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.


Greg said...

I too was a bit ambivalent about seeing the movie. I remember seeing "The Times of Harvey Milk" when it came out in the 80s and recently saw it again (it's online free at I kept wondering if they'd make SF out to be something it wasn't but they didn't and it was pretty good.

The thing that was kind of sad though was how really, someone like Harvey couldn't happen today. There are no "cheap" areas where activist types can live in SF anymore, and the economy doesn't have the kinds of jobs that allow people to put a roof over their head and do activism like back then.

Now everything's "upscale" and a branding opportunity for Budweiser, the GAP and so on. But that all said, movies like Milk remind us that we can do something about our circumstances, no matter how impossible they may seem.

momo said...

Thanks for posting this. I was wondering what your take on it would be. I was living in Berkeley at the time, and not living the events as up close and personally, but the movie resonated with my more general memories of the time and events.

Nancy Ewart said...

I haven't gotten up the courage to watch it. I worked at Davies Medical Center during the height of the AIDS plague and just thinking about all that has been lost - the energy and optimism and beauty - makes me very teary. I remember Harvey standing on street corners with his signs and his grass roots campaigns. I wasn't involved in anything because work and school took all my energy but I remember my horror at his death. Sometimes I just feel like I've attended too many funerals, you know?

Matthew Hubbard said...

I enjoyed the film, and in one way I found it unique. When they showed pictures of the people portrayed, many of the real people were MUCH prettier than the respective actors. That never happens except in movies about Hollywood stars, where an actress playing Lana Turner or Marilyn Monroe isn't quite up to the standard set by the original.

Civic Center said...

Dear Matty: Good observation, though Scott Smith was definitely not as pretty as James Franco (not many people are).

Dear Nancy: It's basically an optimistic film, even with all the ghosts. You should definitely check it out.

RubeBard said...

As I recall, you were known as Jake and described yourself as a Free-spirited San Francisco Madcap. I often think of (and miss)all the funny, brilliant, talented people who supported themselves as temporary office workers in corporate law firms - I think that is how I met you!

Civic Center said...

Dear Rube: If you're the same Rube I think you are, we met at a temp job doing inventory at I. Magnin's (now Macy's) on Union Square, giggling at the overpriced handbags.

Sibyl said...

Thanks for posting your take. I have been deeply ambivalent as I want to see the movie and I want to see the people and times done justice. I have heretofore had no respect for Sean Penn and little for Van Sant, so I was really worried. If you can be positive about it, maybe I can (I can trust you over those guys any day).

Civic Center said...

Dear Sibyl: This is probably Van Sant's best movie since "Drugstore Cowboy" back in the 1980s and though Sean Penn doesn't do usually do much for me, this role brings out the best in him as an actor. He seems genuinely likeable and filled with humor.

janinsanfran said...

Dear Mike: I am so glad you liked it too. It made me remember what it felt like to be young and hopeful. That's pretty wonderful.

I have just spent a weekend with some 400 young gays who are trying to find themselves despite coming from very hostile Christian backgrounds. They are finding their own way to peace, but they sure aren't experiencing the rush of joy some of us got to feel at the birth of an alternative culture.

Greg said...

all that said, hell it was one hell of a film..the actors and director and writer have a lighter lit because they rock!

More to the point, it captures an era, and a time in SF when you really COULD do the activism thing and not have to sell your soul to The Man and Web 2.0.

What bugs me most about "today's SF" is that while people talk about "losing" artists and whatnot, the fact is that Willie Brown and his cabal did the damage.