-every-boy demographics of the Gold Rush, at least to when the Pacific Fleet demobilized after World War II and many a young man who had learned things about how he felt about other young men during his time at sea couldn't face heading back to his small Iowa hometown. My point is that, however effective Mr. Milk may have been as a leader, he didn't create his city's gay community ex nihilo, as this movie kind of implies.

It is interesting how the Gay Rights Movement of the present day, with its focus on marriage rights for monogamous same-sex couples, imposes its values on this telling of the 1970s Movement. That earlier movement was simply about the right to exist. Same-sex marriage would have seemed like a pipe dream to the men in the Castro, and indeed I do not think it is unfair to say that, for a great many of them, monogamy was the furthest thing from their minds. But it is a very wholesome and family-friendly Castro we see here in Milk. Bathhouses, cruising, drug use, and gay prostitution are referred to exactly once apiece, but otherwise the fast-lane culture that features so very prominently in other histories of these events are wholely absent. For all of the crowd scenes, I did not notice a single dude wearing leather.

The movie is reasonably entertaining; it balances its political tale with a deft balance of humor and pathos. Harvey Milk the film character would be a difficult protagonist not to like: charming, earnest, sincere, sharp, and infallibly kind, witty, and decent. His graceful transition from suit-and-tie guy to 70s hippie and back again and a few personal quirks, like a love of opera, give him enough personal depth to engage our affection. He is surrounded by a large cast of necessarily one-note characters, but all of them are acted with skill and sensitivity. The look of the 1970s is beautifully realized.

As a rule, I don't like biographical movies. I don't like movies that set out to inspire me. And I certainly don't like Gus Van Sant. But Milk? Milk, I kind of liked.

Prognosis: * * * If you were hoping for an accessible history lesson on the 1970s Gay Rights Movement on the West Coast, have I got a movie for you!


Jenners said...

Your review made me consider my decision NOT to watch this because I thought it would not be something I'd like.

Why that poster????

Michael5000 said...

I like to throw in the occasional international movie poster, just for flavor. Is there a problem?