Friday, December 12, 2008
Milk is not necessarily the film that many Gus Van Sant fans wanted or expected the director to make. It is not, for one thing, the film where he takes the lessons he learned over the course of his recent run of experimental, personal features — the four films from Gerry to Paranoid Park — and brings this style of poetic, expressive filmmaking to a mainstream biopic with a big star at its center. Instead, the film is itself a fairly straightforward mainstream biopic, with all the limitations and problems attendant to that genre. It is at times overly sentimental, and often manipulative, particularly in its use of musical cues. It is in many ways a masterful piece of political propaganda, at a time when propaganda delivering this particular message is both timely and desperately needed. Van Sant sticks surprisingly close to the formula for a big, socially conscious biopic, hitting all the expected notes along the way. But make no mistake, he has made a film that is, in addition to its other virtues, stamped with his distinctive signature, with a versatile visual aesthetic that makes room within its conventional format and story structure for moments of beauty and gentle poetry. It is a good film if not quite a great one.
The story of the titular Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) will likely be familiar already, at least in its broad outlines, to anyone interested in the film. He was a 1970s San Francisco gay activist who organized a whole gay community around himself and his camera shop in the city's Castro Street neighborhood. He soon became involved in city politics, passionately advocating for gay rights and encouraging gays to "out" themselves. As far as Van Sant is concerned, Harvey's story begins at the age of 40, when he moved to San Francisco, and the film never looks back; true to Harvey's mature philosophy, the film has no time for his many years spent in the closet, hiding his identity. It is difficult not to be stirred and moved by this story, which follows Harvey through his three unsuccessful bids for public office and then through his fourth, successful run to become a San Francisco city supervisor. Harvey is a witty and charming character in Penn's portrayal, and Van Sant hits all the right moments along the way. If there is something of a schematic quality to the story, perhaps this is only inevitable given the nature of Harvey's life.
Van Sant establishes right from the start that this is, first and foremost, the story of an assassinated public official, since the film is narrated by way of a framing story in which Harvey dictates an audio tape to be played if he is ever killed. Van Sant interweaves Harvey's first onscreen appearance with real footage of the assassination's aftermath, indicating that Harvey's prediction will eventually come true, and his tape will have to be played. Van Sant never returns to the post-assassination footage, but throughout the film he does incorporate vintage recordings of San Francisco, as well as his own interjections shot on deliberately grainy film stock to blend in with the documentary material. This footage is used in much the same way as the images of skateboarders, shot on grainy Super-8, which are incorporated into Paranoid Park. The documentary and pseudo-documentary interludes establish a powerful sense of time and place, one that generates tension with the film's otherwise timeless quality: its images of gay rights protesters and Christian moralists could have come from virtually any time in the last 30 years, up to and including the most recent U.S. election and its aftermath.
Some have criticized the relatively slight treatment that is given to Harvey's love life, and it's true that not much attention is given to the long-suffering Scott (James Franco) or his less serious fling with the clingy Jack (Diego Luna), who never rises above the level of a caricature. But in many ways this is typical of the film's genre: just imagine Scott as the wife of the great man, feeling neglected, upset that his love doesn't spend enough time with him. It's a cliché, yes, but not one that gets much notice when the characters are straight; Van Sant's most radical act here may have been to make a film about a character who defines himself by his gay identity and yet increasingly becomes abstracted from the actual practice of it. It is a central irony for Harvey, who in becoming a public figure must sacrifice the private existence he once cherished, and in becoming an icon of gay rights is alienated from his own sexuality.
As a result, there are few sex scenes here, other than in the early sequence that traces the beginning of Harvey and Scott's relationship after Harvey picks up the younger man on a subway platform. They soon move from New York to San Francisco together. This is a carefree period for Harvey, before his political consciousness begins to develop, and it is one of the stretches of the film where Van Sant's poetic visual sensibility is most apparent. These love scenes harken back to his first feature, Mala Noche, his lyrical ode to gay sexuality. The couple's first encounter is shown in extreme closeups that emphasize skin textures and disconnected segments of faces, like a disassembled jigsaw puzzle: an eye, two noses touching, the curve of a neck and shoulder. There is something intimate and immediate about this scene, something extremely moving about the tactile quality that Van Sant imparts to what is, at this point, just casual sex resulting from a pick up on the streets. It is a romantic sensibility, one that has always woven through Van Sant's films, and which can only affect Harvey in the period before he gives himself over to political and social change. It is to defend moments like this that he takes to the streets, but the consequence of his activism is a distancing from the people in his personal life.
The visual aesthetic of Van Sant's recent films (his "death trilogy" and its follow-up Paranoid Park) is reflected most clearly in the collaged perspectives of those early scenes between Harvey and Scott, but also in several other places throughout the film. There is a haunting image following the murder of a gay man in Harvey's neighborhood, as Van Sant shoots Harvey's ensuing conversation with the cops in the blood-stained metal surface of a whistle, glowing gold in the dark street. In another scene, Van Sant blurs the background of the city into a pixelated mash of lights and colors, in which a dark figure walking behind Harvey becomes an object of menace and paranoia. This scene captures the sensation of being afraid to walk the streets, a generalized paranoia in which the possible assailant seems to blend into his surroundings, just a part of the city which is, as a whole, opposed to Harvey's way of life. Van Sant seems to reserve these small visual touches for moments of tension and violence, as though he still associates such poetic imagery with the themes of mortality and murder he's explored throughout his recent work. The film's most delicate, beautiful images are also its most frightening.
Van Sant is less successful in capturing the moment of Harvey's death. He racks the focus to blur the back of Harvey's head and reveal the view out the window he's looking through as he dies: a sign advertising his favorite Tosca opera across the street, bringing a smile to his face in his last moments. It's manipulative and unsubtle, an unnecessarily sentimental touch at a moment that required no such ornamentation. That Van Sant seems to feel it's needed is indicative of some of his problems here, notably his tendency not to trust in his own instincts or the performance of his star. Penn is phenomenal, conveying a gentle calm that can give way to showmanship and mercenary political dealing when it's needed. He is naturally inspirational, which makes it all the more frustrating that Van Sant saddles so many of Harvey's "big" speeches with overbearingly saccharine string accompaniment and packaged bombast. For a director who has had such a sensitive ear for sound design and minimalist music in his past films, he shows a distressing lack of tastefulness here. The film's worst moments play like Van Sant's work-for-hire hack-jobs on Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, as though he hadn't made a quartet of stunning, ambitious independent films in the intervening years.
Still, despite its missteps and limitations, Milk is a worthwhile film, packed with great performances, especially Emile Hirsch as Harvey's young political protege, and Josh Brolin, who brings unexpected layers of depth and sensitivity to the otherwise unsympathetic bigot Dan White, Milk's rival city supervisor and eventual assassin. Van Sant is not exactly working in his comfort zone with this film, despite its gay themes, and the result feels closer in spirit to his dull Hollywood sojourn than anything he's made either in his earlier indie years or his recent resurgence. But if this is the return of Hollywood Van Sant, it's also a better film than anything he's previously made in this mode, both because Harvey Milk himself is inherently exciting and interesting, and because Van Sant's craftsmanship has been honed and tightened by his years of experimentation.