March 2009

Arts & Letters

Tales of the city

By Luke Davies
Gus Van Sant’s ‘Milk’

“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.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Arise!

Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation’
A house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex in Steels Creek, photo taken with verbal permission by the owners, February 2009 © Nick Carson

The burning bush

For a few dollars more

Recent books about global finance

Vanity fare

Michael Wolff’s ‘The Man Who Owns the News’

More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”


More in Film

Michael Fassbender in ’The Killer’, sitting in a room cross-legged on a mat, wearing black gloves

Into the streaming void: ‘The Killer’ and ‘They Cloned Tyrone’

David Fincher’s stylish pulp and Juel Taylor’s SF-adjacent satire are the latest riches to be taken for granted in the ever-ready, abundant world of Netflix

Nick Cave performing with The Birthday Party at The Venue, London, 1981

The candles flicker and dim: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

Ian White’s documentary captures the incendiary trajectory of the seminal Melbourne band at the expense of the inertia that fuelled it

Osage women seated in a scene from in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Histories of violence: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and ‘El Conde’

Martin Scorsese’s first Western mishandles its story of colonial exploitation, while Pablo Larraín’s darkly humorous, black-and-white satire delivers Pinochet as a vampire

Writers Guild of America protest in New York, May 10, 2023

Workers’ singularity: AI and the future of art and labour

The Hollywood writers’ strike has put a spotlight on the impact artificial intelligence may have on artistic endeavour


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality