Whenever I woke briefly last night to turn over or to move a dog, the dreams that I was in the middle of were those of loss and impermanence. I don’t recall a particular event, just the general feeling of sadness over the transitory nature of good people and good relationships.
They were dreams and emotions that were more common in my life 20 years ago, and I know where they came from.
That’s an odd take away from that primary political story.
Yet, Milk opened up so much emotion — so much grand personal and political political passion which resonates and reverberates with the same intensive, frequency, and harmonics as Harvey caused 30 years ago — that I understand that my dreams focused on a containable, bite-sized personal loss. My subconscious pared down the grand civil rights, political justice, coming-of-age gay rights themes down to a digestible bit.
Is Milk that great a movie?
I think it might be.
I’m leery of my own judgment because of the lure of tribal solidarity in the story of Harvey Milk. Then there’s the cast of San Francisco characters, the City shots, and even the memories of the filming of the movie last spring. They all add to the mistrust of my own feelings of having watched an excellent intellectual and emotional story told with perfect stagecraft.
But, at least for now, until sane cynicism returns, I believe that Milk is a powerful, important, entertaining, and meaningful film. No, it’s not “good for you” cinematic medicine. Rather it’s a dangerously alive piece of art.
Writer Dustin Lance Black and Director Gus Van Sant must earn the highest credit because the scenes and performances are uniformly excellent. There’s not a stand-out star or redeeming scene: the pieces and the whole are brilliant. The pace lags at first, picks up, quickens, and becomes taut by the end. The audience is captured by it. We know how the saga ends, yet there were very audible, very shocked gasps of surprise as the bullets are fired. We were treated to good dramatic technique in addition to the underlying power of the story.
The actors’ performance were inspired and without a flaw. Sean Penn’s Milk, Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones, Alison Pill’s Anne Kronenberg, James Franco’s Scott Smith, and on and on… they were real people that fit in and moved the story along. I’m not sure that Sean had to be made up to look like Harvey, Emile like Cleve, Alison like Anne and so on. The story would have worked without having replicated the looks and mannerisms and speech cadence. But, oh my! These actors turned in a world-class job of mimicry in addition to delivering their characters’ lines.
Harvey’s liberation message, his call to action, remain achingly clear and important.
There’s a scene when Supervisor Milk meets with the mainline gay strategists on how to fight the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, which would have banned gay people and those who supported their civil rights from teaching in the schools. In the movie, Harvey looks at the proposed campaign materials drafted by the cautious, “good gays”. He trashes the flier because he says it talks about abstract rights and fairness without ever putting a face to us. He wants one at least old queen to be pictured so that the public knows who Prop 6 is aimed at. Harvey wrested leadership for No on 6 from the “moderates”. Prop 6, originally supported by 80%, lost on election day by over a million votes statewide.
Why didn’t Milk come out before this last election? Would Prop 8 still have passed? Or, at least would the No on 8 leaders run a different campaign?
This movie, allegedly a biopic about a city official who died 30 years ago, unhappily talks directly to our world and issues. The struggle, the people, the issues in Milk are still immediate. The crafting and execution of this story is stunning.
P.S. Milk is playing for five weeks at the Castro Theater in San Francisco which also is featured in some of the scenes. The large theater, filled with neighborhood people — some of whom who experienced Harvey first hand, is the place to see it. Tickets are readily available and can be purchased online.