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Gus Van Santís Milk: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Focus Features)


Friday, December 05, 2008

Directed by Gus Van Sant
(Focus Features)

Reviewed by Sarah Silver

Much has been and will be written about the timeliness of Gus Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk, who, in 1978, became the first openly gay man elected to political office in the USA. Poignant, indeed, is its release date, the day before the 30th anniversary of Milk’s assassination. Purposeful is the year and season in which the film enters theaters, a year of unprecedented triumph for a charismatic “outsider” politician who evoked Milk’s pleas for Change and Hope. Unexpectedly and unfortunately apropos is the recent passing of Proposition 8 in California, the very state where, 30 years ago, Milk blazed his trail, fighting for laws to protect the civil rights of homosexuals. But what makes Milk such a brilliant achievement is not its timeliness, but rather its timelessness: the fact that, while making a political, historical biopic, Van Sant managed, concurrently, to make a visually beautiful, emotionally thrilling and surprisingly personal work of art.

There already exists a superlative film on Milk’s life, Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's informative and engaging 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. While a certain authenticity is inevitably lost when moving from documentary footage to dramatized scenes, for the most part emotional impact is recouped through outstanding performances by the entire cast and expressive photography by Harris Savides. Van Sant uses his advantage as a narrative filmmaker to explore a side of Harvey that the documentary leaves relatively untouched: his personal life.

The opening scenes of Milk sizzle with the excitement of new love and new undertakings. When Harvey (Sean Penn) and Scott (James Franco) meet for the first time in the stairwell of an unidentified building, Harvey propositions Scott right off the bat; he doesn’t want to spend his 40th birthday alone. After just a few lines of coy banter, the two end up back at Harvey’s. Penn and Franco make this speedy seduction work; their glances are so intimate, their dialogue so delicate, we know that, in spite of the cavalier way in which it was struck up, this relationship is headed somewhere. The impetus of their love moves the film forward, propelling the pair to leave New York and let out for San Francisco, where more love is blooming, the love of an accepting community of homosexuals who have congregated in the Castro district. As they document their journey out West in grainy, romantic 16mm, it is difficult not to be swept away by their amour fou: the actors are irresistible, their chemistry palpable, and the atmosphere one of hope and infinite possibility.

Once settled, the two decide to become entrepreneurs. Harvey has an affinity for photography, and sets up shop in a storefront on Castro Street, calling it Castro Camera. The couple’s love and openness attract members of the community, and soon enough a close-knit society evolves. Harvey’s love of this society, whom he refers to as “my people” or “the us-es,” of the world (as opposed to the “thems”) inspires him to become politically active, holding neighborhood meetings in the backroom of Castro Camera.

As Harvey’s love and positivity snowball, spilling over from the private into the public sphere, negative contrast is continually provided via archival footage and dramatized scenes of occurrences of police brutality and the apprehension and imprisonment of gays in Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A technique for fighting back against gay bashing and police brutality in the Castro at the time was the distribution of whistles to be blown in threatening situations. In a particularly affecting shot, when Harvey confronts a cluster of bigoted cops dealing with (or, rather, not dealing with) the aftermath of a fatal gay bashing, the scene plays out in a reflection in a small silver whistle magnified to occupy nearly the entire frame. The irony of the shot, this conflict writ large across the surface of this tiny means of protection, drives home the gravity of the situation, and prompts Milk’s realization of his calling: handing out whistles is not enough, but, in his words, “We need a leader, someone who looks out for our interests. … We need one of our own in office.”

Milk’s campaigns for the office of San Francisco City Supervisor (he ran three times before finally winning) are artfully intertwined with developments in his personal life. In fact, there is no clear distinction between the two. Milk’s camera store customers become the friends who back him politically. His business and home are both operating centers for his campaigns. Men that he finds attractive and boys that he feels protective of are invariably approached to become part of the Cause. When Milk decides to run again, after the re-zoning of city voting districts almost guarantees his election, Scott moves out, claiming that he cannot go through the whole process again.

During the recounting of this period of Milk’s life, through the triumphs and defeats of the gay civil rights movement, the film never lapses into rudimentary exposition. While it is nowhere near as experimental as Last Days, Van Sant’s poetic meditation on Kurt Cobain, Milk manages, through a variety of techniques, to avoid ever feeling like a staid biopic. The pacing is masterful, with archival footage of antagonists such as Anita Bryant (a former Miss Oklahoma from the religious right who attempted the always ill-advised transition from beauty queen to politician) and John Briggs (author of the Briggs Initiative, a.k.a. Prop 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools) coming in at just the right moments, reminding us how real and vital the fight was and is. Chances are slim to none that Sarah Palin or Prop 8 were anywhere near the surface of the American consciousness during the conception or filming of Milk, yet today’s audiences will not be able to watch this footage without seeing parallels.

As impressive an achievement as Milk is, it works best as a supplement to the Oscar-winning documentary. Many of the strongest interview subjects in the documentary are women, gay and straight, a population that is surprisingly missing from Milk. Absent altogether from the narrative version is Sally Gearhart, an outspoken lesbian and Milk’s partner in the crusade against Prop 6 (she is even omitted from a re-enactment of a television debate in which they participated as a team). In fact, the only significant woman in Milk, other than the harrowing Anita Bryant, is Anne Kronenberg, a strong-willed, frizzy-haired young lesbian and Harvey’s campaign manager, whose role is downplayed a great deal. (In reality, it was on the back of Kronenberg’s motorcycle that Harvey rode to the victory rally after Prop 6 had been defeated. In Van Sant’s version, the driver is a ripped stud.)

One of the documentary’s most touching characters is Jim Elliot, a fifty-something auto machinist and former homophobe who is recruited by Harvey and never looks back. “He was for gay rights because that is a minority,” says Elliot, “But there's other minorities. There's handicapped people, there's senior citizens, and, so…you start listening to him and getting involved with him, cause, gee, this is the guy that is gonna talk about you." Testimonies like these, along with archival photographs and footage of Harvey working with everyone from Chinese Americans to elderly white women to black men to children, make The Times of Harvey Milk incredibly powerful; it’s impossible not to believe Harvey when he says, post election, that he will “open up the dialogue for the sensitivities of all people.”

By contrast, when, in the new film, Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) is given the task of rallying together a large group, he makes a phone call to a young, white male. This man then calls another young man, who calls another, who calls another, each one appearing in a different colored box, and, soon, the screen is filled with tiles of men on phones, calling their friends to action. I kept waiting for one of them to call a woman, but instead the screen ended up looking like a colorful quilt with patches stitched by Tom of Finland. While normally I back Gus Van Sant 110 percent on the fetishization of pretty boys, I can’t help but wish that, for this particular film, he had democratized his gaze a bit.

Both Van Sant’s last film, Paranoid Park, and Milk might be seen as extensions of his Death Trilogy (Gerry, Elephant and Last Days), in that both feature senseless murders. Thankfully, Van Sant doesn’t insinuate (too hard) that Milk’s assassin, fellow board supervisor Dan White (played with humor and humanity by Josh Brolin), was motivated by repressed homosexuality. Save for a comment Harvey makes about thinking Dan may be “one of us,” White’s mental breakdown and the subsequent slaying of Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone are left open for interpretation.





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