Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gus Van Sant's "Milk" -- compelling gay history three decades ago

Today I saw Gus Van Sant’s new film “Milk” at a weekday afternoon show (OK, the day before Thanksgiving) in a large auditorium in Landmark’s E Street Cinema in Washington DC, and it was almost sold out. The moving film, from Universal Focus Features, is ambitious and pulls out all the stops in getting into the minds of the characters, not just Harvey Milk himself, but also Supervisor Dan White, who assassinated him and mayor George Moscone in 1978, as well as many of Milk’s friends and fellow activists. It also covers, perhaps exaggerates, the anti-gay backlash led by Anita Bryant in 1977, starting out in Dade County FL but leading to referendums that would repeal many gay discrimination ordinances around the country.

I get ahead of myself, though, if I don’t mention two other films. IMDB lists a film “The Mayor of Castro Street”, based on the book by Randy Shilts, directed by Bryan Singer, and due from Participant Productions (and probably Warner Brothers) in 2009. (This is rather like having competing versions of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” at almost the same time.) Furthermore, there is an older documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” directed by Robert Epstein, made in 1984, released by New Yorker Films.

The film looks big, although it cost “only” $15 million (probably with stars working for less). I would have liked to see 2.35:1 instead of standard, although, for all the politics and social justice, Gus Van Sant here makes the film in a somewhat Hitchcock style, with preparation for the final tragedy that is executed brutally, and an abundance of closeups (where Cinemascope is a distraction) common in mysteries. He offers plenty of grainy “real” footage from the 1970s. The film trailer and previews featured a lot of pompous baroque music, but the actual film score (original music by Danny Elfman) is often somber and includes (as did “Quantum of Solace”) the violent ending of Puccini’s Tosca.

Sean Penn will definitely get a nomination for Best Actor in this film as Harvey Milk himself, and the film deserves a nomination for Best Picture. It is that engaging. Emile Hirsch looks all too boyish as activist (later covered by Shilts in “Band Played On”) Cleve Jones (it looks like he shaved his arms for this movie – what indignities actors go through!). James Franco, as Scott Smith, is one of the most likeable of the supporting characters. He does age about ten years in looks during the film, which Milk aka Penn really does not. In an openings scene, Milk tells Smith, in an intimate evening (his last day at Jack Benny’s 39), that he may not make it to 50. Lucas Gabreel, as photographer Nicoletta, recalls the tone of his presence in HSM3. Josh Brolin always seems chilling (so he was as George W. Bush in “W” and even as in the “Old Men” movie) and here his character descends rapidly into self-pity and sociopathy. And Dennis O’Hare makes his character State Senator John Briggs into an absolute pig.

Sean Penn starts the film recording his (Harvey Milk’s) own last rites, as if he doesn’t expect to live too long given the targeting and threats. He says he started his speeches with the “I’m going to recruit you,” as if that were too much for some people.

The first quarter of the film makes life in San Francisco look perilous in the early and mid 1970s, with the police raiding gay bars. Milk and Scott Smith gain a foothold in the Castro district with a camera shop, and rather quickly get it “converted.” Now, I moved into New York City in 1974, and visited San Francisco on vacation in April 1975, visiting some bars (and Dave’s baths, near the Transamerica Building then), and didn’t pick up on any of the paranoia. But some of this tracks to my own history. I had worked for Univac from a job in New Jersey from 1972 to 1974 (going to NBC in 1974 in order to move into the City) and during that suburban period would make evening trips by bus to the City, with my father warning “they’ll have you followed.” The older generation really did have that kind of paranoia.

Milk’s activism increases, with multiple tries to get elected as City Supervisor, until he finally wins in 1977, about the time of Anita Bryant’s backlash. It’s a bit confusing that she had that much to backlash against – but I don’t think as a whole conditions were as bad even in the early 70s as the film suggests. We see a lot of footage of Anita in the movie, with orange (and I don’t mean ING orange). Van Sant gradually introduces and then fully develops the story of John Briggs’s Proposition 6, the so called Briggs Initiative, which would have effected a ban on gay teachers a bit like the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for the US military today. And, I have to say, 1978’s Proposition 6 was a lot more venomous that today’s Proposition 8.

Briggs made no bones about it. The law supposedly provided a way to “identify” homosexuals among the ranks of teachers (a legal warrant for witch-hunts) and mandated the firing of any school employee who supported gay teachers (oops about the First Amendment for public employees). There are lines about "privacy" but Milk, ironically, says "privacy may be our enemy" as he demands everyone "come out" in rallies. The film climaxes with a debate, which erupts with pseudo-arguments from Briggs (brilliantly phrased by the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who also appears in the film) – I don’t know if Black had access to the text of real debates). Briggs's "recruitment argument" sounds particularly garish. The debates definitely turned the tide, showing the bigotry of Briggs position; the film goes on to cover the election night, where the initiative lost almost by 2 to 1. Governor Ronald Reagan opposed it, as did Jimmy Carter.

Had the referendum passed, it would have been attempted in other states – yet it certainly could have been challenged as unconstitutional. In Texas, in 1983, the religious right, in response to the AIDS crisis, tried to pass an extension of the state sodomy law (HR 2138 replacing 21.06) and ban gays from many occupations, but it died in committee. That could have set a bad example for many other states.

The film does zero in on what anti-gay bias or homophobia are all about. There is an encounter between Milk and Dan White where White says “Society can’t exist without the family… but can homosexuals reproduce?” Milk says (with forbidden irony), “you can’t say we don’t try.” White's behavior suggests that he does not believe he can carry out his "social obligations" to society unless everyone else has to do the same thing and "play by the same rules."

I’ve talked about all of this on my glbt and main blog many times, and it amounts to an existential “argument” that can be developed in a number of formulations (outside of naïve or facile following of religious precepts and scriptural passages). But it seems to come down to the observation that many “folkish” marital couples depend on the social supports to keep their marriages rewarding and stable, and part of that support is the sense of entitlement to biological lineage from all their adult children, or, at least, non-competitive sexual restraint from offspring not “fortunate” enough to be able to have their own kids. There is a moral point (“karma”) that maintains that everyone owes something in the way of supporting other generations because that was done for every person (presumably, but maybe not), and some of that means sharing the “uncertainty” of procreation, one’s own or supporting that of others. Dan White, at one point, castigates Milk for not being supportive of salary raises for Supervisors, because Milk, not having a wife and kids, doesn’t need the money as much (“you don’t have that problem, do you”).
The movie script gets all this right as to how homophobia really thinks. One wants others to have to share one’s own burdens.

Remember, all of this history occurred before the AIDS epidemic, and before today’s controversies over gays in the military and gay marriage. I have maintained that the federal law establishing “don’t ask don’t tell” for the military could conceivably be used against gay teachers even today, at least for those who must get into intimate situations with disabled students. (I caused quite a stir when my previous Internet comments to that effect were found by the school system when I was substitute teaching.) The military ban today is still potentially quite malignant. Back in the 1970s, I recall a similar controversy over forced intimacy with the idea of gays becoming fireman, but that has been overcome.

Remember the motto: "Never blend in!" Keep a high profile!

See this blog Sept. 9, 2007 for “Saint of 9/11” and Oct. 18, 2007 for “Ask Not” (check archive links).

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