Thursday, January 08, 2009
The Triumph of "Milk"
I was apprehensive about seeing the Harvey Milk biopic because Hollywood movies never get it right, even when the subject is contemporary, let alone when dealing with a time and place 30 years ago. So imagine my shock at being thrown down a time wormhole, because Gus Van Sant and his crew perfectly captured the look and feel of San Francisco in the 1970s.
The brilliantly written film is basically telling two intertwined stories. The first is about a man in New York who turns 40 and realizes he hasn't done a single memorable or important thing in his life, so he runs off with a younger hippy lover to San Francisco to reinvent himself. In the ensuing eight years, before his assassination, he more than makes up for that lost time.
The other narrative is about a moment in time when the modern gay rights movement was born. The extraordinary credit sequence shows footage of men hiding their faces with their arms while being arrested by police at bars for the simple crime of being homosexuals in a public place. The ensuing film is what happens when tens of thousands of young gay people in San Francisco refuse to be ashamed and fight back.
Much of the first half of the movie is one damned march from the Castro neighborhood down Market Street to City Hall over one issue after another, from Anita Bryant to the Briggs Initiative, and even though I participated in virtually every one of them as a 20-year-old wild thing, I had forgotten most of them. A recurring joke with my friend Lee Brenneman was, "We're not marching down Market Street AGAIN, are we?"
The look of the film is a perfect replica of cruddy 1970s art films, with their cold lighting and bleached out color, which makes for seamless transitions with archival footage but which also captures a scuzzy side of San Francisco that's not usually shown on film. Besides astonishing performances by all the lead actors, there are felicities sprinkled throughout, such as the unkind caricatures of rich "A-gays" like David Ehrenstein and Rick Stokes and the sympathetic characterizations of everybody from George Moscone to Milk's needy Mexican lover who drives everyone insane.
Best of all, the odious Dianne Feinstein is shown giving her famous press conference announcement of the assassinations of Moscone and Milk, but for the rest of the film she's an offscreen character. "Not now, Dianne" is what Dan White says to her as he passes through her office on his way to murder Harvey Milk.
The movie was so scrupulous about the look of its locations that I was surprised at the depiction of the eleven Board of Supervisors' offices as a rabbit warren where everybody's doors opened into their neighbors' offices. I went to City Hall yesterday and asked a couple of aides in Dufty's offices if the depiction was true, and one of them confirmed it was. "You can thank Willie Brown for these large Supervisors' offices," the aide told me with a bit of a sneering tone, and I countered with, "Actually, YOU can thank Willie. You work here, not me."
Many people get stuck in time, at some point in their past, but that's not really an option for me because there are literally too many ghosts there, so watching this movie was something of a wrenching experience. The stories it tells, though, are profoundly hopeful, and I can't thank Van Sant and his crew enough. My Lost Youth has been memorialized right.