I’ve watched Gus Van Sant’s Milk twice now. The first time I experienced a little of the disappointment expressed in this review, for different reasons. I had hoped to see more free-wheeling editing and expressive cinematography, as well as the deft marriage of disparate styles and sources; that is, the things that used to make a Van Sant film a Van Sant film. Instead, for the most part, after Harvey and Scotty get to San Francisco, the narrative takes over and the lyricism recedes. For whatever reason, this lack bothered me the first time through.
Last night I sat down and watched Milk again and felt immersed, and this time noticed that the Van Sant lyricism was extant, and did serve a purpose: It gave the narrative a particular flavor and feel, appropriate for the time depicted and the events related. The experience of the film felt seamless and elegant, and joyful even, despite the twin assassinations that end the movie. (If that’s a spoiler, then you need to read more.)
So, it’s hard for me to understand some of the odd, negative reviews I’ve read before watching it, and since.
Andrew Sullivan’s responses have been the most confusing. Here’s a beautiful passage he wrote on November 27:
The movie’s brilliance is not that it begins and ends with his death as a reflection on the first and last things; it is that it begins and ends with Milk’s love for another human being as well. This reach for intimacy – always vulnerable, always intimate, never safe – endures past movements and rallies and elections. These manifestations of the political are the means to that merely human end.
But he’d recanted by Oscar time, calling mediocre the movie Milk, Sean Penn’s performance and Justin Lance Black’s script, and also somehow connecting all of them to the condescension and smugness of Hollywood liberals, a conservative talk-show host’s rickety hobby horse, and not worthy of The Daily Dish. I made some comments about that here.
Even weirder, in HuffPo, Nancy Goldstein complains that Milk’s depiction of gay activism isn’t violent or bloody enough.
Dear Nancy: It’s time to pitch that Queer Nation t-shirt; it’s looking a little yellow under the arms.
In the New York Review of Books essay, Hilton Als uses a similar word to describe Milk’s depiction of the San Fran gay milieu: homo-lite. He goes on to claim that Milk’s assassination “barely disturbs the homo-lite surface the filmmakers have constructed all along.” My first objection to this sentence is that one can’t make up a word, not really define it, and then use it to cast aspersions on the seriousness of the film you’re talking about. That’s just lazy snark.
But what’s going on, partly, in both Goldstein’s and Als’ reviews, is what also went on early in Barack Obama’s campaign when leaders in the black community wondered if Obama, or even more relevantly, if his story was “black enough” or if he was “really black.” Public figures who are gay or black or feminists always get this treatment from the pundits, who are more than likely suffering from a bit of sour grapes. Similarly, for these people, Van Sant’s Milk just isn’t gay enough. (Als also criticizes Milk for indulging in gay clichés, which are by definition pretty damn gay. But whatever.) These objections make me weary; they’re so early 90s.
Cynicism lies at the root of all of these objections, however, and a refusal to see what the particulars of this movie say about where we are right now. So why don’t we look at what’s actually in the movie, instead of making assumptions, either about the reactions of the audience (Als employs the royal “we” a few times, a sure sign, in my book, that a critic has gone off the rails and needs to rethink his conclusions. Sorry, but you don’t know what “we” think. Have the balls to use “I” and if you find your arguments or sensibilities won’t allow you to use the word “I’ then, hey, guess what? Your arguments are specious and your sensibilities are inappropriate!) or pondering the intent of the filmmakers. I’m interested in responses and effects, too, but the only ones I can reliably report are my own.
One thing I saw in Milk was a lot of kissing. Goldstein may think close-ups of two men kissing in widescreen is commonplace in a Hollywood film — an Oscar-nominated Hollywood film — and if so, I’d like to watch those movies. But, more importantly, what do these kisses convey? Affection, affinities both political and personal, playfulness, joy even. I’ve never seen that before. Call it homo-lite, or low-fat, if you want, but they felt real and they felt good. And that’s not progress?
It’s these kisses, the personal signs of the build-up of a community that eventually gains confidence and becomes powerful — it’s the effect of seeing those kisses, and the activism of that community, which renders irrelevant Harvey’s assassination. (The filmmakers knew this. Harvey repeats that it’s not about him, it’s about the movement. So maybe not distburbing the “homo-lite surface” is another sign of progress.) They’re why the end of the movie felt hopeful, despite the deaths of Milk and Moscone. Isn’t love why 30,000 people gathered at City Hall peacefully, cupping lights in their palms, instead of rioting? I didn’t feel a future when I saw the documentary, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, although it’s still essential viewing. I felt despair, but mostly anger.
But, I don’t think that’s where we are right now, and I don’t think anger is what we need.