Harvey Milk, I’m Here To Salute You

With the Oscars (which we all pretend to ignore, but ultimately don’t) just days away, Gus van Sant’s Milk has finally come to Norwegian movie theaters. For months I’ve been hearing great things about this movie, and over the last week or so, mentally I’ve been back in the early winter of 1998 (there’s that pesky delay again), reliving the extreme excitement I felt while waiting for James Cameron’s Titanic to finally open. The grandiosity of the Sinking Ship Saga answered to my every demand, and I’m happy to report that Milk did, too, though in a different way. It’s also nice to finally have someone to root for in Best Picture category at the Oscars. As we’ll get back to in a minute Milk probably won’t win, but it’d get my vote anytime.

If my few loyal readers could excuse me for constantly referring to Slate, the magazine’s television critic Troy Patterson recently said that although he liked the movie very much, it’s better politics than it’s art. I don’t share his feeling that those two things should always and forever be kept strictly apart, but he’s still on to something. Just like it’s impossible to watch Darren Aronofsky’s (slightly overrated) The Wrestler without taking Mickey Rourke’s own rollercoaster of a career into account, it would be impossible, maybe even irresponsible not to watch Milk through the prism of the terribly disappointing passage of Proposition 8 in California just this last November. Milk is not so much political in a narrow sense as it is humane, not so much polemical as it is probing.

Take the way it handles Dan White, the conservative supervisor who ended up killing both Milk and San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Moscone. Even though you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, and even though White was an obviously troubled man, I really liked how van Sant’s signature camera style and Dustin Lance Black’s terrific script succeded in making a whole, and – just as importantly – a complex person of him. In a couple of short but essential scenes (one in the hallways of City Hall and the other at Harvey’s birthday celebration), a vulnerable White hints  at financial problems to argue that the pay for supervisors should be raised. Later, these troubles were cited as one of the main reasons for why White was so mentally exhausted that he killed both Milk and Moscone. This, combined with Josh Brolin’s quietly dignified performance, never feels as an apology for his actions, but rather as an earnest and brave attempt to make him a whole man, instead of simply a character. Brolin has a face that in itself signals intense self-control, which here serves to make White surprisingly unpredictable and interesting, considering most of us knew going in that he’s going to end up a murderer.

In some of his broadest crowd pleasers (like Good Will Hunting, which I personally still think is great) van Sant has been accused of sentimentalizing his material for popular acclaim. While there are some scenes that could have that effect on a cynic, I happen to think that one of them, a scene in which Milk is handed an anti-gay leaflet by a young boy to the tones of opera music, is also one of the most moving moments in the entire movie. Here I could of course try to say something about how seamlessly the images and the music are integrated, but what I really want to point out is how this scene could stand as a symbol of how distinctively cinematic van Sant’s directorial voice is. Your average biopic often ends up as something of a dramatized documentary, but van Sant transcends these conventions beautifully in the little moments that matter. At any time, he effortlessly uses a variety of different visual and narrative approaches (several scenes are shot so as to resemble old television clips, and original television footage is included, too), in a way that makes Milk speak not only to the heart, but to the eyes as well.

To me, it seems like a very wise move to focus the movie almost entirely on Harvey’s political career, because his firm conviction that he was part of a movement leaves an opening to sketch out the specific cultural circumstances of his service to the people. I  love the intricacies of American politics, and the movie’s focus on the craftsmanship of San Francisco politics should itself be enough to counter any claim that Milk is a one-sided hagiography. Sean Penn, in an absolutely electrifying performance in which he finally and definitely comes down on the right side of intense (for examples of the opposite, see I am Sam, Mystic River), portrays Harvey as an idealist, but also as a person who is so dedicated to his cause that he doesn’t always know when to take a step back. While he was never part of the Machine, he certainly was a politician.

But having said all that, I have to go back and modify things a little. While I’m happy there are crucial nuances to the portrayal of Milk, I again have to admit that it wa’s one of those scenes that some people might find overly hagiographic (or in other instances sentimental, see above) that touched me the most. I’m thinking of a scene in which Harvey receives a call from a suicidal youngster in Minnesota, who has seen him in the news. In an effort to try to lift him out of his obvious misery (which would later be summed up in the catchphrase ‘You gotta give ’em hope!’), Harvey encourages him to leave Minnesota and try to make himself a new life elsewhere. To this, the young guy says he can’t, and the camera zooms out from the guy with the phone in his hand, to reveal the contours of a wheelchair. It really is an emotionally powerful moment.  If you could excuse me for getting a little personal here, I have to admit that it carried extra emotional weight for me as a physically disabled gay guy. I’ve never felt suicidal nor did I have a particularly painful coming out process, but I still think this scene says something profound about the personal insecurities of being different in a number of different ways.

These were the kind of thoughts Harvey Milk wanted us to get rid of, but he insisted that each and every gay individual had a responsibility to root out the causes of bigotry and prejudice. His campaign against Proposition 6 was grounded on the simple belief that the consequences of the proposition had to be personified, because it would be harder for straight people to vote against the interests of someone they knew. In the movie, this principle is captured in a quite painful scene in which a determined Harvey forces one of his closest advisers to come out to his parents to set an example for others.

It’s hard to know from around the globe, but from what I’ve seen in the American press, it seems like the campaign against Proposition 8 in California last year was based on quite different principles. I’m sure there were large grassroots organizations, but after the proposition passed, the campaign has been critcized for taking a too top-down approach to the matter. If nothing else, Milk taken together with the historic election of President Obama, should inspire people to reject the false notion that politics doesn’t matter. It does.

Still, I felt privileged when I realized my initial reaction to the anti-gay tirades of Prop 6’s Anita Bryant and John Briggs were a combination of laughter and disbelief. But pretty soon, that sense of privilege was turned to shame.  Yes, I live in a country with no Christian Right to speak of, and with a Conservative Party (!) whose considering naming an openly gay man their candidate for prime minister, but that doesn’t mean neither a) that I should treat the victories of yesterday as permanently won (there are still two parties in the Norwegian parliament who oppose marriage equality and other gay rights issues) nor b) that I’m in a position, or have any intention of, looking down at the fight that’s being fought by gay rights groups in America every single day. As Harvey Milk might have said it, it’s about You and You and You together making an Us. What’s so great about Milk, is that it’s at it most inspiring when it’s at it most political. Count me in.

Harvey’s relentless hope-mongering thus ensures that the movie is not all doom and gloom. Again, the argument’s not mine, but there definitely is something quite refreshing about Sean Penn playing a sympathetic (but no less complex) person for once, and despite the political hardships they face, it’s also rather refreshing to see the portrayal of gay men who are in no way neither insecure about nor ashamed of who or how they are. I believe it was Slate’s Julia Turner who in a fairly recent edition of absolutely unmissable talkshow The Culture Gabfest wondered whether the generally homo-positive tone of Milk could cost it at the Oscars, because the mostly straight Academy tend to be more appreciative of movies whose gay protagonists are very visibly uncomfortable about their gayness. But then again, a modern classic like Brokeback Mountain was snubbed by Crash, so what gives? Still, Penn’s turn as Milk doesn’t for a second feel like a try-out for the Oscar acceptance speech, in contrast to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (which I didn’t even like back when I was a young and easily manipulated thirteen year-old), or Penn himself in I am Sam, for that matter. In fact, I have to point how incredibly comfortable everybody involved seem to be with playing gay. Much like Penn, it’s also nice to see the brighter side of Emile Hirsch again. His youthful idealism is the best way to view the movement Harvey Milk built, because Hirsch’s restless charm come to symbolize how urgency and wisdom both have to be present if change is to happen. Plus, I don’t care if his hair is a disaster area: I’m totally, unequivocally, heart-stoppingly in love with the guy.

Finally, I just have to urge you to see Rob Epstein’s excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. However ambitious, it’s a suitable title for such a rich and deeply moving film. It will bring you valuable insight into the people close to Milk, and thus bring you straight to the epicenter of ’70’s gay politics. Epstein shows a deep understanding both of the subject matter and of the possibilities and limitations of the documentary as a genre, and of it he creates a film that is as exciting as any thriller, and as authentic as anything you’ve ever seen. See it. Just say Harvey sent you.

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15 Responses to Harvey Milk, I’m Here To Salute You

  1. 1.) I thought “The Wrestler” was slightly overrated as well… but I don’t deny that’s a really good movie. I felt for Rourke’s character especially that scene when he finally sits down one-on-one with his daughter and decides to pour his heart out.

    2.) You covered a lot of history not just in terms of politics but also the past Oscar winners (or losers, unfortunately, for “Brokeback Mountain” which really did deserve to win Best Picture instead of “Crash”) and performances. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said; it’s like you took my thoughts and wrote them so eloquently. lol

    3. Oh geez, thanks for reminding me about that one scene regarding the phone call! That’s the first of the many scenes when I really wanted to cry but didn’t because I was with a friend. haha. If I saw it alone, in the confines of my room, I would’ve definitely bawled without shame. I don’t think one has to be physically disabled to relate. For me, it works as a metaphor.

    4. “I don’t care if his hair is a disaster area.” Hahaha. I’m glad you didn’t mind but… I was distracted (in a good way) because I kept thinking, “He’s so adorable.”

    5. Was it just me or was Sean Penn and James Franco’s first few kisses soo awkward?? I don’t know, I felt really weird about it and I remember squirming in my seat. I asked my friend if he felt awkward during those scenes and he says something like, “No… Why would YOU feel awkward? You’re the gay one.” I couldn’t stop laughing after that.

    Awesome review!! It makes me wanna see it again…

  2. poeticgrin says:

    What a post. This may be your most well-written piece to date. I could see this in any magazine or newspaper or e-zine, in the Advocate, on Gay.com, in the New York Times. You need to be getting paid for what you do.

    I saw Milk the night before the Oscars and thoroughly enjoyed it. For me, it was a history lesson. I was born in 1979, after these events had taken place. Growing up in the US in the ’80’s, it seems like “the fight” had died down a little, or at least didn’t get the same amount of attention it once had. Seeing this movie was similar to realizing your parents had full lives before you were ever born – in a way, it made me feel small, but that’s a good thing, because it also made me see that The Gays are everywhere, and that we’ve long struggled and survived.

    I agree that it seems like playing a gay character here seemed like no big deal. Bravo to the cast, and to van Sant, whose movies I’ve always wanted to like, and almosted liked to some degree, but I’ve found that they sometimes get bogged down by minutes-long scenes with no dialogue.

    I watched Penn win Best Actor last night. The feeling here was that he would win in a F-U to the forces that pushed Prop 8. That’s a big issue in California. It was awesome to watch Hollywood stand up last night and champion gay rights in such a spectacular manner. I wanted to see the faces of the midwestern housewives that opposes us so.

    I knew Slumdog would win Best Picture, but I also suspected that Hollywood would honor Penn and in essence the entire picture with the acting award. That award was Milk’s Best Picture statue, I promise. And it felt like it.

    The scene you mentioned with the suicidal boy also touched me. It took my breath away when the camera panned out, because seconds before, in my mind, I was telling him to JUST RUN.

    Again I say GET PAID for writing like this. This should be your career.

  3. poeticgrin says:

    Top Franz above:

    You wrote:

    “5. Was it just me or was Sean Penn and James Franco’s first few kisses soo awkward?? I don’t know, I felt really weird about it and I remember squirming in my seat. I asked my friend if he felt awkward during those scenes and he says something like, “No… Why would YOU feel awkward? You’re the gay one.” I couldn’t stop laughing after that.”

    You weren’t the only one. I had the exact same reaction – I think because I had to come to terms with that fact that there were straight people all around, and this was their possible-introduction into my world. I didn’t know how graphic it was going to get! What does this say about us that we both squirmed?

  4. poeticgrin says:

    Top = should be TO Franz! Freudian slip? :)

  5. queerlefty says:

    Franz, thanks for your thorough-going and thoughtful comment.

    1) I too think The Wrestler is good, just not as good as it could have been. Aronofsky’s fight scenes are all excellent, and I he treated the wrestling environment with a refreshing respect (usually I think wrestling is pretty much the stupidest thing in the world). Still, I think there were too many of them, and that they in a way blocked for a more probing investigation of the father-daughter, which I found the most interesting. Also, one particular scene, in which Randy ask his daughter for a dance had great potential, but was brutally cut. I’m also not entirely sure about how much I would’ve liked the film if it hadn’t been for the implicitly autobiographical elements that (a surprisingly good) Mickey Rourke brought to it.

    2) The Brokeback snub will go down in history as a shame, together with instant classics, like ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Zodiac’ (and, that the good, but not great Bosnian war satire ‘No Man’s Land’ took best Best Foreign Language against the (excellent) French ‘Amelie’ in 2002).

    3) I’m absolutely sure that the emotional power of that scene is universal. I wanted to cry too, but the scene is so short that I didn’t have time to really process it until afterwards. But it’s a beautiful and sad scene.

    4) Adorable, indeed. That first scene between Hirsch and Penn out in the street… my heart practically stopped. There’s something about his whole attitude. Supreme hotness.

    5) I didn’t find the kiss quite as awkward as you and Brian did, but I didn’t had to adjust my mind to the fact that this was a full-on gay kiss, by two acclaimed straight actors, in a rather big production. Ideally it should have been seen as daring or surprising at all, but I guess I’m still under the spell of heteronormativity on this one.

  6. queerlefty says:

    Bryan, thanks for being so supportive of my writing. It truly inspires me to keep giving my best to my few but loyal readers. I love all three of you for it.

    “Seeing this movie was similar to realizing your parents had full lives before you were ever born (…)”

    Your prose is every bit as poetic as your poetry, and this is also a strong point in itself.

    “Bravo to the cast, and to van Sant, whose movies I’ve always wanted to like, and almosted liked to some degree, but I’ve found that they sometimes get bogged down by minutes-long scenes with no dialogue.”

    Hehe. I recognized that problem in parts of ‘Last Days’ and ‘Paranoid Park’, but in ‘Elephant’ and ‘My Own Private Idaho’, I think his elaborative (if that’s a word?) style made the stories stronger. Stylistically, I’d still say that ‘Milk’ most closely resembles ‘Good Will Hunting’, in that it’s fairly conventionally (yet extremely well-) told, though there are some more unconventional scenes, see above. Also, I have to say I really liked ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. Wow, that’s a string of really interesting films!

    Penn’s acceptance speech was great, and I too viewed his win as a statement from the Academy. Still, it’s important that this does not diminish Penn’s performance or his achievement in getting the golden guy.

    I know Franz disagrees with me, but I was perfectly fine with Slumdog Millionaire taking Best Picture when ‘Milk’ didn’t win. I’m just glad ‘BenjaBut’ went largely unrecognized. While it’s not a bad movie, it’s so long and so conventional that I would have been disappointed if it had won.

    Again, Bryan, I’m enormously grateful for honored by your encouragement.

  7. Smilie says:

    This was an interesting post. I haven’t watched Milk yet (it’s on my rather extensive and growing to-do list) but after reading the post and the comments it might move higher up.

    The main reason I wanted to post something was a comment that you made in response to Bryan: “It truly inspires me to keep giving my best to my few but loyal readers. I love all three of you for it.”

    I stumbled across your blog a few months ago when I was searching for information on a celebrity (I can’t remember which one right now) and loved the article. After reading the post I decided to check out what else you wrote and ended up spending a good portion of my lunch hours reading your stuff (I’ve got the site bookmarked on my phone). It’s refreshing for me to see a gay man around my age—28—who is an obviously intelligent and thoughtful writer. Perhaps I need to keep better company, but it’s not something that I see a lot of. As a Canadian I’m also interesting in hearing an opinion that isn’t North American.

    Judging by the number of different people who have commented on your posts I suspect that you have significantly more than three loyal readers but only a small number of participants. Perhaps it’s the 1% rule kicking in. ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2006/jul/20/guardianweeklytechnologysection2 )

    I suppose that I’m guilty of the 1% rule as well. Too many of us sit by and let the world pass us by without comment. While some would argue that they don’t have anything to say on the topic, I suspect that many readers feel intimidated by bloggers, especially those (such as yourself) who can eloquently explain their position in written form. I’ve known many people who could convince you that the North Pole is the best winter destination on the planet verbally but have the writing skills of an eight year old. With the increasing influence of technology in our lives (video games, cell phones, text messaging, etc.) reading and writing are taking a back seat.

    Now that my little comment is turning to a blog post of my own (or perhaps just a rant) I think I’ll stop. Just know that you have more regular readers than you think. :-)

  8. queerlefty says:

    Smilie, thank you so very much for your comment. It might sound corny for me to say this, but really appreciate that you took the time to wrote a whole, long comment about the state of communication technology whose main point was to assure me that there are people out there who like what I’m doing (I’m dead serious about my gratefulness).

    I don’t know what else to say than to reiterate what I said to Bryan. I’ll try to give you a reason to keep coming back.

    And by the way, when I said there were three of you, I was thinking of you and Franz and Bryan.:)

    How about you, do you blog?

  9. poeticgrin says:

    Well, I think we should form a supergroup. The four of us can either become pop idols or develop superpowers and take over the world. Cute male celebrities can be our entourage, either way. My superpower, if we choose to go that route, will clearly be X-ray vision, but it will only work to see through fabric worn by attractive people.

  10. Smilie says:

    I don’t have a blog, but I have thought about starting one. If for no other reason than to get into the exclusive “1% club.” :-)

    I’m not sure what I’d blog about yet. I suspect that if I were to start one it wouldn’t be about anything in particular, just whatever is on my mind at the time. My only concern is that there wouldn’t be enough in my mind to make regular posts!

    Bryan, your idea for a supergroup sounds good to me. I’m not sure I’d want to be a pop idol, but there are quite a few that I wouldn’t mind having around. :-) I’m not sure about the x-ray power though. Could two of us have the same power?

  11. queerlefty says:

    Bryan, I’m not sure about the powers either, but we’d definitely make a good Band Of Bloggers (since ‘Band of Outsiders’ is kinda taken already), heh.

  12. queerlefty says:

    Smilie, I’m sure you would be a great blogger. You really should give it a go. Personally I mostly write about pop culture, with the occasional dip into American politics, but that’s partly because my own life is nothing to write about. From the comments you’ve given me, I’m convinced you could write about a variety of things. Plus, I don’t know nearly enough about Canada:)

    Among other reasons,I keep this blog because here I can be just as gay as I want to be. That’s not to say that my web presence is a fake or that that the opinions I express here are not sincere, only that there always is a certain element of self-presentation in everything we do. I have two Norwegian blogs as well (one for politics and one for pop culture), but if I wanna write about my Emile Hirsch obsession, I go here. Thanks for reading.

  13. 1) What do you think about Rourke’s non-win in the Academy Awards? I’m surprised that most of my fim geek buddies are rooting for him. I was Penn all the way and I was more than happy to say, “I told you so” to all of them. haha I’d like to hear your opinions about the Oscar if you happened to catch it! And Dustin Lance Black = love, if I may add.

    2) I wouldn’t say “Fight Club” is an instant classic. I don’t know what it is about that film but I never got into it as much as other people. I think it’s a nice film and everything but I hate that it’s listed as everyone’s favorite film on Facebook. @__@ Amelie, on the other hand, is quite amazing.

    4) I had a major flashback of that scene. I know the exact location where they shot that scene in SF. I want to take a picture at that same spot the next time I visit. Yeah, Emile is sooo–I can’t even explain. My friend told me that he was wearing like a button or something (or some item) that voices his support for the gays. I can’t believe I completely missed it. Arg. But he did look quite sharp at the Oscars.

    5) Whoa, my friend told me the exact same thing yesterday! Maybe that’s it…

  14. Bryan:

    Yeayuh, I’m not the only one. I think your reason on why you felt uncomfortable is valid. At least you had a reason. I was just… confused and uncomfortable. Haha. For me, I knew they were going to more than just kiss (according to reviews) but I was still very unprepared! It’s coming out on DVD soon and I plan on buying it. Let’s see if I’m weirded out for the second time… lol @ your Freudian slip. You got it right. LOL

  15. queerlefty says:

    Franz: 1) I feel the same way. Going back to my first comment, I said that I wasn’t sure how good Rourke’s performance would’ve been considered to be it it weren’t for the somewhat autobiographical nature of it (that it works on more than one level). I was very pleased to see Penn win, not because I didn’t Rourke to be recognized, but because his performance was simply even better. I don’t know how much of the fight scenes Rourke did himself, but apart from that, I think Harvey Milk is a far more demanding role. There’s nothing wrong with relying on the mutiple layers of a signature line like ‘I’m just a broken down piece of meat’ (considering Rourke’s own history), but I’m still unsure about how much MORE there is to it.

    Also, I hope and suspect that ‘Milk’ is the more durable of the two, in terms of movie history. I’m absolutely sure it will go down in history as a landmark, not only for gay movies, but for the biopic as a genre in general.

    As for Awards themselves, there weren’t too many surprising. I’m pleased Kate Winslet finally won, though I have yet to see ‘The Reader’ (it opens in Norway this coming Friday), but the American reviews have been all over the place. No matter, she should have been nominated for ‘Revolutionary Road’ (too?).

    Heath Ledger’s win was expected but no less deserved, and I was thrilled that Dustin Lance Black won the original screenplay award. His speech was very moving, and to paraphrase Emile Hirsch’s character from his script: ‘Is it just me, or is he cute?’

    2) I understand your frustration with ‘Fight Club’ to a certain extent, and that has to do with how many people tell you they love it. For many people, naming ‘Fight Club’ your favorite film has become an easy way to signal a refined taste, but when you try to ask WHY they like it so much, they can’t even string a coherent sentence together. Other examples of this are ‘American History X’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ or ‘Forrest Gump’. They’re all good (though I’m somewhat ambivalent about AHX), but not that many people have a reflected view on why they like them. (Here, I’m not trying to be elitist nor to talk down those movies in particular, I’m just trying to make a point about the popular reception of ‘Fight Club’).

    That said, I stand by my description of ‘Fight Club’ as a classic. Some people say FC is too specifically nineties to be durable, but to me that’s part of its appeal. Today, I tend to watch FC as a portrayal of the 1990’s psyche, into a pre-9/11 world, when people abandoned politics to exchange symbols of cultural capital instead, for lack of a project that was more important than themselves (to replace religion, or the War On Terror or whatever with individualism and consumerism, if you get what I mean). This somewhat apolitical (or even anti-political) tone may make FC seem irrelevant in today’s world, but that doesn’t mean it cannot provide a key to understand a slightly caricatured version of the 1990’s as an era of cynical irony and self-presentation (how Jack/Tyler define himself through his design furniture, much like Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’). ¨

    I believe what people think of the movie to a large extent depends on whether they buy this argument or not. If you don’t agree that this could say something profound about human interaction, then it’s only natural that you find its protagonists to be self-absorbed, pathetic and hard to relate to, because to me its view of the modern uprooted consumer is crucial to accepting why the fight club consept is such a success. The violence finally represent something ‘real’ in their lives, in place of the fake emotions and materialism they generally use to get by.

    (Feel free to stop reading right here if what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense. I should immediately retract what I said earlier about people not being able to express why they like this movie, because I suspect I’m not either.)

    That said, the main reason on like it, still has to do with how ‘cinematic’ it is. Having watched it six or seven times over the years, I still think it feels fresh and energetic. David Fincher’s visual style is reason good enough to see any of his movies (it’s there in ‘Benjamin Button’ too, though I was terribly disappointed that a Fincher movie could actually be quite boring, in all other than the visual aspect), but FC in his best. His crisply shot scenes really makes the most of The Dust Brothers’ pulse-pounding soundtrack, and they always have a certain ‘nerve’ to them.

    Finally, I love how Brad Pitt used his character to play with the popular perception of him as just a pretty face. It really shines through how he enjoys (literally) smashing his carefully honed image.

    As for Bryan’s little slip: I know I shouldn’t be flirting with people who comment on my blog, but Franz, you know you’re really cute, right? :)

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