Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movies: Milk

Some movies have a message, and some movies have entertainment value. Many have neither! (Doomsday, I’m looking at you, you exorable piece of dross.) But a few, those happy few, have both. Milk comes at a time when something hateful like Prop 8 can pass, when gay marriage and adoption rights are not the no-brainer they should be, when we’re not as far away from Stonewall as we might like to think we are.

As a movie itself, Milk manages what many true stories turned cinema don’t, which is to keep the tension in a narrative we all know the outcome of, whether from history itself or from the movie’s press junket. And as a message movie, well, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between now and thirty years ago, though even if you were inclined to ignore them, director Gus Van Sant expends no small amount of energy hammering that point home.

The movie has an awful lot going for it. The performances across the board are nuanced, crisp, and unexpected. Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk is flawed and realistically rendered, while Josh Brolin’s Dan White is sympathetic even as he’s committing unforgivable actions. Brolin plays White as a man constantly on the brink of being good, choosing right, not doing what you know he will do. It makes his final act all the more heartbreaking as you wonder what small act might have prevented this tragedy. James Franco does solid work as Milk’s longtime lover Scott Smith, though his part as written is so even-keeled that it doesn’t give the tack-sharp Franco any real chance to spread his glorious wings. His performance earlier this year in this summer's Pineapple Express is actually more a credit to his acting abilities than this one. Emile Hirsch gives the real scene-stealing performance as Cleve Jones—his frenetic energy onscreen is something to behold. Victor Garber also makes the most of his few scenes as Mayor George Moscone. The film is a visual marvel as well. There’s one scene of Dan White playing with his baby, seen only in the reflection of a television tuned to Harvey Milk speaking to a reporter, that easily ranks as one of the best shot scenes you’ll see all year. And Van Sant deftly weaves archival footage in among the movie scenes so seamlessly it’s not always possible to distinguish between the two.

For all Milk has going for it, however, there are a few flaws that keep it from outshining the other big ticket Oscar-baiting movies of the year. Many of the small, human moments are lost to the political machinations. There are two scenes of Milk speaking by telephone to a boy in a wheelchair. These scenes are stunning and let Milk the man connect with the audience in place of Milk the politico, who dominated the film. But these are only two brief scenes. Adding some similar interactions would have gone a long way towards giving some depth and variance to the story. Van Sant also underestimates the intelligence of his audience with several spoon-feeding gestures designed to deliver the message to audience members who were too busy texting to Get It. For example, there’s a ham-handed, blatantly foreshadowing scene early on with Harvey and Scott in bed, where Harvey says that he’s 40 and has never done anything important with his life, and wonders whether he’ll live to 50. Well, if you’ve seen any of the trailers you already know what part of that statement will be reversed and what part won’t. The scene itself is mostly forgivable, but what isn’t forgivable is Van Sant’s insistence upon rerunning the scene towards the end, as clearly the audience isn’t bright enough to make the connection between the end of the film and a scene from a whole hour and a half earlier.

But the one thing I can’t get past is the woman issue. Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg is asked to represent her entire gender, and while she certainly does an admirable job, the nearly complete lack of women in the film is absolutely unconscionable. I cannot fully respect a film that’s trying to make a statement about one marginalized minority that completely cuts out another. When Kronenberg, an out-and-proud lesbian, makes her grand entrance into Milk’s circle, the boys boo and hiss at the appearance of a woman, even if it’s a woman who is fighting the same exact fight they are, who as a fellow homosexual is every bit as discriminated against. When she says that rumor has it Milk’s boys hate women, only Harvey makes a transparently weak attempt to refute it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen lesbians pushed aside in favor of gay men when it comes to the gay rights movement and visibility. Listen, I’ve worked in theatre and I’ve worked in publishing/media. I’ve met no small amount of gay men in my life, enough to know that gay men do not conform to any specific, predictable pattern of behavior any more than do their straight counterparts. That being said, I have met a few that conform to the fun, bubbly stereotype of female-empowering, boob-grabbing, glittery balls of awesome. (And, confidential to straight men, if you ever want to have a bit of fun, go to a gay bar one night – if a straight woman’s in there accompanying her gay BFF for the night, you can usually grab her breasts and say all sorts of lewd things to her, and get nary a knee to the balls for it because we’ll just assume you’re one of the boys having fun!) But I’ve also met a few who conform to that other, less flattering stereotype – the gay men who are just hateful towards women (like Stylista’s DyShaun) and would be happier living in a vagina-free mantopia. Which is a ridiculous stance to take because there are plenty of hateful straight bigots who would love to live in a gay-free world – so I don’t understand how anyone who has been the subject of hate and prejudice could turn against another marginalized group in a similar way. I’m aware that I come from a position of relative privilege. I’m white, and I’m straight, and though my family is solidly working class with no completed college degrees on my father’s side, I clawed my way up into and out of a good school (with a mountain of debt to show for it) with the vague hope of getting some upward class mobility for myself, something I would not have even had the opportunity to do had my background been, say, solidly lower class. But I am trying to break into an industry that clearly favors the male gender. And while I haven’t been mutilated, forced to wear a burqa, or prevented from driving, I have been in situations where I was fully cognizant of the fact that I was being treated differently – often worse – solely because of how I was born. It wasn’t pleasant and it is not anything I would wish to turn on any other person who’s been made to feel less because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, or skin color. No movement for equality can effectively advance over the backs of others – that will only result in a lot of trampled bodies littering the ground while the majority remain the majority.

Milk comes close - very close - to being a great film. But with one entire half of the human population underrepresented, it’s only a good movie.


Sex Mahoney for President said...

Hypocrisy is what makes the world funny, without it, we'd have nothing but pie in the face gags.

Sex Mahoney for President

smd said...

Hey, don't disrespect the pie in the face gag. Why, in my day, to get a pie in the face we had to walk uphill in the snow, slipping on banana peels and puddles of seltzer water the whole way, and we did so gladly!