Sunday, December 14, 2008


Okay, let’s try this again - and see if we can keep from ranting against the anti-gay crowd. I didn’t have much luck with that in my first attempt to formulate some remarks about the new Sean Penn movie, Milk. Penn plays the title character, Harvey Milk, a gay-rights activist who moved from New York to San Francisco and wound up becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States in 1977. He held the post for less than a year before he was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco at the time, by fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).

While he was on the board of supervisors, Milk worked to get a local gay rights ordinance passed and was instrumental in the defeat of an ugly statewide ballot measure that would have required that all gay teachers be fired for their gayness. The measure would even have required that anyone - teacher or otherwise - employed by the public school system in California be fired for nothing more than supporting gay rights. And this was in California, just thirty years ago. Think undoing the massive damage done by King George II and Darth Cheney is a monumental task? How about undoing the damage done by religious conservatives and the impotent Republican windsocks (paging Mike Pence) they’ve hijacked over the years since some inbred idiot decided that anything Jerry Falwell said was remotely relevant? Now there’s a quest.

Damn. There I go again. Must stay on message.

I’m really not all that far off, though. This movie is about a specific period of time in the life of Harvey Milk, but it does more than just talk about this one man. We see what’s going on in the burgeoning gay-rights mecca of San Francisco, but there is plenty of stock footage of news reports and more impotent windsocks - in this case the repugnantly self-righteous rhymes-with-bunt Anita Bryant, a fundamentalist Christian (surprise!) who seemed to get a big kick out of fellating microphones with her goofy anti-gay hate speech - that places the importance of Milk’s work in San Francisco within the larger context of an ignorant white America slo-o-o-wly beginning to understand that you don’t have to be afraid of people just because they are different than you.

This kind of ignorant fear is not easily overcome. Americans are lazy and stupid, they believe what they’re told, and they are resistant to change. (Throw in some red-white-and-blue xenophobia and a strangely non-Republican anti-capitalistic fear of competition, and you have a solid, if somewhat simplified, explanation of why GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the UAW are fucked.) Harvey Milk was over the top, he was obnoxious, he was even - wait for it - brash; but that’s the kind of passion and energy it takes to mobilize the sedentary doltdom that became the American electorate in the post-war years when this country became “detached and subdivided in the mass production zone.”

“Nowhere is the dreamer - or the misfit - so alone.”

Sean Penn lights up the character of Harvey Milk. Though he sometimes comes across as dark and brooding, Penn is one of the more expressive actors working today. He has an enormous range of both motion and emotion, and a way of using facial expressions to show you the things his characters see, not just the things they’re looking at. (That sounded better in my head, I think, than it does on paper. I’m not actually writing on paper, but you get what I mean. Right?) I don’t know if the real Harvey Milk did as good a job as Penn’s version of him at restraining himself from anger and violence and personal attacks against those who persecuted him, but Penn’s version of him is an almost perfect example of the “turn the other cheek” lesson. Probably this is no artistic accident or coincidence, since it does such a good job of subverting religion - the perverted faggot sinner is the one who turns the other cheek, while it’s the do-gooder fundamentalists who clearly have no concept of the “love thy neighbor” bit. How could they? They try to be morally upright Old Testament Christians - except that there is no such thing as Old Testament Christians; the concept is a self-righteous affectation.

Josh Brolin also does a great job playing Dan White, Milk’s fellow city supervisor, who winds up assassinating Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Brolin has the facial expressions down, too, though his expressive manner doesn’t hold a candle to Penn, who has been a consummate actor for a long tme. The best that can be said about Brolin is that he’s come a long way from Best Laid Plans. It’s no secret that White offs Milk, so there’s no real plot spoilage by mentioning this. Rather, that knowledge allows us to see Brolin’s performance through the lens of fatalism - knowing that he is eventually going to kill Milk allows us to use that knowledge as a point of reference as we watch the character of White develop. There is more going on with Dan White than just homophobia - though there is that (he’s conservative, after all - we can’t give those yo-yos too much credit) - and it is Milk’s success as a supervisor contrasted with White’s failures (the two are often interrelated) that provides the catalyst for all of the combustible issues pulling at White’s heart and mind.

In a lot of ways, Milk is a set piece to showcase the talents of Sean Penn - in much the same way that There Will Be Blood was a set piece for Daniel Day-Lewis (though Blood is superior to Milk, as is Day-Lewis’ performance to Penn’s); but it works as a whole because of the mostly seamless integration of stock footage from the seventies with the film footage they shot in the present day. The photography is not good, but the weaving of real life to fictional biopic lends the film a documentary feel that fictional films tend to lack - while also lending drama to real life events that documentaries often lack (the delightful Man On Wire is a rare exception to the latter).

As has elsewhere been written, the release of Milk is timely because of the national prominence of the issue of gay marriage, and the recent passage of the illegal and discriminatory Proposition 8, banning gay marriage in - of all places - California. It is noted more than once in the fillm that people are more likely to vote for a gay person - and support gay rights - if they know a gay person. I think that this is true - actually, I know it’s true. The more you’re exposed to something, the more comfortable you are with it. Americans have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to change (the election of Barack Obama notwithstanding), only to discover - undoubtedly to their chagrin - that change isn’t such a bad thing at all. The best thing about the film Milk is how well it illustrates that this concept works.