Sunday, December 14, 2008


After brunch today, we walked down old Pecan Street where we came across the new incarnation of the Ritz Theatre. We saw that Milk was playing so we decided to catch the matinee on this beautiful Sunday.

Maybe the movie was more meaningful because I sometimes stay in the Castro district when I'm in San Francisco. Maybe it's just a really good movie. I thought that Shawn Penn's portrayal was spookey good, sometimes looking just like the real Harvey.

If you don't know the story, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay guy elected in American politics and his story certainly makes for a powerful and moving movie.

I looked at several reviews and most of them just didn't capture my sense of the movie. This one from the local newspaper did the best:

"The movie begins with him in 1978, making a tape recording to be played in the event of his assassination. We then flash back to 1970, when Milk, at 40 years old, decides to throw off his closeted life and move from New York to San Francisco with his new lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). clip

By the time he arrives in San Francisco, Milk looks like a hippie, but he's an old hippie with non-hippie talents, such as a gift for organization and a head for business. He buys a camera shop, and soon his store becomes a community hangout. Before anyone else does, Milk realizes the potential clout of the gay community.

He becomes the guy people go to when they get beaten up by the police. He becomes the guy the Teamsters talk to when they want the gay community on their side. A generation ago, it apparently wasn't that easy being gay in San Francisco, but Milk realizes the way out of the darkness: He understands that mainstream acceptance will come not through hiding and assimilation but through people being openly and unapologetically themselves.
Van Sant's (the director) goal in "Milk" is to give the gay rights movement the grandness and impact of the civil rights movement.
To do that, Milk must be made into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr., who led a moral crusade, fully knowing that he might be murdered along the way.
In truth, the King comparison only goes so far. Yes, Milk led a crusade that involved physical risk, and the real Harvey Milk did make tapes (in 1977) to be played in the event of his assassination. But it would be stretching things to say Milk was killed because he was gay.
His death was more like a fluke, part of a macabre workplace crime that also robbed the city of its mayor. It's evidence of the film's effectiveness, its power to incite emotion, that Milk's death is made to feel like the inevitable consequence of his being a visionary.
One truth "Milk" doesn't need to amplify or manipulate: It's that Harvey Milk's story is part of the San Francisco story, and that story still means something, even to those who came to town years later and never heard of Milk until they got here.
Van Sant's (the director) images of the candle-lit procession in the aftermath of Milk's death, of the tens of thousands filling Castro Street, are as moving as anything on this year's screen. Those images will mean the same everywhere - that there's something in the American soul that makes people want to come together and that makes progress unstoppable."
Back last September, as I walked down through the Castro, I noticed the Harvey Milk something or another. It was a school or a public building of some kind. I knew something about Harvey Milk, but not that much really.
This film will give you the historical context you need to understand what an important figure Harvey Milk was in the struggle against hate and oppression of the gay community, and how every struggle of any community or racial group often finds focus in a single individual.
It is a potent reminder that progress of the human condition is a constant struggle, a struggle against those who would divide us through our religion, through our cultural biases, and through our fears.
Like most good hero stories, it shows us how more often than not, great men do not make history, but that history makes great men.
I suspect there will be a lot of that going on in the next 10 years, as we watch history and we watch those who are in sinc with it move together to change the world in ways we could never have imagined just a few decades ago.
Milk made me feel good and it made me cry.
And Shawn Penn should get an Academy Award nomination for it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great posting but there are a two points I want to make. I read recently that a lesbian (I believe in the Northeast) was elected as an openly gay candidate before Milk was.

Secondly, I agree that the "great man" theory of history should be a thing of the past. But the use of "man" as a generic for "people" should be also.

7:27 AM  
Blogger oZ said...

Robin, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was also brought to tears by this movie just as I was in 2003 when I visited the Harvey Milk Museum in San Francisco. Yes, Academy Awards are very likely in the wings for this great movie as there should be. The sterling performance by Sean Penn certainly deserves one.
Robin's post reminded me of a quip I once heard on one of Bill Maher's shows, "Lesbians can't be gay--they have no sense of humor. (Ha ha.)" I have had many gay male friends, some of whom I have dearly loved and half of whom have died.
Still I have a problem with the whole "gay" designation--as if negation of appeal for the opposite sex, in particular, women, is a definitive source of happiness, joy and contentment for some guys.
I used to joke that all men fall into two categories--those who think about having sex with a woman every fifteen minutes and those for whom just the thought of sex with a woman is repugnant.
For me the notion of being "openly gay" conjures up imagery of male to male sexual contact in Pease Park. I rather wish a moniker like "admittedly homosexual," had become the norm instead.
I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with who has sex with whom. I just think it is unfortunate that the "preference" notion has come to define a sexual freedom movement.
I've often wondered as to what the antomym to the word "prefer" is. Through the Internet I could only come up with "dislike."
I, for one it seems, don't approve of definitive designations based on even the hint of a subtle form of sex-based bigotry.
I consider hatred and violence against any identifiable group to be thoroughly and totally evil. Yet the price of admission to any group based on dislike for the opposite sex seems like bad form to me whatever the subtitle.
Frances, aka BalconesFalk

10:33 AM  

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