HOW DID GUS Van Sant, of all camera-wielding hipsters, come to direct Milk, this year’s official gay martyr movie? Van Sant once expressed his reluctance to be pigeonholed with the gay political movement—a bold, intransigent stance and personally justifiable considering the gap between political posturing and artistic achievement. Yet Milk, the story of San Francisco’s first openly gay politician, County Supervisor Harvey Milk, who in 1979 was gunned-down along with Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, another County Supervisor, turns out to be a bizarre manipulation of the gay political impulse.
Not that Van Sant’s hypocritical. He has the right to assume new political positions; to choose or refuse his alliances, or come into new awareness. But orthodoxy is the last inclination one feels in Van Sant’s other work—such lascivious, nihilistic, proudly degenerate art projects as Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park. Van Sant’s tireless boosters have acclaimed the latter three films a “Death Trilogy” and the assassination climax in Milk, based in historical fact, seems an addendum to that macabre series. He counts down to mortality, with famous liberal-actor Sean Penn safely assuming the role of a now non-threatening historical figure. (What’s next? Denzel Washington scurrying about for Bayard Rustin scripts?) It’s strange when a film that finds apotheosis in death also poses as a memorial to social activism. There’s some dangerous slip into macabre commercialism. It recalls Spike Lee’s domestication of Malcolm X, inevitably weakening the subject’s subversiveness. No wonder the media—mainstream, gay, alternative—has already bowed down to Milk’s sentimental vision. Freaky Van Sant puts gay activism in the ultimate closet: the grave.
I know, that’s not how Milk is being sold; nor is it the way the mainstream will perceive it. Milk has already been acclaimed by the same gatekeepers who ignore all other gaythemed movies—except when they are “legitimized” by famous names and familiar faces. Call this THE BROKEBACK SYNDROME after 2004’s cornball tearjerker Brokeback Mountain which, like Milk, was also released by Focus Features. (They’ve sold this soap before.) With Milk,Van Sant polishes the knack of selling back to the mainstream its own convenient Liberal pretenses. He downplays his usual anti-social penchants (pedophilia, prostitution, masochism, murder) and aggrandizes an historical tragedy. Harvey Milk’s life story—his aim for popular acceptance, institutional recognition and political power—is so unlike Van Sant’s typical low-life subversive’s that it throws the filmmaker’s previous career into question. Is Milk fashionable propaganda, or mere exploitation? Let’s pace Milk with each stage of Van Sant’s career.
Mala Noche (1985): Leaping from a montage of late-1970s gay oppression (bar raids, police harassment, newspaper exposes) to Sean Penn as Milk tape-recording his memoirs, Van Sant introduces his signature arty-vague tactics. Flashbacks show Milk oblivious to this dour social sketch, freely enjoying urban gay life in New York where he first meets Scott (James Franco) who will accompany his move to San Francisco.
Penn’s pouncing on Franco’s curly-haired lovechild recalls the sexual outlawry in Van Sant’s debut film. Milk’s not in opposition to the times or in sync with the era’s rebels; he’s smugly out.Yet it’s never established who these men are as social beings. Disconnecting sexual impudence from political consciousness typifies Van Sant’s methods:The personal is never political.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989): Harvey Milk’s myth begins with his professionalism: opening a camera shop in San Francisco. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black suggests Milk busted the block of conservative shop-owners but only hints at Milk catering to gay clientele by developing “arty” photography (private porn). Penn scrunches down into his slightly weasley high-pitched mode and does “gay” with Harvey Fierstein-esque mincing gestures.Van Sant creates a demi-monde, like his 1989 break-through junkies movie.
Milk’s enclave of Bay Area friends aren’t a community in crisis. This
treats politics as a lark, not the dull reality of political
organization. It doesn’t capture Milk’s egotism.Van Sant romanticizes
as inanely as in that junkie opus.
My Own Private Idaho (1991): Solipsism
is Van Sant’s forte and it can ruin a biopic. The home-movie idyll of
Milk and Scott driving to San Francisco makes you wonder “who’s holding
the Super-8?” But the same insular daze suffuses the entire film.The
history of gay liberation occurs at the margins of Milk’s personal
Van Sant recreates the cosmetics of the clone era; but
his desultory chronicle of Milk’s rise in city government merely
touches on his self-consciousness (“No more pot, bathhouses for me and
my little Pooh”)—as if we automatically know what comprises ’70s gay
life. This solipsism, harkening to Van Sant’s best film: 1991’s My Own Private Idaho. When Scott leaves and a Mexican street kid (Diego Luna) moves in, the repetition of Mala Noche’s condescending racial dynamics clouds Milk’s activism.
Yet, focusing on Milk gives the movement a white idol. It’s a mainstreaming ploy. The unfairly ignored 1995 film Stonewall risked
ignominy by concentrating on gay lib’s actual ethnic component. Milk’s
story is post-Stonewall; the yuppification of gay struggle.
Van Sant’s romanticized sense of (white) privilege allows critics to commend a particular version of gay assertiveness.
too much about blacks, Italians and drag queens. Instead, Milk’s
proposition, “We can have a revolution here but you can’t use the
Castro just to cruise, you have to fight,” ignores Bay Area racism for
a hollow, bourgeois and risk-free recollection. After a successful
boycott, Milk’s egotistical boast, “We just had our first taste of
power,” injects the contemporary aphrodisiac of clout—not victory.Van
Sant and Black never clarify the distinction because they haven’t
really scrutinized Milk’s character.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993): This
1994 freak parade predicted that Van Sant’s next attempt at an
egalitarian epic would mix political correctness and pop sanctimony
with mad-scientist precision. Lacking an instinct for demotic
entertainment, he depicts Milk’s crew as innocents surrounding a pied
piper.The cast, from Lawrence Grabeel to Emile Hirsch, relaxes into gay
affectations as casual as they are effeminate (each one described as
“cute”), re-imagining the gay ghetto as a homo Oz.This play land of
sexual availability is nicely evoked during Penn’s flirtation with
Hirsch. Yet when Milk receives a phone call from a hinterlands youth
looking for such a place to belong, Van Sant’s reveal of the kid’s
circumstances becomes the movie’s maudlin low-point.
To Die For (1995): Conferring
faith-healer sanctity upon Milk, Van Sant usurps the revolutionary
impact of the Stonewall rebellion and illegitimately applies it to a
media-friendly figure.This was also how Van Sant’s hateful,
not-so-ironic 1986 satire of careerism worked. Milk’s rallying cry, “I
want to recruit you,” flips the criminality of Nicole Kidman’s
youth-predator while repeating the basic Van Sant seduction—and seeks
votes for it. It’s an insidious repackaging of gay political history.
Good Will Hunting (1997): Among Milk’s many
narrative detours, the Anita Bryant section gives the movie a
fashionable Left/Right antagonism. It panders to class, as did Van
Sant’s biggest hit, 1997’s Good Will Hunting (which many people mistook for a bootstrap Horatio Alger myth). Van Sant goes for easy/ugly laughs.
footage of conservative celebrity Bryant singing, “Yes Jesus loves me,”
unfairly pits an archival villain against a reenacted hero; it services
the still-lingering red state-blue state divide.
Contrasting Milk’s salutation, “My fellow degenerates,”Van Sant
validates the impudence of social apostates— a position intended to
rile the Anita Bryants of the world but that a savvy politician would
eventually have to disown.
Psycho (1998): Van Sant’s own career consists of repugnant personal films and insincere commercial exercises, like his meticulous 1997 Psycho remake.
Studio financing forces discipline on Van Sant’s artiness. His
cinematographer Harris Savides scrupulously evokes the 1970s by
matching old color doc footage but even this condescends when the image
of a gay-bashing aftermath is reflected in the victim’s safety whistle.Van
Sant’s formal mastery collapses history into artiness. His slick
version of grass-roots motivation misses the urgency of Melvin Van
Peebles’ 1995 Panther script.
Without that, Milk’s aestheticized style objectifies Milk’s crusade and blurs the line between rigorous history and haughty conceit.
Finding Forrester (2000): When in pop mode, Van Sant only half-disguises his peccadilloes.The ludicrous 2001 Finding Forrester turned
an Affirmative Action premise into a chickenhawk fantasy. Mixing class
and sex envy with racial exoticism was hokey-titillating yet exposed
Van Sant’s hidden urges and showed his questionable sense of social
remedy. Valorizing Milk as if he were a gay Malcolm X continues the
inexact equivalence of gay and black civil-rights struggles.
rhetoric often leads to breaking ranks rather than race and sex
solidarity. By the time a light-skinned Sylvester impersonator performs
at Milk’s birthday party, Van Sant’s racial gamesplaying is out of
hand. Milk has been praised as the perfect movie for this moment— right after the passing of the Proposition 8 anti-gay marriage bill in California.
But that has nothing to do with the movie’s actual quality; it only
shows how film criticism is tied to bigbudget, brand name hype.
Otherwise, the mainstream media would have supported last month’s
propitious Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, a blackstarred, pro-gay-marriage movie.
Gerry (2002): Van
Sant’s artiest, gayest, gainsaying-est movie turned male friendship
into a Death Valley walkabout with intimations of lust, murder,
personality-theft and exasperating
ambiguity. Inadvertantly, it was a convincing testament against
male-male love as much as against moviemaking. All the more reason
Milk’s single benevolent expression—when he advises a young gays, “You
won’t know to the end of your life which ones were your greatest lovers
which ones were your greatest friends,” feels out of context.
Elephant (2003): After
witchifying Anita Bryant, Van Sant shows bizarre erotic empathy for Dan
White. “Is it just me or is he cute?” asks Hirsch’s Cleve Jones. The
beefcake shot of a halfnaked White (Josh Brolin) in a fetal curl
recalls the assassins’ teasing shower scenes in Elephant. Irony
is cheapened by the hint of Milk’s infatuation: “I know what it’s like
to live that life, that lie. I can see it in Dan’s eyes.” But we don’t
learn till late that Milk was never out to his parents or how he ever
lived a lie; his intuition that White acted out of homosexual panic is
as synthetic as his infamous “Twinkie Defense.” Only Van Sant would
look for a piece of ass in an assassin.
Last Days (2005): Harvey Milk gets the same fuzzy saintliness Van Sant gave Kurt Cobain in Last Days. Van
Sant’s fashionably ghoulish death obsession implies a personal romance
with oblivion. (He links Milk and White’s fates though a Tosca performance.) This doesn’t make Milk a
radical, Werner Scherter biopic—just a peculiar one. Nostalgia vies
with mourning. He glosses Milk’s ambition—the redistricting that
ensured his victory, rivalry with old-style gay activists. Milk is
shown as reprimanding (“This is shit and masturbation, just a coward’s
response to a dangerous threat!”) and prognosticating: “If a bullet
should enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door.” Is he
prescient or a superhero? It’s the latest form of celebrity worship.
Paranoid Park (2007): Following Paranoid Park,Van Sant’s most perversely morbid exercise, it’s naive to read Milk as
anything other than a death-mask epic. After a
post-assassination—“Doesn’t anybody care?”—set-up, the candle-lit
procession of 30, 0000 mourners is the sort of sentimentality expected
in a biopic by Ron Howard. It makes Milk’s motto, “Privacy is the
enemy,” a bizarre proposition coming from a solipsist-artiste.
status quo might feel a self-righteous pang while watching this
procession, but anyone familiar with filmmakers who elucidate gay
struggle (Patrice Chereau, Tsai Ming Liang, Julien Hernandez,
Fassbinder and Pasolini, et al.) should detect dubious political commitment in Milk’s maudlin display.
a guaranteed crossover hit, which carries something of a double-cross
by cinching the opportunity to give mainstream media exactly the
sanctimonious tearjerker it can easily endorse. Emilio Estevez’s far
superior Bobby expressed clear political dedication through the
challenge of a summary RFK speech, but I can’t help thinking Van Sant
uses Milk’s own pledge, “I’m not a candidate, I’m part of a movement.
The movement is the candidate,” to express his own—savviest—career
move. Crossing-over is Van Sant’s ultimate perversion. C
Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, opens Nov. 26