Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Milk (2008)

Watching Milk, you can almost understand the pain of gay people... living in the decade fashion and music forgot

To be sure, marketing and PR would have you believe that this is the gay movie of the decade. Even self-avowed gay people who derive their sense of self-validation from this movie or plays like this might have you believe this as well. The truth: in Capote, you have the very model of an openly gay person who lived life in his own terms, created true and lasting things, and 2 superior biopics, Capote and Infamous. Coming late to the party, director Gus Van Sant has to settle for Harvey Milk as the subject of his gay biopic.

It's really slim pickings: by age 40, the openly gay Truman Capote would be a nationally acclaimed author; at age 40, Harvey Milk was still a closeted stock analyst who by his own admission, "haven't done a thing". By age 50, the openly gay Truman Capote would be feted as the American writer of the century; Harvey Milk never lived to 50, though he did become the first openly gay man to serve and die in public office (but not the first openly gay person to be elected to public office, despite the mythologising and PR by the gay community after his assassination).

In other words, there's really no contest aside from the mythologising of Milk as gay martyr, and this movie's awareness of the historical importance of its subject.

The historical importance appears to been the top concern in the mind of Van Sant, and the best parts of Milk occur when Van Sant deftly captures the sense of community, the whole "interesting people living in interesting times" feel, with just the camera panning over conspiratorial crowds crammed into the little drawing rooms or marching through the streets of the Castro district of San Francisco. Clever weaving of archival footage into the movie and recreations of other classic period snapshots add to the movie's brilliant evocation of the mood of a nascent movement in an age long past.

Yet the biopic's weakest link appears to be its subject, who just doesn't seem to bristle with the energy of the movement he found himself entwined with. Part of the blame may be laid at Van Sant's door: taking an entirely conventional approach, the biopic hits all the historical signposts of Harvey Milk's final decade, but leaves the depths (and hence the emotions) unstirred.

Consider: for a closeted, unremarkable man of 40, how did Harvey Milk actually get the idea and inspiration to change from Mr boring insurance salesman to Mr shrill activist? Just what radicalised him? The process itself would have made interesting filmmaking. Gus Van Sant doesn't go there.

Consider: How did Milk learn to get and then cultivate the support of non-gay people like the union leaders? Surely there's an interesting story somewhere, but Van Sant merely reports that Milk joined hands with them during a crucial boycott.

Consider: How did Milk turn from a three-time political failure to such a good politician? Surely there's an interesting story in there.

Consider: How on earth did Milk get the cooperation of his fellow supervisors at SanFran's city hall? How did the 'most liberal' slate of supervisors at the city hall feel like and work? But as above, Van Sant constantly skips over the process to bring us to the next Station of Milk's Cross. This is neither good documentary-making or filmmaking, if you believe stories are about the process of how people change, that the interesting bits are always about how one gets there, and not the destination itself.

As a portrait of Harvey Milk, there is a certain weakness in Van Sant's hands-off approach, which is inappropriate for a non-fictional film. While Van Sant wisely avoids lionising or mythologising Milk, he also avoids showing both good and bad sides of Harvey Milk or making any facet feel significant.

In this manner, I suppose any self-validating gay person might go into the cinema and have the biopic of Saint Milk he always wanted, and miss out a rather interesting, possibly dramatic, and very literary story lurking within the screenplay.

Take for instance, the secret movie about Milk the creepy manipulator and schemer: there's something disturbing about a pol who would deliberately hire community organisers to whip an angry gay crowd into a near riot so he could step in as a mediator, something extremely troubling about a gay activist who is actually prepared to lose a referendum fight he deliberately escalated so that lots of angry gays who will riot in the streets, and something rather cavalier about an activist who not only advises his campaign staff to out themselves, but make the decision to out other gay people on their behalf. A few eggs need to be broken to make an omelette isn't an assertion that normal people believe in.

Or take for instance, the secret movie about Milk the coalition builder par excellence: there's something positively tragic about how Harvey Milk builds coalitions with everyone in the political world, promising quid pro quos and unconditional support from his gay voters to his allies in city hall, yet chooses to single out constantly this one fellow to break promises, deliberately refuse to cooperate, and humiliate politically (Milk armtwists the mayor to reject the overturning of Dan White's resignation).

In the hands of a more confident director, the core of this movie could very well be about the tragedy and hubris of building coalitions, or about the simultaneous political genius and assholery of its central character. That it never even begins to feel like a proper biopic or a proper drama suggests Van Sant was not at all ready for Milk. After all, Capote showed us how one could make a proper literary drama about a flawed character, and Infamous showed us how one could make an engaging period piece full of life.

What saves Milk in the end are the acting of Sean Penn, and Van Sant's ability to create the feel of a community.

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