Thursday, December 18, 2008


I've never seen a lot of movies in the theater. There's been a bit of an uptick in that recently, but I'm still kind of limited by the fact that I'm a graduate student, which means I don't have the money to see too many movies or the free time I'd need to see them. I finally got around to seeing Milk, though, and figured I'd jump on it while it's still fresh in my mind to actually start writing on here again. And no, before someone on the internets asks, I didn't see it in a Cinemark theater. I saw it at the Landmark on Diversey and Clark; the same place I saw Redbelt (which, if you haven't seen it, is a pretty solid movie).

The assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk happened a good five years before I was born, so I hadn't really heard much about it. I'd heard vaguely of the "Twinkie Defense", but I never really looked into the person that term was coined for (Former Sup. Dan White) or the case behind it. It seems really strange, now, that I'd not heard of Harvey Milk before this, but it's possible that I'm just completely unaware of the things that go on around me. I could spend this post talking about Sean Penn's performance as Milk, or James "I'm in this as penance for being in Spider-Man 3" Franco as Scott Smith, but that's boring. That's been done everywhere else, and I'm not particularly good at it.

Instead, all I could think of while I was watching it was how incredibly appropriate it was for what's happened in the past few months. I'm to young to remember Anita Bryant running around the country, trying to eliminate laws that barred employers for firing employees because of their sexual orientation, but when Marina turned to me after her introduction and said "She's Sarah Palin", the parallel was hard to dismiss. The fight against California Proposition 6 in the film (which would have called for the firing of anyone employed by California schools who either was homosexual or wasn't outwardly hostile to them) mirrored the recent passage of Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages. I'm not sure whether the speeches were taken verbatim from the speeches Milk gave, but the focus on hope seemed oddly similar to Obama's message.

Beyond the politics, it's just a good story. The tension between Scott and Harvey, the difficulty of running a campaign (and the changes that were necessitated between the first and second runs) and trying to figure Jack out would make it something you should see even if you don't particularly care about what its opponents would demonize as the "homosexual agenda". But the politics are essential. It's oddly inspiring that way. Milk is set up in the first few minutes as a forty-year-old closeted insurance salesman who's never done anything with his life other than just getting by, and is able to take a position and effect actual reform with it. Lately, I've been having a lot of doubts about what I've done so far, but hell, if someone can get elected City Supervisor and push through a successful campaign to defeat an unjust bill between the ages of forty and forty-eight, then twenty-five is starting to seem pretty young again.

I don't know if I've ever experienced this before, but people were audibly crying by the end. That may say something more about the kind of movies I tend to see than anything else (people weren't crying at Ghost Town or Die Hard 4, and there were only two other people in the theater the last time I made it to the Music Box to see Boy A, which you should do if you haven't, by the way), but nonetheless, I thought it was an appropriate reaction. Afterwards, the mood seemed a bit somber; it seemed like we'd just watched the rise of this politician and radical reform he was able to enact in the mid-seventies, but since then nothing's changed. I don't think I agree with that. The anti-protection-from-discrimination laws have been tossed out and while we have states changing their governing document to make sure only certain relationships are given the full benefits of state acknowledgement, same-sex marriage is legal in two states, something that is so far beyond what Milk and his allies were fighting for that it's hard to believe it's only been thirty years since the events of the movie. The most perplexing part of the whole mess was (in the film) and is (in reading arguments against gay rights) that I just don't understand why people care so much. The bogeyman of "they'll come after the children" is invoked, but that's not got much statistical evidence to back it up and, on the whole, is an appeal to base fear. I don't, and likely won't, understand how people can simultaneously claim to be in support of limited government and advocate an expansion of governmental power into the personal lives of citizens in such a way. It all seems to be a screen for something else. It has to be, because I don't understand what the deal is otherwise. It's hinted at in a recreation of a debate between Milk and John Briggs, a legislator in support of Prop. 6, that it's all really about a power grab and the institution of a society much different than the one the Constitution mandates (which, I guess, makes it appropriate that people are demanding we change the core document to get their petty prejudices codified).

The only thing I'd have liked to see more of is the story of Dan White, who seems like a decent guy throughout, if a bit overwhelmed by what he's been thrust into. The movie, I think, actually makes the case that his murder of Harvey Milk was not motivated by Milk's sexual orientation, but that he was merely someone who irritated him and was on his mind when he snapped. His plans to kill two others, though not shown in the movie, suggest that it was premeditated and that he had just completely lost it, and I'd have liked to see more of his descent from supervisor-who's-trying-to-do-what's-best-for-his-constituents to someone who would assassinate the mayor and a co-worker. It seemed kind of sudden. But that's a minor detail. It's not a movie about him. It's a movie about Milk, and you really probably had better see it.

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