Wow, I love Matt, but sometimes he comes up with thoughts that are mind-bogglingly off-base. This is one:
My least-favorite of the three was Milk, actually showing in theaters. This had been highly touted to me, and it’s actually quite good. Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and James Franco are all brilliant and the rest of the cast is good as well. A few scenes are genuinely moving in a way that’s weird, and the movie has a lot of contemporary resonances. My first instinct was to say that the problem with the film is that the pacing is odd, but I think the problem may actually be that on some level Harvey Milk’s story isn’t that interesting. If he’d succeeded at winning an at-large council seat or getting into the State Assembly, that would have been something. But exactly as you’d expect, he lost those races. And when he did win it was, as the film makes clear, all thanks to the change in San Francisco electoral procedures — the decision to move to geography-based constituencies and to draw a very Milk-friendly district. It seems to me that there’s probably a fascinating story about how and why that switch was made, but Milk doesn’t tell the story, possibly because Milk wasn’t a central player.
I’m glad Matt’s a blogger and not a novelist, because his story-telling instincts are way off if he thinks that story about the redistricting of San Francisco is more interesting than the story of a prominent gay rights leader who did help with the seemingly impossible—not getting elected, but defeating an anti-gay initiative, something we have shown we still can’t do in California, 30 years later—and then got shot by an out-of-control right wing nut. Milk’s accompllishments reached far beyond his limited ability to get elected, and I’d think any political junkie would eat that movie up, because even though Milk didn’t have much of a position, the movie was a brilliant demonstration of the way that street politics and electoral politics flow into each other. That Milk had to take up a dog shit law to get pro-gay legislation passed? Brilliant!
As for the pacing issues, dude, it’s a Gus Van Sant movie. And even though it’s a “mainstream” Van Sant movie,* it’s not as mainstream feeling as some treacle like “Good Will Hunting”. He actually tried to be artistic and interesting with this one, and I think it really worked. The pacing was off from other biopics on purpose, because Van Sant knows damn well that the biopic is the most cliched, tedious kind of movie, short of the romantic comedy. If you watch the film while suspending your expectations about biopics, this movie doesn’t have pacing issues, I don’t think. What it has is Van Sant making interesting choices. He avoids a lot of the “this happened, then this happened” pacing by actually spending time with Milk in his leisure time, living his life, and without that, you wouldn’t really get a sense of what a happy person he was. There’s also the way that Van Sant lets you believe that we’re reaching the climax of the movie, only to steal it away and present you with another, more moving one. You think that a drawn-out murder scene will be the climax, but what he does is refuses to show you the murders, so that when you first see the candlelight vigil, that feels more like the climax and not like a tacked-on ending. It’s very moving.
Now onto the main issue: I think that by scoffing at Milk’s achievements as minor, Matt’s missing the thread of frustration that winds throughout this film. It’s that someone with Harvey Milk’s political instincts and energy—someone who, in another life, would be a major politician—was marginalized because he was gay. That he didn’t rise up further is part of the story. I’m hesitant to pull this card, but I’m going to have to point out that Matt’s straight/male/white identity, I think, is blinding him to this important point. From the perspective of pretty much anyone who faces social resistance to their ambition, Milk’s story has this amazing resonance. In part, it’s a story that’s about how even the strongest, the most talented, the most dedicated people in our culture are restrained by outside forces. I suppose on the heels of Barack Obama’s unbelievable win, it’s easy to lure ourselves into thinking that all a minority has to do to rise up is be good enough, but let’s face it—Obama wouldn’t have had a chance even 10 years ago.
And, to make matter worse, when Milk did help accomplish the seemingly impossible—defeating the Briggs Initiative—he was immediately gunned down. And by immediately, I mean immediately. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize this is probably why the pacing felt off to Matt, because it does seem like Van Sant takes you high and then shoves you in a hole, by showing the Prop 6 victory and then bam! Milk’s dead before you can catch your breath. But he does that on purpose, because that’s how it felt in real life. The Briggs Initiative was defeated on November 7, 1978. Milk and Moscone were murdered on November 27, 1978, less than 3 weeks after the election. I think Van Sant was trying, and he succeeded in my eyes, to get you to feel the dizzying highs and lows of the time.
I realize that’s not the ostensible reason that Dan White shot him,** but the sequence of events leads to this resonant conclusion, that if you the beleaguered minority are in fact able to rise at all above your assigned station and accomplish the seemingly impossible, you are risking your life in doing so. In fact, Harvey Milk knew this. The whole thing where he’s sitting in the kitchen recording a last will and testament into a tape recorder isn’t an artistic invention. That actually happened, because he was afraid that he would be murdered. The movie isn’t supposed to be one of those feel good “look at the oppressed minority rise way above his station by mere pluck!” movies.*** It’s a movie about actual living. About facing your oppression and fighting it, but living your life to its fullest in the meantime.
*Thank god. It would have been irresponsible of him to put such an important message in an art house flick that got few eyeballs.
**Still, how weird is it that he resigned a mere three days after Prop 6 lost? I’m inclined to think that part of his rationale was that this defeat made him think that the California he relied on was permanently lost to him.
***The most annoying of these has got to be the “disabled person proves that disabilities are no disability” movies, which perversely make the lives of actual disabled people worse, because it sets expectations on them no human being can reach.