Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Milk (2008)

Gus Van Sant's Milk opens with grainy, black-and-white footage from the 1970s representing what Van Sant emphasizes as oppression and turmoil: raids of bars frequented by homosexuals, thuggish police harassment and brutality of homosexuals, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black opine was a societally deleterious aspect of that time period. Where the film goes awry, however, is startlingly immediately thereafter: where it chooses to begin its character arc of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). It is the day of his fortieth birthday in 1970. The camera, sedate--but not overtly so, as in Van Sant's oneiric arthouse pictures like Elephant and Paranoid Park--calmly follows Penn's Milk as he walks down the steps in the New York City subway environs. Who is this man? Where does he come from? What drives him? What kind of life has he led? By choosing this moment as the narrative's jumping off point, the film miscalculates. Milk is a businessman, dressing conservatively and is just stepping out of the proverbial closet with regards to his homosexual proclivities. He picks up a younger man named Scott Smith (James Franco) on the steps to the subway. Seconds later, abed eating a birthday cake with one another, Smith tells Milk that the newly-forty-year-old businessman needs a change, a “new scene.” And so they depart for San Francisco, set up a camera shop on Castro Street and briefly live a quiet, uncontroversial life despite their “lifestyle.”

Where the film gradually finds its footing, then, is not in the unadorned interior lives of Milk and Smith, but a little later when the screenplay highlights one political confrontation after another. Yet this admittedly engaging drama whose configuration is derived from one a series of sociopolitical contests, debates and manipulations, cannot grow independently from its roots. Those roots are in no small part faulty—because the film's mistaken point of beginning undermines the stakes about which almost all of the characters ceaselessly speak. Without providing the contextual foundation from which Milk could have become a possibly great and important film. Namely, where did Milk truly come from before finding Smith, and his new life and new cause (he occasionally talks about his—obviously?—heterosexual parents and both the impact and lack thereof they had on his life); how did he live with himself as a closeted gay man? (Smith confronts Milk much later in the film when the San Francisco political avatar devises the game plan of having homosexuals tell everyone they know, and, perhaps most importantly, everyone who knows them, about their sexuality, about the hypocrisy of the formerly closeted Milk almost demanding widespread self-outing of his followers to all, including their family members.) What demons did Milk have to live with, having endured several different past lovers whose experiences with him were marred by suicidal tendencies? (He once vocally blames himself for this, deriding his own past closeted existence and unwillingness to be entirely emotionally available in his relationships.) How did Milk's past truly influence his—in the context of the film's narrative—“present”? (Milk suggests to his San Francisco Supervisor staffers that he detects a fear from fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White that indicates he's living a lie as Milk had: “I know what it's like to live that life, that lie. I can see it in Dan's eyes.”)

Honestly, it is only commendable and chiefly a testament to one of Penn's finest performances, marked by almost compulsive magnetism, that the film manages to be as successful as it is in its stirring of interest in the political gamesmanship and electorally internecine wars it depicts from such an unwieldy provenance. It is here where Milk rallies back. At the forty-five minute mark Dan White (Josh Brolin, yet again exceptionally deepening a highly difficult, challenging but meaty role) enters, and in many ways the film becomes a morality play, with the traditionalist White willing to play ball with Milk in exchange for certain beneficial helpings of political back-scratching. Indeed, one attribute the film boasts is the trajectory on which potential back-scratching quickly becomes back-stabbing. Brolin's sensitivity and euphoniously calibrated vocal pattterns stitches together an identifiably human curvature. Brolin's White behaves in a manner that would not be inappropriate for the older, faintly more volatile older brother of Milk, frequently reaching the limits of his patience with the fellow supervisor. A scene set in a Catholic Church, with White's son being christened, allows not merely the integuments of cross-cultural fracases formed not necessarily out of mere, easily-dismissed and overused broad brushes of “ignorance” and “bigotry” but orthodoxy spanning millennia. It is a fairly well-rounded scene, though Van Sant's insistence of making White's wife sound shrewish when she questions the propriety of discussing matters pertinent to the homosexual movement inside the church detracts a little from the crystallizing portraiture of men of different backgrounds and beliefs briefly working together.

Milk was known as a singularly happy man, always beaming, his smile an open invitation to join in the apparent fun. Judging by multiple real-life sources and witnesses, this exterior matched the reality, as Milk was primarily a content and quite well-adjusted individual (upending the ironic stereotype of the “angry gay activist”). Van Sant's picture delivers with anomalous intensity a political statement, as elemental as the fierce subliminal connection between the titular MILK and its undeniable cryptographic summoning of the similar MLK. Milk is presented as political activist and leader to the extent to which it becomes confinement for the man as film character. However, having opted for this trenchant but not truly didactically reductive course of storytelling, Van Sant makes the political as personal as he probably believes he can get away in a film whose framework is not unfamiliar.

The wonted structure of the “bio-pic,” as such, then, must finally be viewed through the prism of the picture's success quotient. Harry Savides, whose cinematography for last year's Zodiac ably captured an era in San Francisco returns to the city, this time working with greater attention to detail derived from Van Sant's recurring use of stock footage from the time period. Franco is able to transcend his role as Milk's lover, supporter and emotionally taxed anchor. Think of any film with the devoted wife driven away from her crusading husband and the dichotomy becomes instantly comprehended. Diego Luna, who plays Milk's rebound partner after Smith finally leaves him, is not given the opportunity to afford his part much in the way of depth. Brolin's turn is also limited but quite impressively enlivened by an actor visibly hungry for his next dauntingly stimulating role. Emile Hersch is wonderfully unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, a homosexual youth who finds newfound inspiration in Milk. And Penn is dominant without being preeminent; his frequent laughs, grins and eye-twinkling compliments to friends and foes alike make his characterization entirely winning. It is unmistakably the performance that rightly vehiculates the film's very heart, carrying a kind of torch the viewer periodically must struggle to follow amidst the multitudinous strands of political intrigue and electoral battle.

One intriguing avenue on which to experience Milk is the connective tissue that may or may not exist between the narrative's depiction of heated political trickery and manipulation and the filmic layers of trickery and manipulation artists such as Van Sant are inclined to employ. On one night of great importance, Milk devises a plan to have Jones instigate something nearing a riot in the Castro District of San Francisco, only to intervene and stop the “show-riot” from genuinely occurring. Likewise, Van Sant's manipulative gestures are finally made overwrought in the final stretch of the movie, most especially in the assassination of Milk. Having enjoyed Tosca and hearing the fat lady sing, so too does the openly gay city supervisor kneel, his face reflected in the window through which he can see the San Francisco Opera House, which is indeed across the long street of Van Ness from City Hall. What should be mercilessly fast is made angelically slow. Nevertheless, Penn's final piece of facial movement is a sight to behold, just as is his entire leading turn. Whether or not Van Sant—steeped as he is in the vagaries of independent, artsy cinema—is making a direct comment about such mainstream inclinations or submitting to them, one cannot be definitely certain.

Milk deserves credit for other, more utilitarian benefits. In an era imbued with fixation upon the national and global, this film reels the audience's potentially jumbled conception of political advocacy and activism too often overlooks the basic, often unsexy but typically more valuable playing field of locality and almost parochial grassroots concern. Milk values such strides, and keenly draws the attention of those determined to change things to look back on their own turf, so to speak—their own haunts, their own backyard. Whether it be a boycott of Coors or initiatives that spring from the polis, what Milk demonstrably showcases is the vitality of local governance. That does not mean that even at such territorial settings politics is a clean business. Powerful machines, such as one which Milk targets, aim to remain politically unassailable. Machiavellian strategies and rigorously taut compromises are normally a necessity. And alliances are fragile. One such case: Penn, star of this film, attacked by the homosexual The Advocate for his support of Venezuelan leftist Hugo Chavez, whose rule in Caracas has been partly characterized by repression of homosexuals. Milk is buoyed by its several key performances, but its realism in the realm of the political deserves special kudos.


Anonymous said...

I will have to say about this impressive looking review later today. As I saw both MILK and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE again last night at a local multiplex with Allan Fish, (who had seen neither) this review is timely. I had reviewed it as well, but as the film held up quite well on repeat viewing, I will greatly appreciate Alexander's typically exhaustive prospective.

Anonymous said...

I had problems with Milk, Alexander, it felt rather like lee's Malcolm X, a personal project where the stunning lead performance dwarfed all. Excellent piece.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, Sam, I look forward to your thoughts.

Allan, I agree with you, in that I too "had problems with" Milk. Ultimately the lead performance does dwarf all else in many ways, and the Malcolm X comparison makes a great deal of sense.

It's great that that you two gentlemen saw this and Slumdog Millionaire last night out on the town! That makes this review quite timely indeed.

Daniel said...

"Who is this man? Where does he come from? What drives him? What kind of life has he led?"

Those were all questions I had before and, unfortunately, AFTER the movie. We've been over this at mine and Sam's place - ultimately the movie is about the movement and not the man. Which is ironic in yours and Allan's analysis of Penn's presence, I suppose!

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Very true, Daniel. It's a frustrating film in a number of ways. (I'll have to pursue your review whenever I get an opportunity; it's the next review on the Internet I'm determined to read.)

I believe that some of my appreciation for Penn's performance stems from the very adversity against which he strives. As I say in my review, it's truly a testament chiefly to him as an actor that the film remains as engaging as it does.

I let the film off on its weaving of the political dimension that carries the movie's narrative so dominantly. However, there were times where Van Sant's use of stock footage, especially of those in opposition to Milk (and chiefly Anita Bryant) made the film come off as almost a political Lord of the Rings, with Bryant's countenance on television made out to be the giant eye of Sauron gazing outward towards all of Middle Earth and even the Shire (San Francisco's Castro District?).

It's a highly difficult balancing act, but the only person on "the other side" given much in the way of dramatic empathy is Josh Brolin's Dan White. I realize that becoming altogether more ambitious in this regard would very likely result in a 3.5-hour long film, though.

The most troubling problem is the unfortunate reality that the film is indeed about the movement the man represents much more than an in-depth character study of the man. Very well put, my blogging brethren.

Anonymous said...

Very good review. I agree with alot of it. But you really come down too easy on the bigots. I dont get it.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, Vanessa.

The point about "the bigots" is interesting. For some reason, in the last several hours, I've probably read more professional and blogging reviews of Milk than any other film from this year. (The truth is, I barely read the pro critics. Shh, don't tell anyone.) And, in the case of about 90% of the reviews, I've found myself at least a little flummoxed by some of the borderline vitriol being dished out vis-a-vis "the bigots." I understand the passion this issue conjures, especially most recently, but in certain instances people can actually be responsible for a cyclical reversal of sorts in terms of negative identity grouping terminology. It's a bit like tarring anyone who disagrees on heated matters as "the other," which leads to a fundamental lack of empathy on both sides of whatever struggle is at hand.

Concerning marriage, it's a matter best left to private institutions/churches, etc., in any event. And one of the lessons Milk actually bestows is that aggressive and unrealistic measures (whether it be the historic Proposition 6, which lost after Governor Ronald Reagan actively and openly opposed it or the Bush administration's laughable vote-lure device of talking about a Constitutional amendment against homosexual marriage) typically result in greater long-term victories for the opposing team.

And in terms of the film itself, I found the empathetic treatment of Brolin's Dan White to often be the film's most rawly arresting supporting anchor behind Penn's Milk. The accurate circumstances of Milk's murder indeed had more to do with City Hall political machinations boiling over into unreasoned violence than a death like MLK, Jr.'s murder, for instance, which correctly took on an immediately more greatly tumultuous context.

Anonymous said...

This review makes me want to see the movie. While I see you have problems with the movie, your review gives enough positive aspects to it that I think I'll be able to enjoy those aspects with a little lowered expectations.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

You should give it a try, mc. Thanks for stopping by and commenting again.

Joel Bocko said...

Wonderfully erudite review - though I fundamentally disagree about your (and others' criticism) of the film for starting in medias res. I don't think we needed to see Milk's years in the closet; they were a palpable enough presence in Penn's performance, his first appearance, and by proxy in the lives of others who are similarly repressed and uneasy.

I also found, as you did, the relationship between Milk and White to be quite compelling, perhaps the most compelling element of the film - though I think it's more compelling if you DON'T buy the White-as-homosexual subtext which to my thinking is a bit too pat and easy. I prefer to think of them as outsiders for different, even contradictory, reasons.

My own extended reaction to the film is here:

As for your follow-up comments, Alexander, I love the comparison of Bryant to the eye of Sauron, though this actually makes me like Van Sant's strategem more, not less.

And we appear to be entirely simpatico when it comes to the Prop 6/Prop 8 analogies and the resultant vitriol. 1) Yes, marriage should be left to private institutions and individuals to define (though I would add that since legal marriage does exist and isn't going away, it makes sense to expand the institution to include gay couples, though it's important to note that this decision must be actively made and does not AUTOMATICALLY FOLLOW from the inherent definition of marriage). 2) The vitriol is objectionable on both moral and practical grounds. First, because it does exactly what you say it does, and risks being noxiously self-righteous to boot. Second, because it's entirely misguided - the key to Prop 6's passage was probably not angry gays marching in the street, but the Gipper stepping in to say, "Gays are OK."

I would also add that there's some hypocrisy involved in targetting the easily maligned Mormons for political retribution when it appears that Obama voters provided the crucial contingent, particularly within minority communities.

Anonymous said...

I must say that Movie Man does make a lot of sense in his extended response to your review, in that we really do not need to see or be informed of Milk's years in the closet, and that yes, we did get sufficient information in that opening scene and afterwards. This ties in to the "questions" that Dan Getahun had in contesting the inability of Gus Van Sant to explore the psychological aspects of Milk, who as we all agreed here was presently more as a symbol of a movement, rather than a flesh and blood person. But on the other hand we must really ask ourselves if such a broader approach might have taken away from the way the film was ultimately presented. In regards to this, I'm now inclined to believe that you can't have your cake and eat it. Even with this metaphorical personal conscription, the film was undeniably moving and impressively crafted. With Van Sant at teh helm, there was no shortage of kissing and intimacy, and these elements didn't short shrift Milk's upfront personal life. Yet I know danny and you bemoan what could have been if the film probed even deeper. And up until I saw it a second time, I was in that camp. But now I can see the difficulty to go in multiple directions. I am not sure this would succeed. We know enough about Milk the Man to grasp Milk the Legend. Apparently the eclectic New York Film Critics Circle, the most prestigious and arty of all the groups though it hit the jackpot, as they gave it Best Film of 2008. Go figure.
Your meticulous consideration of all the film's components again gives the reader a magisterial examination of the film, especially after seeing it.

Daniel said...

Since you've already seen it twice Sam I can only concede your point. And I haven't even thought about the risk of going too deeply into Milk's life, as you suggest. Good call.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thanks very much for the kind words, Movie Man and Sam.

In a way, thinking of it as a political Lord of the Rings makes me like it more, too, ha.

I'm sort of on the run but I want to answer some points in various threads...

We're definitely in simpatico about Prop 6/Prop 8 and the importance of calmer heads prevailing for everyone's benefit.

I also do not buy Milk's diagnosis of White as a self-repressed homosexual, and I agree that it's just too easy and pat, and not backed up by anything we know to be true about White. I think White did feel a certain fear, though, and an understandable one. He felt embattled as one of the supervisors, and believed Milk and others had double-crossed him. I thank Van Sant for bringing this level of complexity to this particular relationship: I do think it's the most compelling portion of the film, and probably could have used even more focus by the screenplay, but it's perfectly fine as is.

Concerning where the film starts, Movie Man and Sam and Daniel (and everyone, haha)... The more I think about it, the more I believe that all that was needed would be about ten minutes' worth of looking at the Harvey Milk pre-subway descent. As it is, it's almost like--to use a somewhat over-the-top but not entirely unfair analogy--making a movie about St. Paul and starting it with him on the Road to Damascus. For me, it robbed the film of a greater power: to see where this man came from, which only makes his later lofty accomplishments more powerful. Therefore it would have been beneficial to the film to include this in my eyes.

Since Malcolm X has been referred to here and elsewhere, it's interesting to note that Spike Lee spent a great deal of time focusing on the man before he became Malcolm X, which for me paid off huge dividends later in the film, illustrating just how far the man had progressed as a great mind, leader, etceteras.

However, the way the screenplay and Van Sant choose to go is entirely legitimate, and usually films that border on being "bio-pics," or are bio-pics, or what have you, are best left as tightly detailed as possible, essaying a particular period of a man's life rather than the entire, typically unwieldy picture. Here, though, I do think even just a few minutes' worth of character study would have aided the film. Either that, or there simply should have been more generously offered character beats--not that there aren't any, there are, as Sam rightly notes--but again, the film is primarily successful in what it wishes to accomplish. So I won't belabor the point. Wait, I think I just have.

Joel Bocko said...

There's always some subjective elements to film criticism, but this element (should Van Sant have delved into Milk's past life more deeply?) may be more subjective than most. Its correctness hinges on your ability to feel Milk's history without seeing it. For whatever reason, I felt like I could read his history in his expression, dialogue, and behavior and that to show it would have been redundant. But clearly this is not the case for everyone, or it wouldn't be such an issue (and you, Alexander, are not the only one I've heard make this point). Ultimately I guess the filmmaker just has to go with his gut - what feels right to him - because if his heart isn't in the exposition, it will show.

As for Malcolm X, I think that's a slightly different situation. Milk's transition was largely singular - from a closeted, repressed homosexual to an open politician. Whereas Malcolm went through so many different incarnations it would have felt odd to only show a few of them. Plus, the source material (Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X) was so well-known that to leave too much of it out would have felt not just like a betrayal of Malcolm's life but of the literature which so many of us associated with him.

Anyway, I got the sense that Harvey's pre-out life was not so eventful or colorful; knowing about it in the abstract is one thing, but seeing it might have ended up seeming superfluous. Which, with the craziness of his life as Malcolm Little and Detroit Red, does not seem to have been the case with Malcolm X!

It's an interesting discussion though, one that, I suppose, could go round and round.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

I believe everything you write makes perfect sense here, Movie Man: the subjective evaluation of the choice of starting the narrative at this point does indeed hinge chiefly on whether or not one believes the film was successful in conveying the personality, psychology and, perhaps in a film of this type, purpose of the protagonist. In the end, I think Van Sant was able to bring much of this to the surface, sometimes in a slightly unwieldy manner, but there were some touching scenes (the wheelchair youth in Minnesota's phone call, for instance) that did supply crucial character information about Harvey Milk.

It is true that Malcolm Little is a far more interesting a subject than a pre-out Milk, however. I would have liked to have seen some of this hum-drum life that was slowly wearing him down, and necessitating traveling to a "new scene," for the sake of the film's potency. Nonetheless, it is not a tergiversation to choose to not include this, but simply a competing option.

Certainly one subject that could on, round and round, and whose import speaks more to whether or not one found the film's efforts to bolster Milk the man to the forefront to succeed.

Anonymous said...

thuper duper movie and i think the whole wide world should see it. i just adore all the cute little characters and the time travel machine. makes me all giddy. lots of thanks to mel gibson for directing. all the retient altitudinous curvature in it is very elusive yet creatous.

Anonymous said...

Terrific review, Alexander. I still need to see this.

I do wonder how far the American legal precedents go as far as marriage is concerned.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Common-law marriage goes back to at least 1877's Supreme Court ruling on the issue in Meister v. Moore. It ruled in favor of the state of Michigan, ruling that it had not infringed on common-law marriage by establishing rules for the solemnization of marriage. So that reinforces the point of federalism, which the Court has repeatedly defended, in the case of marriage.

Joel E said...

I want to see whatever movie Elmore Fudge saw or get a chunk of whatever he's smoking (ha ha).

Good review, Alexander. I was impressed by Penn's performance and was moved by the movie, although I agree with you that I did have some problems with it.

The portrayal of Dan White felt a bit uneven to me, as though there may have been a connecting scene or two Van Sant left out for time. Brolin's performance was great, but something about his transition to assassin seemed to be missing.

I also could have done without the wheelchair kid, which true or not felt incredibly manipulative and unnecessary.

And I would have liked a little better understanding of what made Milk tick but I agree that his character was well-established by Penn's excellent acting and the basic framework of the script.

Overall a good movie, followed by an entertaining discussion here.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, Joel.

Haha, yes, Elmore Fudge should share with the rest of the class.

I have to frankly concede to your point about the wheelchair youth being manipulative, but I did think it was rather touching. There were some devices that kind of fell flat for me (the telephone call originating many boxes on the screen with people calling others, for instance).

Likewise, I must admit that Brolin's character arc as Dan White was missing something. In a way a little lesser to Sean Penn (simply because it's a lesser role), Brolin's success as White is more a testament to the vitality and intelligence of the performance--and Van Sant's direction thereof--than the screenplay's roadmap.

And again, some more depth could have been traversed in exploring Milk the man.

However, as you say, the film is primarily successful in what it is aiming for.

Excellently related thoughts, Joel.

Anonymous said...

Great review, Alexander. Very detailed and thorough, well-written as always.

I loved this film and it's my #1 of the year. Sean Penn's performance was stunning and I found the storytelling compelling and interesting.

While I can understand your viewpoint, I have to agree with the person who made the following and well-expressed comment:

I don't think we needed to see Milk's years in the closet; they were a palpable enough presence in Penn's performance, his first appearance, and by proxy in the lives of others who are similarly repressed and uneasy.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you very much for the very kind words, Alison.

I understand the perspective that Penn's performance brings the back-story of Milk's to the surface without the narrative having to truly touch on it. I think, to an extent, that is unquestionably true: it's in Penn that the film finds many of its greatest virtues. He gives a layered and intelligent performance.

In any event, I'm happy to hear you say you enjoyed the review, and that you love this film so much. #1 of the year! Wow. Well, that means Benjamin Button isn't your #1, so I hope you won't be crushed when you see that I was ultimately disappointed in that one.

Actually, just dismiss me. I'm a crank. Haha. :-)