the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Harvey Milk (2009)

Milktoast Heroes

My grandmother was born when women were forbidden to vote. I was born when African Americans were legally segregated and exploited. I was a seven years old when the gay community put its foot down at Stonewall. As a middle-aged American I can say, borrowing the tag line from the first smokes broadly marketed to young women: “You’ve come a long way, baby”. Harvey Milk is a name most likely remembered by the same people who can recall “Virginia Slims” cigarettes. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Milk has fallen into obscurity. My theory is that the timing of his assassination unfortunately coincided with one of the most disquieting events in 20th Century American history. Milk was murdered on Nov. 27th 1978. Jim Jones orchestrated the Jonestown massacre on Nov. 18 the same year. To give you an idea the impact the mass suicide had on the news cycle I would note that the Dec. 4 issue of Newsweek featured a cover “special report” on “the cult of death”. Harvey was being pushed out of history before his ashes were scattered.

There is much carping about matching the struggle of the gay rights movement with the battles of the mainstream civil rights advocates. A cursory viewing of the actual black and white film footage of police raids on gay bars, which appears during the opening credits of the feature film “MILK” should put to rest any notion that this movement lacked legitimacy. The pathos of these images is strong enough that only the most hardened bigot would fail to see the inhumanity. There is no doubt that Mr. Milk should be placed alongside Malcolm X and other easily recognizable martyrs for human rights. Mr. Van Sant made the film to correct the record and give Harvey is rightful place in the mainstream collective consciousness of good men fighting for a good cause. Unfortunately the film shares the fate of Spike Lee’s bio-pic “X” in that strong performances cannot overcome poor direction and bad writing.

The paradigm American hero is George Washington, a man very, very aware of his place in history. I doubt there are any schoolchildren familiar with the red haired founding father who had no biological children and owed his wealth and standing to marrying a widow. This does not detract from Washington’s accomplishments but it does give a human touch to a personage who coolly gazes up from the one dollar bills (maybe it was the laudanum – you didn’t know?). Young America, still somewhat awed by European aristocracy, adopted the notion that national heroes need to be heroic beyond their recognized accomplishments. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” is chock-a-block with advice on frugality, humility, hard work, honesty… even tips on bathing… Is it any wonder that a century and half latter two young American boys from immigrant families would create the culmination of the George Washington ideal: SUPERMAN. It is unfortunate that Truth, Justice and the American Way gives us little humanity in our pantheon of national heroes. MLK has become tepid… no room for his attitudes regarding economic egalitarianism, his family difficulties or his short-comings as a scholar…. Once again the truth of MLK’s doesn’t detract from his greatness – in fact I would argue the opposite. Just as the lies Samuel L. Jackson repeated in the pre-inauguration ceremony about Rosa Park’s ordinariness take away from this daring activists role as the spark that ignited the conscious of a nation. She certainly did get on the bus to get arrested AND I SAY BRAVO!

Who was Harvey Milk? I’m sure of few things in life but one of them is that he wasn’t the selfless, affable, earnest, edgeless do-gooder depicted in Mr. Van Sant’s work; despite Sean Penn’s efforts. How could he be? The last person I saw who resembled that person was the leading character in the original production of Godspell. There are hints of something more human in the storyline: the failed relationships, the lover’s suicide, the unbridled ambition and, most interestingly, the taped recording “to be played if I am assassinated”. Now here is someone who possesses our Founding Father’s sense of scripting a place in history. His ability to swap a pony-tale for a three piece suit also gave a hint at something darker – it is difficult in the early 21st century to convey the significance of trimming the locks (see David Crosby’s song “Almost Cut My Hair”). It raises an interesting question about degree of compromising involved in winning. The other aspect, glossed over in the film, was Milk’s war on “being closeted”. I don’t know if Harvey actually “outed” someone without their permission but once again the significance of his stance was pummeled over in the TV movie sensibility of keeping our hero on his journey to martyrdom.

In terms of the writing and direction the closing scene post Harvey’s demise sums up the effort: two of his close aids arrive at a city hall remembrance ceremony soon after the assassinations. It is in the foyer of the solemn marble building and it is sparsely attended - one turns to the other "Doesn't anyone care?" - they leave in disgust..... They walk outside and "discover” a candle-lit parade of 30,000 crying mourners. Guess they missed everyone on the way in? Didn’t hear about the march? I don’t remember the scenes where these two aides were cut out of the loop; ditto from them suffering from severe visual or audio impairment. But I guess that’s “artistic license” – just like the stop action of Harvey locking eyes with the poster of Verde Opera woman as he falls (it was soon over after the fat lady sang). The mainstream stereotype of the gay community is a group obsessed with fashion and style. Mainstream television shamelessly plays on this notion in “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”. It is weird and ironic that “Milk” is so, well, “straight”. This is blandest most mainstream production of an alternative lifestyle you will ever experience (actually there is the movie “Philiadephia”). It is as if the Walt Disney company created a theme park called Queerworld. In short the film was too “straight”.

Aside of the artistic camp there was a more insidious side to the Milk show. The producers decided that they didn’t want to associate the film with the Prop 8 anti-Gay marriage proposal that was circulating in CA at the time of the film’s scheduled release. This was a conscious decision and had nothing to do with production issues. The irony here is that, if one is to believe the film (a dubious choice) the crowning achievement of Milk’s career was his leading the DEFEAT of the anti-Gay workplace proposition brought forth by Anita Byrant. The director noted in an interview “Harvey would have opened it in October”. Well we can hope the producers had some sort of strategy in mind that didn’t involved soft-peddling the very principles of the principle. Maybe they figured if Prop 8 won the film would garner an even larger stage – Sean Penn will win best actor and I’ve no doubt that the film will garner more statues than the competition. It looks like the plan, if that’s what it was, is working. Maybe it’s a tribute to Harvey’s pragmatic side – let’s not consider the alternative.

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