Milk – 2008 – dir. Gus Van Sant
If you are reading this, congratulations! You have survived the apocalypse/are surviving the apocalypse/laughing at everyone who made a big deal over some BS about an apocalypse happening today! You deserve some great movies, courtesy of Focus Features’ 10th birthday celebration! First up today, we have Gus Van Sant’s Milk. This may seem like an odd film to celebrate the apocalypse/post-apocalypse/lack thereof, but you know, I think it kind of fits emotionally. If this is the end for humanity, I think Milk’s a story that demonstrates a lot of the progress we as humans should be proud of, underlined by the tragic pang of regret that we could have done more.
After the opening credits sequence, the film proper opens with a man preparing for the far too probable event of his assassination. Van Sant has developed something of an obsession with death in his films; Milk follows his “Death Trilogy” of experimental films and precedes the ghost romance Restless. Thus, there’s some degree of logic in screening Milk on a day of “impending doom.” But even as it’s framed by death, the movie is primarily the celebration of a life. Credit must go to writer Dustin Lance Black, who took a project originally focused on the trial of Dan White, the man who murdered Harvey Milk, and took it on a very different track. This is not a solemn eulogy. It’s fun. It’s got jokes and sex, snappy editing and bouncy Danny Elfman choruses. Harvey Milk confronts dark truths about hatred with throwing pies and assassination threats by mocking their lack of poetry. Sean Penn’s never been this likable in any role before or after.
Some critics have said they made Milk too likable, that the film glosses over his foibles and turns into hagiography. Well, if we need new saints, I’ll take the snarky, angry, crude-talking gay Jewish hippy radical activist. It’s not as if the film’s portrayal of Milk is lacking in personality. Complaints that the film’s portrayal of the Castro isn’t seedy enough probably have merit as far as historical accuracy but are beside the point when it comes to their necessity to the film. The early plot points relating to cruising are enough to get a sense of what gay life was like in the ‘70s; the stark contrast between then and now is apparent enough. We don’t need to see bathhouse orgies or anything (though the deleted bathhouse scene might be worth uncovering if only for James Franco’s penis, though I’m sure there’s been plenty of other opportunities to see that in the actor’s now-prolific art career).
Then and now serves as a good talking point for the issue of death and accomplishments achieved and missed. Milk saw a lot of progress in his life. On the large scale, there’s the defeat of the discriminatory law Prop 6. On the personal scale, there’s the moving phone call which saves a young man from suicide. The tragedy of his death would mean he’d never get to make greater progress. I wonder, if he had lived long enough, how he’d have reacted to the AIDS crisis, or if he’d have created enough goodwill to defeat Prop 8 (which passed weeks before this film was released). If this was the end of the world, imagine all the progress we’re still missing. But think of all the progress we’ve made. For the first time, the president supports gay marriage, and ballots are now voting in favor of it. We have openly gay generals now, and laws concerning hate crimes. We’ve got a lot more to do, but what we’ve done, we’ve done good.
As for queer cinema, the news hasn’t been as strong overall. Focus Features has continued releasing major queer films (The Kids are All Right, Beginners, Pariah) but otherwise there hasn’t been that much since Milk. But even in the minimal representation in mainstream cinema, there’s sources of hope. The first outing of a character in an animated family film in the progressive anti-bullying fable Paranorman (also a Focus release). The very existence of Cloud Atlas, a $100-million budget genre- and gender-bending epic, co-directed by trans auteur Lana Wachowski, which gives equal weight to its 1920s gay love story as to its post-apocalyptic battles. And according to that film, we have at least 200 years before we have to worry about that apocalypse, so hurray!