“I’m in San Francisco and I’m gonna take it all in,” Jack Kerouac wrote in his 1965 novel, Desolation Angels. “Incredible the things I saw.” He was harking back to the late summer of 1956, when he was still just a dharma bum, hitchhiking or riding the freight trains in that final year before his life changed forever, with the publication of On the Road. He had just spent nine weeks in the north of Washington State as a summer-fire lookout on Desolation Peak, all “stark naked rock” and the “illimitable ocean of space”. Coming down from solitude, Kerouac experienced “the whole Frisco scene [as] one insane movie”: “the bars, the Bay-Oom, the Bell Hotel, the wine, the alleys, the poorboys, Third Street, poets, painters, Buddhists, bums, junkies, girls, millionaires ... This city will see to it that you make it as you wish.”
Kerouac recognised an energetic openness that has always been a part of San Francisco, a goldmining town in its early days. “An entirely different scene,” he noted. “It always gives you the courage of your convictions.” Fifteen years after the beat generation based itself there, and after Kerouac descended from the mountain, a 40-year-old New York insurance executive named Harvey Milk would leave the corporate world and the closet, and move to the Castro, a six-block-square neighbourhood of San Francisco that was becoming for gays what Haight-Ashbury had been for hippies a few years earlier: pride and identity grounded in a geographical space, a haven. Milk would not just make the Castro his own; he would be one of the driving forces that would make it a national focal point for gay politics. In fewer than seven years, he would become the first openly gay man elected to a signficant office in the US.
In Gus Van Sant’s pleasant but oddly ungripping biopic Milk, Harvey Milk is played with great charm by Sean Penn. We meet him, all business suit and Brylcreemed hair, on the eve of his fortieth birthday, in 1970, picking up Scott (James Franco) in the New York subway. Soon the lovers will make the move to the West Coast. Milk will grow his hair long and join the denim revolution, and Castro Camera, the shop he opens, will become the operational headquarters for a grassroots campaign that will take him all the way to City Hall.
Milk’s story plays out, then, at the frontline of the gay-rights movement of the ‘70s. Van Sant very effectively brings alive the atmosphere, the sense of hope and battle; even the sound design, bustling with street noise, adds much vibrancy to the tale. He scatters the film with archival footage: the opening-credits sequence consists of newsreel images from the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s of police raids and arrests in ‘queer’ bars, of scared and compliant-looking men shielding their faces from the cameras. The images are disturbing, and sad, and we get the point: when the police and media are in cahoots, the odds are stacked against anyone perceived as other, and a man like Harvey Milk will draw upon great reserves of courage to take the stance he does. But it is the sun-drenched Super 8 images of the Castro of the late ‘70s, later in the film, that are truly poignant. These are the final years of innocence, before the AIDS era, and surely some of the figures in the crowds, bare-chested and in cut-off jeans, would be dead within a decade.
What is captured in Milk, too, is the menace that gay men have always had to live with. One entire scene is unusually played out – a wide shot in a close-up, so to speak – in the reflection of a blood-splattered whistle on the ground at a murder scene. Whistles were used in the Castro to summon help in the event of a gay bashing. Milk wasn’t a promoter of lifestyle choices; he was fighting a battle he saw as one of life and death. And beyond the menace and threat, there was the age-old bigotry. When Milk introduces himself to his neighbour, a member of the local merchants’ association who runs the liquor store, the shop owner informs Milk that as soon as he opens Castro Camera it will be shut down. By whose authority? Milk asks. “There’s man’s law. And there’s God’s law,” the neighbour replies. “San Francisco police force is happy to enforce either.” Milk won’t be fazed, and later we note that the liquor-store owner is pleased enough to rake in the gay dollar as the neighbourhood grows exponentially.
Penn shows how Milk himself grows through all this. Harvey Milk clearly won people over with a certain charisma, and an indefatigable optimism, and a sense of humour. He’s an opera lover – he loves the theatrical largesse of dramatic gesture. He’s a canny showman and media manipulator, too. At one point he hears an offhand remark about how anyone who cleans up the dog-poop problem in the city will win the hearts of voters. The next moment he’s in the middle of a newspaper photo-op, stepping in said poop with a huge mischievous grin, promising fines for those who don’t clean up after their dogs. “Politics is theatre,” he says elsewhere. “It doesn’t matter what you’re saying. You make a statement, you say, ‘I’m here.’ You get their attention.” He loses his first election attempt, in 1973. Then he cuts his hair and wears a suit for 1975. He loses again, and yet again – this time for a different office – in ‘76. All the while his support grows, and Van Sant charts the heady years with colour and fluidity. Finally, in 1977, Milk is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The film has its bad guys, like State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare), trying to pass a bill that will outlaw homosexual teachers in schools (“We have procedures in place for identifying them”); and, appearing in period newsreel footage, the notorious moral crusader Anita Bryant (“I believe more than ever before that there are evil forces round about us”), but Milk’s specific nemesis, from the moment he is elected, is fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), who enters the film halfway through. White, an ex-police officer and ex-fireman, has campaigned, among other things, on the promise to “eradicate the malignancies that blight our beautiful city”. Milk, like White, begins to learn that politics involves compromise, and the two not only make a stab at co-existing but seem to discover some warmth for each other. For Milk, this takes the form of a kind of affection for White’s pent-up, stitched-up forlornness. For White, a kind of curiosity grows – that his world view could be unsettled by an enemy who is, quite surprisingly, both cheeky and charming. On a local TV talk show he capitulates, as best he can: “I’ve assured Harvey that my brochures about social deviants referred more to junkies than to his people.”
Later, White says, “You’re not like most homosexuals, are you, Harvey?” “Do you know many homosexuals, Dan?” Milk replies. But proto-warmth and political trading aside, White watches, with rising rancour, not only Milk’s embracing of the media but the media’s embracing of Milk, who makes for nothing if not good copy. White wants the spotlight, but a deviant gets it instead. “You have an issue,” he says to Milk. “See, that’s your advantage.” It’s as good an admission as any that his scaremongering is essentially hollow: no ‘issues’ there, just the inflated rhetoric of fear.
There’s a problem with this, dramatically speaking. If we don’t already know the historical story, the opening minute of the film tells us that Milk will be murdered, showing real newsreel footage of the tearful press conference in the immediate aftermath of that terrible event. It’s not hard to guess that Dan White will be the culprit, and Van Sant is obliged to plant signposts along the way. But while the film is a political narrative in a grand historical sense, the murder of Milk is neither a political assassination nor an act of homophobic rage. Rather, it is an act of revenge for perceived wrongs and public humiliation. Dan White is highly strung, paranoid and insecure. Rather than being a murderous homophobe, it seems more likely he has pre-existing mental problems. At the least, a very thin skin covering a poor self-image means he has a low threshold for humiliation. He resigns from the Board of Supervisors, but when he changes his mind is not given his job back. The film implies this is partly because Milk had told Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) that if Moscone re-hired White, he, Milk, would see to it that gay voters would desert Moscone at the next election. We don’t learn whether White knew of these machinations, but in any case it’s the final straw. It seems as likely that Milk would have been murdered were he heterosexual. So the film can’t be the heroic tale of a political martyr it needs to be in order to hold us and take our breath away. It’s a simpler story, about a man who fought an extraordinary political fight and who was killed, arbitrarily and unnecessarily.
In other words, it’s a straight (excuse the pun) retelling of one man’s life. That’s fair enough: for starters, there are surely debts to those still living – at the end of the film there is a moving montage where we learn what happened to the key players in the story, and it is lovely to see their real faces. But for all that it tells a fascinating story straightforwardly, the film drags. While the drama does flow, it is hampered at times by leaden didacticism and an awful lot of excruciating lines of the We-can-change-Phoenix-but-we-have-to-start-here variety. There are schmaltzy plot devices, like the gay Minnesotan teenager in a wheelchair who finds hope and ultimately liberation in Milk’s public crusading, and who just happens to catch Milk on the telephone at two crucial moments. And, on a minor but troubling note, there are times when Penn’s version of ‘gay’ acting veers dangerously close to a twee version of his childlike (read: ‘mentally retarded’) acting in I Am Sam.
The film suffers from some saccharine elements, too, like the syrupy music that plays over any relationship threads – after Scott gets sick of life with a political obsessive, Milk’s lover is the troubled and tempestuous Jack (Diego Luna). The problem with trying to be all-inclusive in a film that aims to be true to the facts of a life is that real life sometimes needs dramatic reshaping, to satisfy our need for structure. Jack may well have been as disturbed as he appears here; but his story, which seems grafted on, can only ever play second fiddle to the political and historical drama or personal tragedy of the film.
The heart of the film – and while it is not perfect, it is uplifting – lies in Penn’s portrayal of Milk’s generosity of spirit. “I’m not a candidate; I’m part of a movement,” Milk says. “The movement is the candidate.” Harvey Milk was that rare person: someone comfortable enough in their own skin that they can get out of the way of their own ego. The dharma bum, meditating on the void up there on Desolation Peak – “there beneath the fury of the world where all is secretly well” – would have been proud of him.
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