(2008) dir. Gus Van Sant
viewed: 12/02/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
Such a strange experience, but probably the most ideal, to watch Gus Van Sant’s biographical story of Harvey Milk, “the mayor of Castro Street”, the first openly gay person elected to a prominent political position, and strong gay rights advocate, here, in the Castro Theatre, right where all the events took place and were even filmed just earlier this year. Strange to walk outside and be in the location of the film, of the story, of the events. This is very much a story of San Francisco, of the city in change, of culture on a brink, and it’s quite moving.
When I first started coming to San Francisco, in 1987, I knew very little of it. I knew the Haight, Chinatown, the Wharf, and I heard of the Castro and Polk Street from an older relative, who is openly gay, who had lived in the Bay Area for many years. When I moved to the city in December 1990, I think I knew little of the story, though quickly became familiar with some of the facts and the prominence of Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, who were both assassinated by Dan White, the cruel tragedy that is the film’s story. The whole of the city’s history interested me, still does, its many aspects, periods, historical significances, but how much of the story I knew was probably fairly basic. I think I’d seen a local PBS program or something.
Gus Van Sant’s film is a solid bio-pic, a shift to a more traditional narrative form from his recent lower-profile films in which he seems to have rediscovered himself as a director. Personally, overall, I prefer Paranoid Park (2007), which I saw earlier this year, a more free associative path to narration, story, music, consciousness. In Milk, there are moments of this more stream-of-conscienceness, but mostly the film follows the narration of a tape that Harvey Milk recorded (in case of his assassination), that tells the story, sets the framework, and works its way out through its accompishments and ultimate finish. It’s a much more solid film than, say James Mangold’s Johnny Cash film, Walk the Line (2005), and really it’s much more than that too. It’s a polemical film, meant to reignite the recognition of the struggle for equal rights.
So, not only was there a surreal quality of living within the city and space of the film, but the film echos loudly with the present, namely the propositions passed in California and other states that have taken away the rights for those other than heterosexuals to marry. One of Milk’s great fights, early in the Gay Rights movement, was to battle against Proposition 6, which would have allowed people to discriminate against people based on their sexural orientation. While the film was made to be released on the 30th anniversary of Milk and Moscone’s slayings, it’s also in step with the elections and the ongoing issues that persist in society today. Van Sant, like others, envision Harvey Milk as a martyr for the cause of Equal Rights, and the story is compelling. It’s quite effecting.
All of the cast is quite good, namely Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, but also James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin, as well. It’s Oscar fodder, and I think a lot of those who try to pick the winners in that contest have already listed it likely for Best Picture, Best Actor, and perhaps Best Supporting Actor. And this is part of the politics of the film. The more prominent it is, the more it plays in megaplexes all across America, not just in its hometown that is already sympathetic and familiar with the story. Like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), the film is about telling this story to the world at large, spreading a message, or at least trying to effect people who may not be in agreement with the issues.
We’ll see how that goes. I have my views and hopes about equal rights for all people. They are probably fairly obvious from my writings here.
One other thing that struck me about the film, which was interesting, perhaps only on a much more local level, is the portrait of San Francisco in the early 1970’s with Harvey Milk moved into the Castro. It was a city in transition (which it seems to perpetually be), but one in which the neighborhoods that were typically working class and unique by the national backgrounds of the people who had come a generation or two before. The mixture of the hippies and the burst of the Gay rights movement were a shock and a change to a city that perhaps at the time more resembled Middle America far more than today. And this is the embodiment of Dan White, a representative of a conservative and traditional Irish Catholic background in the face (and Harvey Milk was the face) of the Gay movement at the time. It was a crossroads of traditional to the modern and new. And it didn’t have to turn tragic. White clearly suffered from some forms of mental illness, either depression or something else, motivated by his comrpomised position, he acted out in hate.
These worlds are still here in San Francisco, though perhaps at different levels and contrasts and lots more in between and beyond. The city fascinates me with its history and its beauty, and I see that the evolution is ongoing and complicated. The bar that I frequent is largely a working class bar, with a lot of Irish or Italian Catholic folks. It’s a city of diversity, very much so. So, it was an interesting aspect of the film for me, an interesting perspective into a history not so far before I came here. The city has changed in my years here and is in constant flux and evolution, even as I write. This film, which is about clearly much more than San Francisco, is also very much a film about this town and about some amazing and horrible things that evolved here.