Thanks to a couple of distribution snags, Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the biopic about former San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, finally made it to Fayetteville this weekend. The film, based on a screenplay by Duncan Lance Black, depicts the brief political career of Harvey Milk, often described as the first openly gay elected official, before he was murdered by fellow supervisor, Dan White, who also killed Mayor George Moscone. Because the film came out several weeks ago, in the midst of the 2008 presidential election and, more crucially, California’s Proposition 8 vote, the reception of the film has been shaped by the continued culture wars over the definition of marriage. Given Milk’s own involvement in fighting the 1978 Proposition 6 (“the Briggs Amenment,” discussed here by Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk), which would have prevented gays and lesbians from working in public schools, it’s impossible not to see the resonances between the two eras, and I think the reception of the film invites us to use it as a political tool in supporting marriage rights.
That being said, Van Sant’s film left me feeling somewhat neutral, a reaction I often have to Oscar-bait films. Van Sant, I believe, brings a lot to the story, crafting it around a tape recorded by Milk a few months before he was assassinated. In her excellent review of the film, Karina described the narration as an “unnecessary and somewhat illogical framing device,” and I think she may be right to suggest how the narration and other familiar tropes of the biopic make the film appear overly conventional when I hoped that it would push boundaries of genre, image, and film style. The secondary framing, a chance encounter between Milk and a younger, hippieish Scott Smith (James Franco), establishes a similarly familiar trope of the hero who overcomes apathy or indifference in order to make a difference.
These intimate moments are contratsed with Milk’s gradual evolution into a kind of neighborhood leader (“The Mayor of Castro Street,” as he was often described), his camera shop becoming a center of activism in the gay community. The film depicts Milk taking his familiar position on top of a box labeled “soap” to lead the crowds of gays and lesbians frustrated at arrests and other police harrassment building alongside Milk’s several campaigns for city office. While many of these scenes were incredibly powerful, especially the playful repetition of Milk’s signature greeting (“I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you”), here is one moment where I think the conventions of a biopic, which force us to focus on a single aspect of Milk’s story, obscure some of the other valuable work Milk did in his political career, including his work on behalf of unions, senior citizens, and other groups. This activity, carefully documented in Epstein’s film, disappears, for the most part, leaving us with an incomplete portrait.
To be fair, Milk had a number of memorable moments for me: I loved the intercutting between the contemporary performances and the documentary and stock footage of 1970s San Francisco, in particular the Castro district where Milk lived and worked. Milk understood the power of images. His campaign stunt of stepping in dog crap in order to underscore the need for pooper scooper laws is but one small example, and the pastiche of images helps to convey that. And the shots of Anita Bryant campaigning for Prop 6 capture the prejudice that many gays and lesbians faced better than any re-creation of her character.
But the reason I’ve been thinking about Milk today is that I was, like Andrew O’Hehir, a little disappointed by the film’s lack of complexity and, in places, its tendency to sanitize the image of 1970s San Francisco. To some extent, these choices may be motivated by a desire to reach out and to make the bohemian lives of Milk and his friends safe for the movie theaters and living rooms of the widest possible audience, an impulse that generally seems productive to me, even if it results in films that feel watered down. I realize the pedagogical value of such films (A.O. Scott favorably describes Milk as a “fascinating, multi-layered history lesson”), especially when they can reintroduce forgotten figures into a wider cultural memory, but at the same time, I would have loved something more complex and detailed, a film that took the full measure of Milk’s significant political career.