Thursday, December 18, 2008

Skimming Milk

Sean Penn wants to recruit us in Gus Van Sant's Milk.

It's hard for a gay man like me to criticize Milk, because in so many ways it's precisely the movie gay folks have always wanted Hollywood to produce: a major release, with a major star, about a gay hero who is celebrated (if not actually hagio-grified). Gay life is portrayed with basic honesty - genital warts and all - and what's more, all this has been done in the middle of a political controversy (around Prop. 8) that actually mirrors one of the central controversies of the film (around Prop. 6). There's even a straight hunk (James Franco) wandering around wearing a porn-star moustache and sometimes not much more.

But I'm afraid I'm going to try to criticize Milk anyway. After all, isn't that the final step forward, when we can treat pro-gay material just as we treat everything else (and no, I don't mean "critique" in the transparently homophobic manner of say, Gene Siskel)? And the truth is that Milk is - well - sometimes rather thin milk, especially given the evident richness, both emotional and dramatic, of the life it sets before us.

In purely political terms, however, Milk could hardly be more fortified - tellingly, it even toes a line between drama and documentary. Director Gus Van Sant opens his movie with grainy film from the 60's of gay men being rounded up and arrested for the simple crime of being who they were - a mute testament to the progress gay people have already seen in this country. And the director, who often tends to noodle around like an art school grad student, continues to play with film stocks and archival footage to keep that conceptual boundary blurry. He even closes the film with a scene from the excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (and, if memory serves, borrows its framing device, too).

Likewise the most interesting aspect of the film's narrative is its "yes-we-can!" political documentation - how transplanted New Yawker Harvey Milk gained a foothold in the San Francisco power structure by striking a deal with the Teamsters, how a re-definition of local election rules worked in his favor, and, most surprisingly, how many times he was met with political defeat before he was finally elected a City Supervisor. That's not even mentioning, however, the film's most powerful political content - the nearly-eerie parallel between Anita Bryant's Prop. 6 (which would have banned gay men and women from teaching school) and the Mormon-Catholic Prop. 8 (which unlike Prop. 6, squeaked by with the voters); over and over again, it seems, crypto-religious nutjobs have come out of the woodwork to insist on bigotry as their mission from God. What this behavior "means" I leave to psychologists; but something tells me it will be supplying the backbone of plenty of movies for years to come.

And - dare I say it? - somewhere in the deep background of the movie's climax (Milk's assassination by fellow supervisor Dan White) there's even the shadow of progressive America's greatest nightmare: that out there on the fringe of the grid somewhere, Obama's own Dan White is waiting. Assassination in America, after all, is merely politics (usually conservative politics) by other means!

Or maybe I ought to say that shadow should be moving in the movie's deep background; actually, it's not. Indeed, there's not much in the way of America's angrier passions shadowing this movie at all - or, to be honest (and here's the rub) much real passion of any sort. It's hard to sense from Milk the crazy, scary elation that the sexual liberation of San Francisco (and to a lesser extent the rest of the country) meant at the time (simply compare Milk to, say, Dirty Harry or even What's Up Doc? and you'll see what I mean). Even though director Van Sant is old enough to have lived through the period (his screenwriter isn't), he misses its zeitgeist entirely, but instead conjures the far less-threatening millennial atmosphere of fetish operating under market controls, and progressivism as a mode of careerism. In Milk, the characters' political actions grow directly out of their sexual actions - which seems really cool until you begin to ponder what such an equivalence might iron out of everyone's lives. And at any rate, this isn't how politics or sex felt in the 70s at all - not at all, not at all; indeed, Milk does for seventies sex what Almost Famous did for seventies rock - it meticulously builds a physical recreation of its subject, then overlays it with a comforting contemporary mindset that smothers the meaning of that re-creation.

Perhaps, of course, that's what every movie about the past has always done, but somehow I'm not so sure. Perhaps The Godfather misrepresented the late 40's, and maybe American Graffiti distorted the late 50's - only I recall clearly that at the time, older folks didn't seem to feel that way. But more and more I hear moviegoers of a certain age protesting that the newer period films (or series like Mad Men) don't get the "vibe" of their supposed mise-en-scène at all - and tellingly, these pieces' greatest fans tend to be twenty-somethings, who really couldn't know any better.

But back to Milk, in which this passion gap clearly undercuts the power of the climax. For without the dark side of the zeitgeist, Milk's assassin, Dan White (Josh Brolin), is merely a cipher, and his suicidal lover, merely an anomaly. The movie makes gestures toward these figures - I sensed half-hearted hints of "repressed homosexuality" in Brolin's performance - but can't really engage with them, because these strange dudes just don't "get" it in millennial terms. And yet to understand the 70s - or even the real America of today - I'd argue you have to "get" them.

Still, it would be unfair to pretend that Milk isn't worth seeing despite these caveats. Even with its zen conceptualism, and the gaps in the script by Dustin Lance Black (who pops up in the movie), Milk is always thoughtful and often absorbing, thanks largely to the nearly flawless acting of its committed ensemble. Top acting honors, of course, should go to Sean Penn, who once again grandstands in a beautifully naturalistic manner; he's unafraid to milk Milk's essential showman- and sales-manship (his signature line, which is essentially that of all salesmen, was "I want to recruit you!"), nor his seductively mixed persona of sweet, bashful hustler; you can actually believe this plain Jane could talk James Franco (above left) into bed with him. By now, of course, Penn is the pre-eminent film actor of his generation - with more great performances (almost in a row) than virtually any other working actor can claim; and Milk is yet another feather in an already-studded artistic cap. Meanwhile James Franco is sweetly affecting as the boyfriend who finally has enough of the political rat race, and there are distinctive, assured turns in sometimes tricky roles from Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and Diego Luna. I'm often struck by the way film actors so often come through - they're really the last bastion of artistic quality in Hollywood (where I can't think, off-hand, of a successful director with the mojo of Penn, for instance). And many of our most "interesting" mainstream films are made not because of the patronage of Harvey Weinstein or some other producer, but because a name actor is intrigued by the project and attaches his or her name to it. So here's to the artists whom we're all still milking for whatever quality this benighted industry can still supply.

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