Thursday, July 28, 2011

Modern Film Classic: Milk

[Programming note: this article first appeared on June 28, 2011, and is being re-published today to mark Vancouver Pride. Happy Pride everyone!]

The Blogger noticed, in the month of Gay Pride worldwide, a striking difference in gay rights in the world. Late Friday evening, the New York State Senate elected to allow same-sex marriage in the state. At the exact same time, in St. Petersburg, Russia, a small group of Russian gay rights activists were beaten, harassed and imprisoned for a peaceful demonstration. The gay pride parade in Moscow, a city fast priding itself on becoming more open and cosmopolitan, remains illegal. The juxtaposition of joyous reaction from New York and Tweets from Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev from prison showed in stark and real-time contrast the rights we enjoy and take for granted. The struggle for gay rights may for some be a distant memory or simply a part of history. 

This past weekend also marked the 42nd anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the first major battle in the world where gays and lesbians fought back against oppressive authorities and asserted their right to live freely, openly, and without shame, just like everyone else.

Milk's campaign headquarters in the Castro,
taken by the Blogger on a visit in the fall of 2010
We live in a time where political cinematic art is almost nonexistent, at least in the West. This doesn’t meant that there are no exciting works out – one does not need to be political to be cinematically merited – but you’d be hard-pressed to find the next Spike Lee, Derek Jarman, Lina Wertmüller or Oliver Stone. It was indeed rare to find political film made by a major studio, the NBC/Universal-backed Focus Features, in Gus van Sant’s 2008 masterpiece Milk. This was a project that deserved a time and a place when the culture was ready to embrace (or at the very least tolerate in peaceful coexistence with) gay rights culture.

Penn, left, with Victor Garber as Mayor Mosconi
Everything about van Sant’s passion project works brilliantly. There’s Sean Penn’s uncanny Oscar-winning turn as the pioneering Harvey Milk, the world’s first elected openly gay politician. Penn’s sensitive embodiment could have been simple mimicry or a caricature, but what he captures is nothing less than lightning in a bottle in the performance. Some criticized the film slightly for not providing a portrait of Milk before he became a politician, but Milk himself acknowledged that he was nobody before his political awakening. He was just an insurance salesman without any idea of who he could have become. Penn captures the tireless energy seen here and in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary on the same subject, The Times of Harvey Milk. The man was indefatigable and passionate, but he never let ego get in the way as he fought for the collective whole. 

Franco, as Scott
Penn once stated in an interview that he had no knowledge of the plight of the LGBT community until he met his then-wife, one Madonna. In the rather unflattering 2001 unauthorized biography by Andrew Morton, it is mentioned that Penn was initially uncomfortable with Madge’s flamboyant gay friends. However, one of Madge’s very best friends from that era, dying of AIDS at the time, saw in Penn a sensitivity that led him to declare that they have a lot to learn from one another. Indeed, Penn’s politics changed slowly but surely over time, and his performance here is informed by the insight he gained from her. Milk is not portrayed as a saint. He was simply a man who had a cause he believed in, stood up, and demanded to be counted.

Hirsch, as Jones (centre)
The cast backs Penn up beautifully. Josh Brolin plays Dan White not as a militant antigay jerk, but as a man trying to come to terms with a changing world in which his traditional views are continually challenged. This does not excuse or explain his assassinating Milk in real life, but van Sant wisely makes him a man compelled into action without fully appreciating consequence. Emile Hirsch lends able support as Cleve Jones, and shows his growth from a typical young small-town punk who experiences his own awakening and becomes one of the leading lights of the community. The Blogger saw Jones speak at Vancouver Pride last year, and Jones was still choked up at the mention of Milk during his keynote address. Rounding out the cast with great aplomb is James Franco as Scott, Milk’s longtime partner and campaign manager. Franco could have played him as just another long-suffering political wife cliché, but he mercifully infuses the role with a quiet authority that gives dignity to the performance. It’s easily one of the best portraits of a political spouse, up there with Joan Allen’s seminal Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon.

Brolin, left, with Penn
Speaking of Stone, he was at one time chosen to direct Milk, and indeed he was busily casting and working on a script throughout the 1990s. No doubt he would have made the film incendiary and exciting, as Stone’s work during that period ranks amongst the greatest in American film history, but one wonders if it would have been as poignant and stately as Nixon, or as frenetic and bombastic as Natural Born Killers. It is perhaps universal karma and grace that allowed Dustin Lance Black to pen one of the best scripts ever committed to paper and van Sant to direct it with subtlety and grace. Both are gay artists, with van Sant having made provocative films in the late twentieth century and Black being reared on that material. Perhaps it was simply the passage of time that allowed openly gay producers such as Bruce Jinks and Dan Cohen to convince studio heads that making political art on this subject at this time and place that fostered the creation of Milk and brought it into the masses. Black encapsulates all of this in his eloquent Oscar speech, which you can see here.

The plaque at Milk's old campaign headquarters,
taken by the Blogger
There remain young queer activists in our midst, and the presence of the NOH8 Campaign and It Gets Better Project are positive reminders that we as a culture, and on a humanist scale, have progressed in our quest to better mankind. But everyone who identifies him- or herself as queer should be reminded that not so long ago, even when they were very young, was not always welcomed into a positive atmosphere. The arrests in St. Petersburg, together with the ugly and hateful anti-gay legislation that was proposed in Uganda this past spring, are stark reminders that we are not so far removed from an era when people had to stay in the closet for fear of being attacked, harassed, retaliated, bullied, or killed simply for being who they are. That the film premiered just days before the 2008 presidential election, when California struck down gay marriage laws, is not lost on the film and lent it upon its release an immediate political gravitas, inadvertently demonstrating that it was no mere period piece. It is for this reason that political art like Milk should be made and be seen.

In the meantime, take heart in the spectacle of millions of people, gay, straight and otherwise, celebrating gay pride, love and acceptance. Happy Pride to all.