Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Harvey Milk taking the oath of office, 1978, photo by Bill Carlson

I knew in advance that there was no way the film Milk could live up to my own expectations for it. Like a Tolkien fanatic wondering what became of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings, or a Harry Potter fan forever contrasting film to book, I have a hard – maybe impossible – time seeing Milk, the movie, except through my own personal experience of its narrative. Milk is perhaps the only “major” motion picture I’ll ever see in which I had, at one time or another, met every significant character in the film.

Some of the disjunctions between the film & my experience of its events seem just curious – a lot of the characters appear shorter in the film than their templates in real life, Cleve Jones & Ann Kronenberg in particular. Harvey Milk was taller not only than the 5’9” Sean Penn, but taller also than Dan White, the former cop & supervisor who killed him. There is one key scene in the film where 5’11½” Josh Brolin, who portrays White, is filmed from behind & below Penn’s shoulder, so as to give the impression that he’s towering over Milk in a threatening manner. It may be dramatically right to portray White as a bully, but it’s jarring to see the two of them in that physical context. I always thought that one of White’s myriad pathologies was something of a little man complex – he was pugnacious because he was compact.

The far greater absence, tho, is a narrative one – the absence of the People’s Temple massacre, the largest single-day loss of civilian life by anything other than natural disaster in U.S. history prior to September 11, virtually all of the victims having been San Franciscans, just nine days prior to White’s assassination of Milk and S.F. Mayor George Moscone. Because the Jonestown tragedy occurred away from the City, literally in the remote jungles of Guyana, it took days for the full extent of that tragedy – over 900 dead – to become known. It totally dominated San Francisco’s media in the days prior to White’s gunning down the two elected officials. If you were even remotely politically active in San Francisco, you knew somebody who had died in Guyana. Indeed, Krishna & I knew different people who’d been gunned down on the airstrip tarmac, the event that precipitated the mass suicide at the Jonestown enclave. Here too I felt at the time that if White’s attorneys were serious about making an honest case of innocence by reason of insanity, they would have explored the collective community shock during that week. The so-called “Twinkies Defense,” on the other hand, always struck me as a much more cynical strategy on the part of White’s legal defense team – they just wanted to give a homophobic jury something on which to hang anything other than a first-degree murder finding. “Twinkies,” the theory that White’s judgment was impaired by his junk food diet, presented an easier, if sillier, storyline for the legal team to present. There is no mention of People’s Temple, nor of Jim Jones, anywhere in Milk, even tho Jones’ church members formed an important part of the progressive coalition that got district elections passed & Moscone in particular elected to office.

I’m sure that the problem of how to handle all of this narratively has much to do with why it’s taken thirty years for a production of Milk to finally makes its way to the large screen. And director Gus Van Sant & screen writer Dustin Lance Black (mostly known heretofore for his scripts for Big Love) were almost certainly correct in omitting Jonestown from the narrative here. Which is precisely where films & “real life” diverge.

But with that very big caveat, Milk is a remarkably earnest attempt at giving a full sense of the narrative of Harvey Milk. It goes so far in its willingness to present the complexities as to show White, who resigned from his position on the new board impulsively because he wasn’t able to support a family of four on the full-time supervisor salary of $9,600 per year, asking Milk, who, in the theory of that decade, had no dependents, to push for an increase. Prior to district elections, the supervisor’s post was traditionally reserved for the idle rich, for lawyers like Bob Molinari or Quentin Kopp who could take the time away from their work & just function as rainmakers for the firm, or for successful business owners, mostly Republican. Dianne Feinstein was able to be a supervisor because her husband at the time ran a hospital. But what this film doesn’t say, at least not clearly enough, was that Milk did have a nonworking spouse in the alcoholic Jack Lira & wasn’t making it on his salary either. One of the characters in the film, in theory the manager of the camera store, also worked a second job at a copy shop in the Tenderloin so that he had at least one gig that paid. Harvey Milk died broke.

Milk is not Gus Van Sant’s finest motion picture – My Own Private Idaho would still be my own choice for that honor – but it is comparable in quality, say, to Good Will Hunting & miles ahead of Van Sant slumming for a paycheck in Finding Forrester. More than any other of these flicks, however, Milk is an important film, an important story, & I think these are the grounds by which this film currently is rated among the top 250 films of all time by members of the Internet Movie Data Base.

“Important film” is a cringer as categories go – we’ve certainly all seen I don’t know how many bad motion pictures about “heroic” individuals, most often as TV movie fare, that are uplifting precisely to the degree that they ring false. And Milk is unquestionably a passion play. We see Harvey in the closet as an insurance broker in New York, Harvey as a small-time entrepreneur in San Francisco, Harvey becoming politically conscious & then becoming far more politically aggressive than the “rich old queens” who supported San Francisco Democrats financially but never asked for anything in return. It’s a scenario through which Advocate founder David Goodstein plays George Washington Carver to Milk’s Malcolm X – and that parallel is not wrong historically. The film takes care to spend time showing how Milk put together his coalition of activists – this is almost half the motion picture – and doesn’t shortchange the tale of his vexed love life, including the suicide of Lira, his most recent partner, not that long before Milk himself was killed.

What’s different about Milk the movie is ultimately what was different about Harvey Milk the person. He did not, not once, not ever, “present as heroic,” so to speak. He was never the tall, dashing Castro clone, the good-looking beautiful face of the gay community. Nor, for that matter, did he come across quite as femme as Sean Penn makes him here. Had he been more financially secure & less politically inclined, Milk might have been one of those older gay men who in the 1970s were concentrated not in the Castro, but rather on Polk Street, really part of an earlier era (Polk Street was out of the closet by the 1950s, just up the hill from the Tenderloin where the merchant marine & many of the first-generation gay bars were). His taste in partners was certainly for younger men, but the image of Milk in a little Greek yachting cap & cravat is just preposterous – it’s precisely that he doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes – for gay men, for political radicals, for movie heroes – that makes Milk the film, like the person, something unique.

Which gets to the real reason for somebody not invested in this struggle – almost certainly the civil rights issue of the 21st century – to want to come see this film, and that is Sean Penn. Sean Penn is completely fearless in his portrayal of Harvey Milk. It may well be the best acting job I have ever seen, on a par – or better – than the very best of Al Pacino or Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s brilliantly understated & assertive all at once. It’s almost inconceivable that this is Sean Penn, he of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the former husband of Madonna, friend to Fidel Castro & Hugo Chavez. Whereas Hoffman, for example, has portrayed gay men with outsized personae, such as Truman Capote or Rusty the drag queen in Flawless, Penn has to rein in almost all the easy avenues to manifesting his character as gay, Jewish, political, entrepreneurial & deeply insecure all at once. I’d say he gets it 98 percent right, and if Penn were just a few inches taller, he’d have most of the rest.


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