Saturday, January 10, 2009

Notes on the Film Milk [2008]

1. As far as I could tell, the film was historically accurate. It would be instructive to compare Milk to the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.

2. A bit unique for a biopic film, there is nothing about Milk's childhood- the film begins on the eve of his 40th birthday. I liked this because the obligatory childhood scenes in these films often strike me as unnecessary. Milk's time in the Navy and previous political work- for Barry Goldwater- might have been interesting though.

3. The film actually begins with footage of a gay bar being raided in the 1950s. One of the interesting things about Milk is the way that Van Sant weaves together staged footage and documentary footage. In the end, I would have to listen to the DVD commentary track to know if this sequence was staged or not. It's an interesting reminder of a time when homosexuality was most often defined by agents of the state- vice squads and judges.

4. Remembering this, Milk's early Republicanism makes sense- he wanted the state out of people's private lives. Remember this was also before the rise of the Religious Right and the decision by some Republicans that having the state regulate private relationships isn't such a bad thing. To put it bluntly, civil libertarians and the religious right have almost nothing in common, aside from often voting for the same guy. Milk ran for office as a Democrat.

5. Good for the filmmakers for noting that Ronald Reagan- citing the threat to civil liberties- opposed the Briggs Initiative- Proposition 6- which would have fired any teacher who was gay, or who supported homosexuals.

6. One historical error- Milk wasn't the first openly gay elected official in the United States. I believe he was the third.

7. But, Harvey Milk ran as part of a gay rights movement, something that would have been impossible before Stonewall. And it's amazing that it took him three tries to win election as city supervisor, considering that he was running in San Francisco and in the Castro.

8. The film is best at showing just how much has changed since the late 70s. I sometimes joke that, when I was a kid, nobody was gay. But it's amazing to think how little gay visibility there was as recently as the 1980s. There is an entire aesthetics of passing that we catch glimpses of in the film, and which has become archaic.

9. The film, then, is about the birth of the gay rights movement in tandem with- and in a sort of dialectical call and response with the rise of the religious right. It's hard to remember a time in which Christian fundamentalists didn't have the political power they gained with Reagan's election; nor is it easy to remember a time in which next to nobody was openly gay. In some sense, neither development would be possible without the other.

10. And the film is also about the crippling psychological toll of living in the closet. When Milk notes that the majority of his lovers have attempted suicide, it's a painful reminder that, for many gays of that era, not living was less painful than living as a homosexual in a heterosexual society. The gay teens who contact Milk to thank him for saving their lives are also startling.

11. I think many people will watch the film and look at the success of Proposition 8 in California, and feel that gays are fighting the same struggles over and over. How many times will gays have to explain to straights that their objective is not to seduce children? When will society finally be enlightened? It seems so obvious- gay people exist; get over it.

Yet, ultimately, people are never going to be purely rational or 'enlightened'. All of us will, at one or many times in our lives, believe something that is untrue, even ridiculously so. Education isa life-long undertaking. So the progressive enlightenment of society- a goal in democratic societies since the French, Haitian, and American Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century- will never be fully accomplished. It's an ongoing concern.

What the film is best at showing is that, in order to change things in a democratic society, it's necessary to get out in the streets and convince others of the rightness of your cause. What's amazing about the film is that it shows that, in many ways, Harvey Milk was just a typical politician; but that being a typical politician can be a humanist enterprise.


Holly said...

I realize it wasn't so very long ago (and, in fact, not in the past at all, for some people), but it really amazes and horrifies me that there were and are people who believe that beating your kids/spouse/pet is OK and probably even necessary, but that being gay is a Serious Problem For Society.

It really, truly gives me that divide by zero thing.

Thanks for doing this write up, the commentary is interesting, even though I haven't seen the film.

Rufus said...

I think the best we can really hope for is a day in which those people make up roughly the same percentage of the population as those who believe that the Masons are a Serious Problem for Society, and then we just ignore them.