Sunday, December 07, 2008

MILK

Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black's Milk suffers the traditional follies of many a failed biopic : turgidness, checklist storytelling, caricature acting, and limited cinematic flourish (cinematographer Harris Savides - whose style is usually distinct - feels handcuffed by Van Sant; was he playing it safe for the Oscars?). Yes, Milk is yet another example of that year-end ready made Oscar pap that keeps killing our cinema experiences. Worse than the calculated summer blockbuster, Oscar bait like Milk smells worse because it packages itself as art and goes unchallenged by establishment critics. As Harvey Milk says to lover Scott Smith, "Politics is theater"... yep, and Oscar season strategizing is the new lobbying.

But put all that Academy pandering aside, and Milk is still a slippery, sloppy mess. Van Sant's social probing into the life of city supervisor Harvey Milk and the Castro area of San Francisco holds so many hiccups and contradictions you begin to question the passion he holds for his subjects. In a speech to campaign staffers and friends, Harvey Milk rails against the respect for personal privacy (he calls for staff members to out themselves and anyone they know), yet a central theme of his campaign is the importance of preserving and protecting civil rights. And despite carefully changing his own image so as to present a cleaner persona towards a broader electorate, Harvey urges friend Cleve Jones to "never blend in". Who is this guy?!?!

Despite the acclaim, Gus Van Sant has never been a friend to admirers of gay cinema. His sole contribution has been in feeding the stereotype of the lustful, promiscuous gay cruiser. True, no matter straight or gay, we are all men, with sex long on the mind, often working towards a game plan to scratch that itch, but Van Sant's depiction of intimate gay relationships eschews our universal capacity to love and focuses on the fleeting fancies of the flesh. After a historic victory for Harvey as the first openly gay man elected to office, two of his staffers celebrate by giving each other blowjobs in a supply closet. When one goes in for a kiss (a symbol of honest intimacy) he's denied and shoved back down to finish the job.

Even the depiction of Harvey's two major love interests are introduced in shallow fashion. Harvey first meets Scotty (James Franco, whose performance is one of Milk's few bright spots) on the steps of a subway station and has him home in bed within minutes. Later, Jack (Diego Luna), a vagabond who stumbles onto the front steps of Harvey's campaign headquarters has sex with him before even knowing his name. Van Sant then shoots their post-coital conversation as is if they've been cuddly, romantic partners for some time... yet it hasn't been two hours. Not only does this feel phony, but, again, it feeds the mainstream stereotypes of gay relationships.

This is antithetical to one of 2008's truly great gay-themed films Before I Forget, where director Jasques Nolot wrestled with the aftermaths in choosing a life of casual sex over a relationship of love. Nolot infused Before I Forget's sex scenes with the weight of the varying consequences and treats we experience when deciding to physically give ourselves to another. Van Sant just treats it as a punchline. His visualizations of sex consist of bouncing light off bare asses and smooth skin. It's emotionless. The only reason Van Sant shoots the naked body continually seems to be for his own gratification.

There are more instances to point out, but the biggest head-scratching moment comes after Harvey gives a rousing speech against religious zealot, and state senator, John Briggs concerning his Proposition 6. From there Van Sant cuts to Harvey Milk murderer, and fellow city supervisor, Dan White, speaking out against nudity in gay pride parades. By juxtaposing these scenes, Van Sant implies that White's comments are oppressive and on equal ground with Proposition 6, but does anyone think public nudity is ok?!? White's comment is valid, yet because of who he turned out to be, Van Sant automatically frames this single opinion as bigoted. It's a microcosm of the total mess of Milk. Clearly, Van Sant needs to stick with the moody, meandering films he produced post-Finding Forrester, because that's where his mind is at.

29 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

My own "Milk" review is mostly finished, so I thought I'd treat myself to yours. I see some similarities in our analyses, but far more differences.

A few key rebuttals that won't be found in my review:

* Yes, Harvey is contradictory. Most people are. That's not a storytelling hiccup. That's life. That we've come to expect figures to be so one-dimensional says more about other biopics than this one. (Actually, we expect our biopic figures to be two-dimensional: usually part 'talented,' in whatever respect, and part held back by a drug addiction. Yawn.)

* If Harvey could have fought the establishment without cutting his hair and without exposing his personal life, don't you think he would have? That's the point. To get into the arena, you have to wear the uniform. After there's change, you can go back. It takes a Jackie Robinson to pave the way for an Allen Iverson, if you get my drift. That's what Harvey learns.

* It is a personal privacy issue. No one should have their rights withheld for things they do within the privacy of their own home (presuming it doesn't harm anyone). But by requesting his friends to out themselves, Harvey is recognizing that so long as gays stay closeted, closed-minded people will imagine the worst. Gays needed to out themselves, reveal themselves to be normal, and let the world see that they don't destroy the fabric of society. But, that said, it's more than a personal privacy issue. "It's our life," he says at some point. Along the way, Harvey realizes that they should be able to live their lives publicly, just like everyone else. The film charts that progression.

* The film is aware of Harvey's contradictions. A character points out that Harvey himself fought at all costs from stepping out of the closet. That's the character. That's the man. The film is faithful to that truth.

* As far as the images of sexuality: Real-life sex comes in all forms. From what it sounds like, Harvey was somewhat promiscuous. This was also in the pre-AIDS scare and closer in spirit to the free love 60s. So that's part of it. Yes, you can look at the depiction of the celebratory sex (not including Harvey) and say it's an insulting stereotype. Or you can say that the film is treating gays just like "The Dark Knight" treats the heterosexual couple who are caught doing it at a party. Did you find that offensive? This is a step forward, not a step back. It's saying, yes, gay men fuck and blow. It's not saying gay men can't control themselves, just as a movie about a child molesting priest isn't saying that every man of the cloth touches children.

* I didn't think the sex depictions were emotionless. Far from it. This film repeatedly shows men engaging in behavior that's far more intimate than fucking -- close talking, soft kisses, touching of foreheads. And then it shows sex as, well, sex. Is it memorable? No. It's just sex. That's reality. If every sex scene -- hetero or homo -- has to mirror the romanticism of "Australia," we're in trouble.

* My memory of your biggest "head scratcher" is a little fuzzy. I don't doubt your account, but I also don't remember shots of anyone actually naked. So going by my vague memory and your text, my thought would be that it shows White to be uncomfortable with gays wearing the same amount of clothing that people wear to the beach. Thus his discomfort isn't because of the skin but the context: gay men together in partial-nudity.

* Those disagreements aside, I agree that it's "checklist storytelling." More thoughts on this movie, which I quite enjoyed, when I get the time to finish my review in a day or two.

Slayton said...

Great review. The things you pointed out are most of the huge problems I have with contemporary gay cinema, which is unfortunate, but it makes it even more special when something amazing (like Hedwig or Happy Together) comes along.

Fox said...

* Yes, Harvey is contradictory. Most people are. That's not a storytelling hiccup. That's life.

But Van Sant doesn't handle it that way. He's unaware of these inconsistencies b/c he doesn't acknowledge them (except for the instance when Scotty confronts Harvey on his "closetedness".)

Same for Lance Black's script. You're right that all people are contradictory, but the film doesn't consciously grapple with that. It's just a product of bad film making. It pops up b/c the writing is poor.

That's the point. To get into the arena, you have to wear the uniform. After there's change, you can go back.

Then why doesn't Harvey go back to his long hair? Why does he carry this line of "never blend in" - a tag line on the poster - if he learns that "blending in" is a key to changing things.

On privacy...

In that scene Harvey is pretty much drawing a line that if you don't out yourself then you're out of the "cause" that I'm championing. That's ridiculous. Such a stance is not respecting an individual's right to live their life the way they choose. It's forceful conformism. This type of bullying comes out in the scene when Harvey threatens the mayor in his office "like a teamster".

Or you can say that the film is treating gays just like "The Dark Knight" treats the heterosexual couple who are caught doing it at a party. Did you find that offensive? This is a step forward, not a step back. It's saying, yes, gay men fuck and blow.

I don't find any of it "offensive". My point, and where we disagree, is that is IS a step back, NOT a step forward. The specific scene is about gays moving on past a perceived stereotype, yet Van Sant can't help to throw sex into the mix for mere titilation.

It's not that showing blowjobs in Milk is inconsistent with gay life (I would feel odd about the movie if it refrained from showing sex), it's that these moments are misplaced. Why cap a scene of a gay man breaking barriers with a cheap sex scene? Van Sant ruins the moment. A good filmmaker wouldn't make that mistake. I really think Van Sant is out of his league here.

Fox said...

Thanks Slayton. The odd thing - and I guess this is the way things generally go - is that honest gay cinema is going on underneath Hollywood, yet they don't learn from it b/c they aren't paying attention.

The Bubble, Before I Forget, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone... these are just a few off the top of my head that are exceptional in the face of mush like Milk.

Again, I go back to my feeling that Van Sant doesn't really care about gay cinema. Which is fine, he doesn't need to care. But with Milk, he's putting up a false flag.

Jason Bellamy said...

Okay, my friend. This is going to get heated (in a respectful, passionate-about-the-arguments sort of way), because we significantly disagree on several points.

* You keep illustrating problems with Harvey. Those are Harvey's problems, not the film's. This is like disliking "The Godfather" because you're against killing. It's the same thing I was up against with "Happy-Go-Lucky."

* Why didn't he grow his hair long after he won? Well, someone fucking shot him. There's that. And because the fight wasn't over. That's what the film is about. The fight. "Let's bring the fight to us," he says. You think Harvey was done championing his cause? You think he still wasn't aware of what he needed to do to have a shot of being heard by a far more conservative America? You think being the first openly gay person to hold office and baiting the opposition into televised debates is "blending in"? The man was more than his clothes and hair.

* You acknowledge that the film puts in plain language that Harvey was contradictory. You name another scene in which it's clear that he's becoming part of the machine. How overt must the film be? Aren't we against the kind of "Crash" message-in-neon kind of writing? Why does this movie need footnotes?

* As for the blow scene: Okay. If your point is that you don't like the juxtaposition, fine. I can see where you're coming from there. But what about this? What if it happened? Van Sant's supposed to say: "Well, yeah, I know you blew a guy and had mad sex in celebration. But I'm not going to show that because it plays to a stereotype. And, black dude, I know you like fried chicken, but you aren't allowed to eat it, because that's a stereotype, too."

Socially, this kind of basic honesty is a step forward. It's saying: "the guys were happy and they fucked accordingly, deal with it." A "cheap sex scene?" It's, what, a 3 second moment amidst all kinds of celebration, the rest not including sex? "Ruins the moment"? Really?

And this is the thing: gays having gay sex isn't an unfair stereotype. It's reality. Gays being unfit to run a business or serve public office? That's an unfair stereotype. That's what the film is about. There's no contradiction here.

* I don't think it's worth much, but I'll share this anyway: There was a presumably gay guy at my packed screening who cheered nearly every slightly sex-charged scene. (I wanted to punch him. Then again, if I were gay and all too rarely got to see people like me doing anything even slightly naughty in mainstream cinema, I'd probably cheer to.) If I made the movie of my experience watching the film and included that moment, you might say it's a stereotype -- the sex-crazed gay male, so turned on he can't control himself. Well, guess what, it happened.

* This actually takes me to Tina Fey's recent comments about how the charges that her Palin jokes during the campaign were sexist were the things that were sexist, as if Palin couldn't take them. Palin ran with the idea that she could serve, protect and defend as well as any man. So she can certainly take the criticism of any male politician. Likewise, gays can be shown in unflattering light without it being a step back. There was nothing malicious here. In fact, I don't think there's anything unflattering here. If I'd have been offered a hummer to celebrate the last election night, I most certainly would have taken it.

* None of these arguments suggest that Van Sant is a terrific filmmaker or "Milk" a major work of art. But this isn't "gay cinema," just like "Brokeback Mountain" wasn't, just like "Philadelphia" wasn't. It's a movie about gay people.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox ... between our recent debates on docs, JCVD, Happy-Go-Lucky and now this ... I'm beginning to wonder how our blogs could stand without the other to offer balance. To be clear: I'm grateful for the honest debate that always unfolds here and at The Cooler.

Fox said...

Jason-

My point is that the problems with Harvey's character and/or portrayal are as result of Van Sant's filmmaking and Lance Black's writing. The flubs or contradictions about Harvey that I point to are not - in my opinion - a conscious decision by writer & director, but a product of their amateurishness.

My point about the blowjob scene isn't that it's a dishonest image, it's that it's unnecessary for the moment. It's moronic. It would be like a woman flashing her tits b/c Obama just won the presidency. Where's the value beyond empty titilation.

I'm not really getting the connection you're making between blacks and black stereotypes, but I'll play along...

Let's say - again, using a made up movie about Obama as an example - that after Obama gives his victory speech the camera cuts to a group of blacks hollering and eating fried chicken. Yeah, I'd think that that'd be questionable, because it carries no relevance other than generating an audience reaction from a perceived cultural stereotype (even if it's based in truth).

It's not that showing gays having sex or blacks eating fried chicken is out of bounds - b/c it's definitely not - it's the context of those images that can make them cheap, and I think that's exactly what Van Sant does in that scene.

p.s. I also love the debates. It's the best way for me to really get a movie, b/c my own thoughts definitely aren't enough.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hmmm. Well, I'll stop arguing the point on the Milk contradictions, because I'm confident the filmmakers had a clue and you're confident they didn't. Nuff said.

On the b.j. ...

I'm glad you provided the fried chicken/Obama example, because it illustrates to me how you see the scene -- as if Oprah and Jesse Jackson were seen munching on KFC in Hyde Park. If that's the way the scene played, then I get it.

That's not the way it played for me at all. Which is to say that nothing seemed unusual about it. Not because they were gay. Just because they were two people celebrating a big win on the campaign trail. Worked for Josh and Donna on "The West Wing," and it worked here, I thought.

So seeing it through that view, I can understand your step-back angle. But I think that viewpoint hinges on the idea that Van Sant is either clueless or foolish in his handling of this material, and I don't think he is.

So we agree to disagree again, I guess, but at least I can see where you're coming from more clearly.

Fox said...

Well, on the Obama/fried chicken thing... I don't think it's the best example that I could provide, because I think the two things (gay blowjobs and fried chicken... I'm sorry but that is cracking me up that I just typed that... In fact, if someone ever starts a blog called Blowjobs & Fried Chicken, they will be my immediate hero) are separate beasts. But, yeah, I think it got us to the place I was aiming for.

But yeah, I don't think I'll convince you (or vice versa), nor do I think that was either one of our intentions. But I surely understand your reading of it as well.

Personally, though, I wouldn't give Van Sant the benefit of the doubt that you do. And that just goes back to me seeing him as a fairly overrated director. I don't think he does straight filmmaking (no pun intended) well. I'm not a fan of his in general, but I prefer a film like Last Days to Milk or To Die For or My Own Private Idaho.

In fact, thinking on that now, it would've been much more interesting to have seen Van Sant tackle Harvey Milk in pseudo-biopic fashion the way he did with Kurt Cobain in Last Days. Instead, he was hampered with a dud of a script and Oscar ambitions. Oh well... so it goes.

p.s. It seems that we agree on Australia!

Marilyn said...

I have no real interest in seeing this film because 1) biopics are almost always lame and 2) The Times of Harvey Milk cannot be improved upon.

Reading this back and forth without seeing the film may seem like an exercise in futility, but Jason's point about celebratory sex reminds me of a similar scene in Six Degrees of Separation in which Will Smith's character invites a hustler up to have sex because he's so happy. There was a lot of depth to this scene because he faced his hosts with the reality that if they have sex when they're happy, why shouldn't he? But it also served to bring their hypocrisies and their insulating fear - turning the encounter into dinner conversation made more dramatic by the addition of remarks, "We could have been killed in our sleep. Our throats cut."

In doing a bit of research for my review of Black Orpheus, I'm finding a tremendous amount of negativity, much of it having to do with racial stereotyping (in one scene a couple is eating watermelon). I think these reviewers can't see the forest for the trees - looking for something to be offended by instead of wondering whether these characters would eat watermelon. I won't say Brazilian cinema doesn't have its share of Steppin' Fetchit moments for the entertainment of white audiences, but this wasn't one of them.

Jason Bellamy said...

Blowjobs & Fried Chicken? I think it's a club in Vegas. It's also what I'm going to name my first two dogs. "Blowjobs...come!" Ugh.

Fox said...

Marilyn-

Good points, but I want to be clear that I didn't find the sex scene offensive, just insubstantial or even gratuitous. Now, calling it that is just gonna be a matter of interpretation, but that's how I see it.

By playing into stereotypes, I don't Van Sant is being "offensive", just stale, dry, and boring.

Now on your Six Degrees of Separation comment, I have a question about that scene... Weren't the homeowners upset b/c he let a stranger into their house w/o their consent?

Marilyn said...

I understand, Fox, and I wasn't really commenting on Milk because I haven't seen it. I just know what you're talking about and also see where Jason is coming from.

Yes, they were upset that he let someone into their place, the "would-be cuttroat." That is one of the most caustic films I know about the 80s, very unusual in that it took on the "Greed Is Good" ethos of the time and stripped it to its skivvies.

Fletch said...

I'm with Jason on everyone one of his points that he makes in the first comment. It makes it seem as though you missed the point of the movie, and of Milk himself. He knew the power of the politician, and the games that one must play (and the personal sacrifices one must make) to gain that power; thus, he cleaned up his image to play "their" game while at the same time turning to those around him and telling him not to do it. In a political sense, it makes perfect sense.

Keep in mind I knew almost nothing about Milk prior to the film and am taking all that just from having seen it. I don't think Van Sant painted him as an angel, and we'd be equally upset if he had.

Fox said...

Fletch-

The tagline for the movie is NEVER BLEND IN. Harvey Milk tells Cleve Jones, "Never blend in".

Van Sant clearly wants to make that "never blending in" a theme of his film, yet he never confronts the fact that Harvey Milk succeeds by indeed "blending in".

I don't fault Harvey Milk the person for making that decision; politically it is very smart. I fault Van Sant for pretending to make a movie about something when he really isn't.

Jason Bellamy said...

Every time I think I'm out, you pull me right back in ...

Ok, Fox. Had to reply to the most recent comment.

First: Just like newspaper reporters don't write headlines, directors and screenwriters don't write marketing taglines for posters.

Second: I'll repeat what I said above ... the guy was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office. He did this out of the Castro district in San Fran. He marched alongside gays who were in full flaming effect. There's no secret to who he was. You call that blending in? I think you're putting way too much stock in a haircut and a wardrobe change and not enough stock in what it meant at the time to say, "Hi, I'm gay."

Third: It's not like Harvey just wakes up one day with a haircut and the movie pays it no mind. It make a big deal of it. What more does the film need to "confront" it?

What is "Milk" missing? What should Van Sant have included that he didn't...specifically?

Fox said...

It should have had Harvey conceding and acknowledging this revelation in some way other than a tossed-off joke of a scene of him appearing in a suit. That's not "making a big deal" of it.

And I doubt Van Sant had nothing to do with the tagline of the movie.

aunt john said...

I was most troubled by the parade of bad hairpieces. Seriously, what was on Diego Luna's head?

Fox said...

Aunt John-

I think it was Rip Taylor's mustache.

Brolin's wig bothered me the most. It was just like one big comb over.

Actually, Allison Pill's wig really freaked me out too. If they were aiming for androgyny, they nailed it! I honestly didn't know that was her until my wife mentioned it to me.

aunt john said...

The Allison Pill look, I believe, was Sally Struthers meets Shirley Hemphill in a back alley.

And was I the only one who wanted to punch Emile Hirsh in his Charles Nelson Reilly glasses every time he came on screen?

Oh, I was?

OK, never mind.

Fox said...

Aunt John-

Oh, you are so accurate on your Charles Nelson Riley dig. Thinking back on Hirsh's performance it is all over him. Hilarious.

MovieMan0283 said...

Fox, I just wrote this up:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/12/milk.html

but oddly enough, had almost the opposite reaction. In particular, I was surprised that Van Sant - in my view - largely eschewed eroticism to make the romances onscreen cuddlier and, presumably, more palatable for mass consumption (I had the opposite view of Brokeback Mountain, which I think fits many of your criticisms nicely).

I do have some of the same political objections too - particularly of Milk's forced-outing strategy - but I pretty much left these, along with the by-now-tired Prop 8 analogies (which I don't really think is a very good analogy anyway) out of my review. I didn't even notice the nudity thing though, you do have an interesting point there. I do like the fact that, as you have with Che, you call foul on liberal/left pieties when you smell a stinker.

Anyway, I actually did like Milk a lot, though I certainly don't think it achieved greatness. I also did not see at as inconsistent the way you seem to have read it, but I didn't approach the film with a very critical mindset, more of "what have you got for me" attitude. Hey, the power was out, and I had been denied movies for several days (unless you can't the turgid Australia) - what do you want from me?!

Back to the eroticism/sex thing, I think we do concur on one point: you thought Van Sant overdid the sex, I thought he underplayed it (and I'm not saying I wanted more sex scenes, but the homosexuality did feel more like a surface thing as a result of Van Sant downplaying the sexuality.) But we both agree that whatever there was onscreen in terms of sensuality was "emotionless".

Fox said...

MovieMan-

Better late than never! :)

Good comments, and I think you make a good point about the cuddliness he portrays.

My quick reaction was to say, "yeah, but could they really be that cuddly so soon?"... but thinking on it, I would concede to you, and Jason Bellamy, that that doesn't really matter. It's the affection shown between the two men, and not the reality to when that affection was born.

Now to go read your review!

Starchild said...

*Lots* of people think public nudity is OK, and it *is* a civil rights issue. Gus Van Zant was insightful in showing Dan White making that comment, because it raises broader issues of intolerance beyond just the main issue of the film which was gay rights.

Hopefully it will prompt some viewers who may be tolerant when it comes to GLBTQ people to reexamine other prejudices they may hold, such as the common but nevertheless irrational one against people appearing in public as we all were born, unclothed.

MovieMan0283 said...

Starchild,

Among the many other objections, there are people who were abused and are uncomfortable around nude strangers as a result. We can make a "tolerance" issue out of anything; I don't think this cuts the mustard.

Sam Juliano said...

The New York Film Critics Circle named this film the best of 2008. But what do they know?

The film has issues, but it's not within hailing distance from the "mess" you claim it to be.

Your comment threads are among he most engrossing I have seen at any site.

As far as gay cinema goes, I guess my favorite film would be "Beautiful Thing."

Mark Smith said...

I think that we need to stop making this so much about how the gay community was depicted and more on the fact that Sean Penn did great job and showing what Milk did for the Gay community. The fact that alcohol treatment centers were not a thing that was needed by anyone in the movie was great news to me. I loved the movie.

Fletch said...

That was far and away the best spam comment I've seen in some time. I even did a double take to make sure the content indeed didn't make sense. Kudos, "Mark Smith" - I too am thrilled that alcohol treatment centers weren't required of any of the characters in Milk. Maybe in the sequel, though...

PIPER said...

Fox,

I just watched Milk and wanted to come back to your review. I'll admit that Van Sant doesn't really want to have anything to do with true intimacy. It truly is limited to "cruising" with him. I will argue though that My Own Private Idaho explored this a bit better. But still it's scratching the surface.

And I agree that this gets bogged down with checking the boxes all biopics check.

What I will disagree with you on is in relation to Prop 6. He wanted people "outed" so that it became a real issue. So that people knew how many gay people there were out there. It doesn't make sense to fight for the rights people are so quiet about. Of course the risk is that if Prop 6 passes, all these people have "outed" themselves and risk losing their jobs.

What I found interesting is that I'm assuming that Penn's speeches were more or less word for word those of Milk. And, well, I didn't find them that moving. They seemed pretty basic to me. I didn't find that he had the words for the moment.

But maybe the worst part was the ending, after he had died. When two of his closest friends went to his ceremony where there only seemed to be a few people. Scott says "where is everyone. Didn't anyone care?" And then they wander over to the giant march. Really? They didn't know? As plugged in to the gay population as they were? It felt like the worst kind of movie manipulation to me.

I guess more than anything I watched this to watch Penn. And I thought he did a pretty good job with the material.