By Nathan Lee
Gus Van Sant’s Milk takes its place alongside a recent spate of cinematic death trips
Harvey Bernard Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America, was assassinated on November 27, 1978. He always knew he would die young; Milk’s biographer, Randy Shilts, finds evidence of his fatalism going back to his early days as a closeted Wall Street conservative. Nearly a year to the date before he was killed, the city supervisor–elect sat in the kitchen of his Castro Street apartment and recorded a political will to be played “only in the event of my death by assassination.” Largely concerned with his envisaged succession—favoring, as Milk had throughout his entire career, those who came up in the grassroots gay movement over conciliatory career politicians—the tape recordings further addressed themselves to the rage and despair sure to be vented at his murder. Riots had more than once broken out during the Mayor of Castro Street’s rise to power, as the people who rose with him, no longer cowering from injustice, unleashed their power on the streets of San Francisco. Milk asked for that anger to be redirected into the one thing that “would do more to end prejudice overnight than anyone could imagine”: coming out.
Maybe that’s why Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, fails to show the White Night Riots. When it was announced that Dan White, the disgruntled city supervisor who had assassinated both Milk and mayor George Moscone, would receive minimum sentencing (thanks, in part, to the notorious “Twinkie defense” that claimed junk food had temporarily addled his mind), the peaceable crowd that had gathered in front of San Francisco city hall awaiting the verdict proceeded to smash shit up and set it ablaze. There is amazing footage of these riots, as there is of the stone-silent, incandescent candlelight march that engulfed Market Street the night of Milk’s death. The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein’s superb 1984 documentary, summons its emotionally shattering force from the rhyme of these lights. For once, they called us flamers for good reason. The fires complete each other. One without the other tells half a story.
Van Sant was equivocal when I asked why he chose not to film the riots. Black’s script, he explained, was obligated by the richness of Milk’s biography to certain parameters. Most of their choices are good, if limited by the scope of a conventional narrative feature. And Milk is nothing if not conventional. It begins with the tape-recording session, returning to it throughout—while taking great liberties with its content—so that Harvey (Sean Penn) might narrate his own saga. It begins on the night of his 40th birthday, picking up a cutie (James Franco as Scott Smith) in a New York subway station, and quickly heads west to a burnt-out, post-hippie, working-class Irish neighborhood in San Francisco’s Eureka Valley known as the Castro. On setting up a small camera shop below the apartment he shares with Scott, Harvey is drawn into local business politics and the burgeoning gay scene that would soon revitalize the Castro as a thriving queer mecca. Milk rushes through this late-blooming springtime of Harvey’s career, glancing at his formative alliance with the local labor union, and averting its eyes completely from his enthusiastic sampling of San Francisco treats. “No more pot and bathhouses,” Harvey soon declares, clean-shaven and suit-wearing, as he readies for a run at political office.
The rest makes for solid political procedural: a well-edited and handsomely staged look at how the grassroots grow. Milk is the first movie Van Sant has made about adults since Psycho (98). And perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the biopic, like the remake, is a reflection or simulacrum of preexistent figures. Milk is clearly motivated by getting its story and message across with maximum clarity. No Béla Tarr abstractions here, no Leslie Shatz soundscapes—and no major improvement over The Times of Harvey Milk except insofar as talented movie stars enacting a colorful historical drama command attention, and this movie deserves it. It’s the straightest thing in Van Sant’s career, not unlike Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The framing device—Milk testifying from beyond the grave—nearly feels regressive coming from a filmmaker who spent the last decade rethinking how to frame an event. Accepting Milk as prophet on top of hero, figurehead, and martyr, Van Sant has gone from meditating on inscrutable saints to something quite close to overdetermined hagiography.
But isn’t Milk, like Elephant and Last Days, another doom-laden chronicle of a death foretold? You know going in that all three, for one reason or another, will end in annihilation. As such, Milk is a natural outgrowth of Van Sant’s wandering in the experimental woods, though it strikes out in significant ways from both the earlier films. Suspense forgone, what remains for the viewer of these movies is an engagement with the experience of dying, an intellectual and sensory involvement with the process of demise. External, social, historical, and optimistic where Elephant and Last Days are internal, private, hallucinated, and pessimistic, Milk, a very old-fashioned kind of picture, establishes a new direction in the death-trip movie.
By the middle of the current decade, the shock of apocalyptic terrorism had fully seeped into the imagination of filmmakers, and there came in response a series of movies predicated on foreknowledge of death: Elephant (03), The Passion of the Christ (04), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (05), Last Days (05), United 93 (06). In each case, an unrelenting fatalism gets tied up with pronounced formalist strategies. Despite a variance of surface effect and ideological purpose, they all operate on similar principles.
Consider a pair of mortality procedurals whose very titles indicate their implacable narrative trajectory. Opening, with uncanny coincidence, the same week in April 2006, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and United 93 arrived at shared territory from opposite poles of the cinematic landscape. One emerged from nowhere, via a triumphant debut at Cannes: the entropic tour-de-force, at once hyperrealistic and blatantly allegorical, in which an ailing alcoholic is shuffled through the Romanian hospital system en route to his final breath. The other came from everywhere, via ubiquitous coverage in the press and a queasy opening-night slot at the Tribeca Film Festival: the propulsive tour-de-force, at once hyperrealistic and inscrutably motivated, in which an airplane full of Americans is hijacked by terrorists for a rendezvous with Pennsylvania dirt at 580 miles per hour. Where Cristi Puiu underpins his tragicomic material with shades of Kafka, Dante, and the Stations of the Cross, Paul Greengrass executes his grim conjecture vis-à-vis the terms of the contemporary technothriller: 24, the Bourne pictures. The difference, then, is a contemplative mode (reflection, culture, spirit) versus a visceral strategy (gut reaction, contemporaneity, anxiety), even as both deploy a scrupulously engineered naturalism to grip the audience in a tactile approximation of the death voyage. “Nothing if not visceral,” observed J. Hoberman of Lazarescu. “All the talk about smells make one grateful that the movie’s verisimilitude doesn’t extend to aroma-rama.” Confronting United 93, a rattled Stephanie Zacharek confessed to curling her hands into fists at the sight of a passenger lunging at one of the hijackers, “as if expressing some atavistic desire to choke the life out him myself.”
The Passion of the Christ attempts the contemplative by means of the visceral. Like United 93, it aspires to the status of documentary gospel (“it is as it was”). Like Mr. Lazarescu, it attempts to make suffering resonate with spiritual value. Represented in graphic, unflinching detail, the trauma of Christ traumatizes, in turn, the audience. For the faithful, this conflation of hurt transcends mere empathy to function (miraculously?) as an act of transubstantiation: the physical reaction to extreme violence is felt as a metaphysical convulsion.
Van Sant’s ways through the death trip of Columbine students in Elephant and of Kurt Cobain in Last Days—for it is Columbine we are meant to think of, it is Cobain we are meant to see—is to abstract the flows of time, space, and sound so that our relationship to iconic scenarios is destabilized, internalized. (The Gerry trip doesn’t factor into this discussion, as the element of suspense adheres.) The intention is the opposite of explanation; you can describe the experience of watching these movies but not their “meaning.” All attempts to do so break down into either imprecise spiritual/emotional musings, metaphysics, or procedural discourse. Conundrum: they conjecture the texture of an event using tools (Béla Tarr, structuralism, musique concrète) that pry things open to reveal surfaces beneath surfaces, opacity on opacity, the legitimate enigma under the false mystery. Just as faith permits some viewers of The Passion to charge the spectacle of rent flesh with divine voltage, intensely private feelings are brought to bear on the slo-mo traumas of Elephant and Last Days. There is, in my eyes, a kind of angelic eroticism to the former that lends it emotional weight. (Imprecise musings!) Four viewings on, I have never found a foothold in the moody formalism of the latter, and never less than in the risible, ostensibly transcendent ladder-to-heaven moment. It all leaves me stone cold, but I can no more defy the response of others than of a spectator of United 93 whose husband died on the flight. These death-trip movies are, by design, addressed to individuals.
Milk, by contrast, is communal in theme and spirit. “I have always considered myself part of a movement,” Milk says in his will, “part of a candidacy. I’ve considered the movement the candidate.” This is a more credible version of sentiments expressed in Hillary Clinton’s peacemaking speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, when she admonished her supporters to recognize the agenda, not the individual, as the sustaining engine for change. Indeed, it’s impossible to watch Milk and not think of another wildly charismatic community organizer who rose from obscurity with a burden of minority status—one whose electrifying ascent, moreover, is haunted by widespread if largely unspoken fears of assassination.
Milk alters the death-trip paradigm in that it very much speaks to the meaning of a life heading toward known extinction. You feel this first in the use of archival footage. In that opening scene with the tape recorder Van Sant intercuts the famous footage of Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing the death of Milk and Moscone. The movie keeps slipping into documentary mode, keeping touch with the texture of its milieu, grounding itself in a trace of lived experience. Shot on location in San Francisco with a fidelity to historical fact that extended to re-creating Castro Camera on its original site (now a gift shop), Milk invites us to relive not just an era but an ethos. Again, Van Sant was equivocal when I asked him if making Milk during the 2008 presidential campaign resonated in any conscious way with current events. But just as his earlier death trips are inextricably, if only intuitively, tied up in the inward-turning despair of their times, so Milk is fortuitously, if inevitably, a movie of its moment.
The last words in Milk’s will: “You’ve got to give them hope.”