Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Milk (Gus Van Sant)

A couple of years ago I stumbled across Rob Epstein's 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk while browsing DVD titles at the 96th St. New York Public Library. I had only the vaguest recollection that Harvey had something to do with gay rights, but I checked it out anyways (the "Best Documentary Academy Award" bump may have influenced my decision).

The Times of Harvey Milk charted Harvey's path from a small business owner on the Castro to San Francisco city supervisor (and, of course, the first openly-gay elected official). It examined his unlikely relationship with local Teamsters forged during the Coors beer boycott, his modest achievements as city supervisor, and his efforts against California's infamous anti-gay "Prop 6." It also illustrated his relationship with supervisor Dan White, his assassination, and the aftermath. With honesty and frankness, Times transcended the nauseatingly formulaic "voice-of-god" documentaries of its time to weave an engrossing yarn that never exaggerated Harvey's modest (if historic) achievements for cheap dramatics. The truth, as far as Epstein was concerned, was remarkable enough.

Apparently Van Sant disagrees. His 2008 feature film Milk transforms Harvey Milk into a MLK-esque mass leader, constantly battling establishment straights and gays alike in a cheaply poetic (and embellished) tearjerker. Not only is this one of Van Sant's most straightforward films from a narrative point of view, it's also his most cinematically conventional in a decade. Though lamentably littered with an array of undeveloped supporting characters, Penn's spot-on characterization of Harvey at least helps us forget the mediocrity of his peers (I'm looking at you, James Franco).

I was most annoyed by Van Sant's "opera" gimmick. After introducing Milk's love for opera early on, Gus finds ways throughout the film to randomly remind us of this seemingly innocuous character trait. I kept wondering at these occasional distractions. They rarely integrated with the story and were too undeveloped to actually add any depth to Harvey. Was this simply a casualty of the cutting room? Or was Van Sant just padding the film?

We discover the answer (and Van Sant's penchant for poor poetry) in the film's finale: Milk's assassination. As Milk teeters on his knees after embracing several bullets, we see his final glimpse of this world reflected in the office window: the opera house, conveniently placed across the street.

Milk kept my attention, but gimmicks like this make me wonder what the hell has gotten into the Academy. Decent film? Sure. Best picture worthy? Give me a break.

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