(I know: the logical thing to expect after such a big day today is something about the inauguration. I don’t think I have anything unique to say. I thought the speech was not that exciting, but the exact thing we needed. The lack of flourishes dispels the notion that Obama is simply an orator. It was, in a sense, all business. Let’s get to work.
By the way, I have no excuse for the length of this essay other than I was on a roll. Good way to lose readers.)
I wanted to review one of the two movies I saw in the last few days: Milk or The Wrestler. I decided to review Milk because it is easier to review, not because it is the better movie. To the contrary—it is easier to review because it is more flawed.
To establish some context, let’s first look at some of the other films Milk director Gus Van Sant has directed, from oldest to newest (the ones I have seen):
Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Great movie, the epitome of independent film. A small film with an unusual story and strong cast (Matt Dillon is at his best here). This is easily in my list of the top 50 films.
To Die For(1995). Built on the foundation of Buck Henry’s script, everything about this movie works. Nicole Kidman is riveting in this role she really should have won the Oscar for, instead of Virginia Woolf in the wretched The Hours. She’s supported by a young and convincing Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck in his film debut, and Matt Dillon. This movie makes my top 10 (top 20? I’ve never actually made a list) for its edgy lampooning (can you lampoon in any way but edgily?) of celebrity.
Good Will Hunting (1997). Solid Hollywood film. Has plenty of corn, particularly the climactic scene whereby psychologist Robin Williams solves all of Matt Damon’s problems by repeating “It’s not your fault” over and over. Offensively bad Boston accents (see my article on this topic). Van Sant does nothing special with this.
Finding Forrester (2000). Ditto, only more corn.
Elephant(2003). Chilling (I picked that word myself) reimagining (that one too) of the Columbine shootings, using non-actors and cinema verité (uh huh, my word) techniques that bring the audience deep into the film. A fine and innovative piece of filmmaking. No corn at all.
With this resumé (it is actually much more extensive, I just haven’t seen any others), you might expect either some exciting filmmaking or another solid but flawed film. Milk falls into the latter category.
I will discuss the flaws before I cover Sean Penn’s performance, because the flaws diminish Penn’s performance. Like so many bio pics, this film didn’t seem to know which facts to use and how to make all the included facts relevant. For example, Milk’s relationship with his boyfriend Jack is depicted with bits and pieces of historic detail that are never relevant to developing the character of Harvey Milk, so why should they interest me? Are we presented with how troubled Jack is to sow the seeds that lead to his personal downfall (avoiding a spoiler here), one that actually didn’t even occur when he was involved with Milk? What does it say about Milk that he chose to be in this relationship? How did tragedy affect him? If you’re going to show that much of a relationship and develop a whole story arc around a character, say something about the main character or main theme in doing so, rather than simply, “This happened, then this happened, then this happened.”
I suppose they were trying to show how hard it was for gay people at that time. But we can see that without having Milk deliver a line as flat as, “Three out of my last four boyfriends tried to commit suicide.” Or creating a cornball scene (it couldn’t possibly have happened) in which a gay teen in a wheelchair calls Harvey on election night saying he wants to kill himself, which is followed up by an even more cornball redemption scene later whereby this same wheelchair-bound gay teen has miraculously transformed his life—and again called on an election day—thanks to Milk. Ach (mimes fingers down throat). Guess what? I can figure out for myself that these changes transformed lives without this bit of sappy symbolism. It is much more intellectually exciting to imagine the impact than it is to have it spelled out for me.
Another problem with the film—a major problem—is that it didn’t appear to me that Dan White really was an interesting or particularly sinister person, or that he did anything worth knowing about until he had an apparently psychotic (he would say Twinkie-induced) break and shot Milk and Mayor George Moscone. So building a storyline around this character and trying to draw us into this “fascinating” relationship with Milk that didn’t seem extraordinarily contentious didn’t do anything to build tension. It would have been more chilling (there’s that word again) for White to appear quite normal, so that the murders come out of the blue, as they really did. Knowing that White would kill Milk but seeing no sign of it coming would build much more tension than attempting to cobble together a reason for the killings. There was no reason for any sane being to do what he did.
Also, while I liked the use of documentary film footage, it is not a unique problem when so much documentary footage is used that the non-documentary footage seems fake by comparison. This made me conscious of the fact that I was watching a film rather than being drawn into it body and soul as I was with, say, To Die For.
A scene that disturbed my filmviewing sensibilities was toward the end (not really a spoiler—it’s such a weak scene) when Milk is talking to his ex-boyfriend Scott until the sun rises on the day he will be shot. At the end of the conversation, Milk says, crying, “I don’t want to fix this.” Fix what? Who thought anyone was trying fix anything? Why did he call him in the middle of the night, anyway? The line, delivered beautifully and with deep emotion, was a non sequitur. Was Scott the love of his life he couldn’t really be with? Why not? I’ve watched enough soap operas to be familiar with the device of using a weak obstacle to keep fated lovers apart. Yawn.
Another scene whose relevance I couldn’t quite grok was when we are introduced to Cleve Jones early in the film as a streetwalking, anti-political punk only to have him show up later to help lead the gay rights crusade. What caused this incredible transformation? He explains that he saw a riot in Spain in which the blood of gays was running in the gutters in the street. Fine. That’s pretty transforming. But why show him as so dogmatically apathetic and blasé in the earlier scene? I had a hard time purging that view of him throughout the rest of the movie.
Had the film stayed on one track, it would have been a better film, though it wasn’t a bad one. Its strengths were how it showed that this one real person made so much happen and how it presented the gay and anti-gay movements with historical accuracy. In some ways, the timing of the movie’s release dovetails interestingly with Obama’s ascension, although I imagine Van Sant (who is gay) wanted to bring some compassion and understanding to the current issue of gay marriage, and to draw a parallel between the anti-gay movement that swept the nation in 1978 and the current drive to define marriage as being between a man and a woman that has succeeded in more than half of US states.
Instead, I shook my head in amazement at how difficult it was to be gay so recently. Just as people are amazed that this country could elect a black president when just 45 years ago, Jim Crow laws were still in place, I am amazed at how far gays have come in approaching civil rights equality in such a short time when they were so terribly persecuted. It’s a dramatic turnaround. It was eye-opening—no eye-popping—to see footage of what Anita Bryant was saying at the time, and to learn how many states voted to revoke the protection of civil rights for gays. I suppose the ignorance it shows is not surprising—that a politician could use the words “homosexuality” and “bestiality” interchangeably—but what is surprising is that someone would try to pass a bill to remove all gay teachers and the people who are supportive of them from the California school system. In 1978. It boggles the mind.
So it was highly effective in conveying the historical perspective. Anyone who is huffing about the fact that gays are having a hard time getting marital rights needs to see this movie to understand how stunning it is that homosexual couples now live openly and in family neighborhoods, let alone that some states offer gay marriage or civil unions. The fact that we’ve come a long way doesn’t mean anyone should accept the setbacks, but when people complain about the lack of equality in the marriage arena, you have to put it in historical perspective. One step at a time.
I don’t believe these marital definition laws represent the same hatred and ignorance that the bills to overturn gay civil rights did. People are just not ready to make the leap, to change the definition of a word (come on, you know you think the word “marriage” means a man and woman). I’m not saying I’m not ready, or that I don’t believe committed gay couples are entitled to every legal right that committed straight couples are. (I do.) I’m just saying, the opposition is not necessarily bigoted. Understanding the massive change that has taken place can only help advocates to understand the people who oppose further change.
Ack. There’s a lot more that I could say about how I would have liked to have seen the movie go—like showing that Milk served in the military and what made him stop living a closeted life at a time in history when that was not done. How incredibly brave.
But I must move on to Sean Penn, who is going to get short shrift in this way-too-long review that I should be beaten for writing and that probably no one is reading. Penn is great. No doubt. He is transformed into this character. But somehow the marvel of that transformation kept me out of the film. I think part of that was because of the casting of James Franco (who ends up getting fifth billing in the movie, even though he got the second most screen time) as his lover. Don’t get me wrong; Franco gave a strong performance. Very impressive. A far cry from Harry in the Spiderman movies. But I would have been a lot less distracted by the kissing scenes if at least one of the actors was either gay or unknown. I kept thinking, “Sean Penn is kissing James Franco. Boy does James Franco look cute.”
You’ve seen the photos and the trailers; Sean Penn is every bit as absorbed in the character as he appears to be. But only rarely did I forget I was watching a performance, and not because it was hammy or overdone. I don’t know that that was Penn’s fault. I blame the documentary footage in part.
The supporting cast was excellent, with natural performances by the lesser-known actors. James Brolin is always good. Was it a great movie? No, but it was a solid one. Was it worth seeing? Very much so, so you can learn about this influential man and the bigotry in this country’s not-so-distant past, and to see a strong performance by one of the fine actors who will not win the Oscar this year.