JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Milk and gay political history

by Harry M. Benshoff

Milk (2007) is this year’s Hollywood/independent “boutique studio” neo-queer prestige picture. By that, I mean it is this year’s Far From Heaven (2002), The Hours (2002), or Brokeback Mountain (2005). These are all films that transcend the tiny budgets and limited release patterns of most independent LGBT films, precisely because small “independent” divisions of major Hollywood corporations manufacture them. Like Brokeback Mountain, Milk was released under the banner of Focus Features, currently a division of Universal Pictures. What this means is that unlike “truly” independent films about queer people and queer concerns (more and more of which are bypassing theatres altogether and going straight to DVD release), “boutique studio” films usually feature big-name Hollywood stars, modest budgets, and are marketed as prestigious critic-and-award-buzz pictures rather than films about lesbian, gay, or queer content per se. They can and do move out of the relatively small ghetto reserved for films perceived and marketed as LGBT films, and they are seen by increasingly wider audiences, especially as they follow platforming release patterns facilitated by their corporate parents. Thus your local rural multiplex may soon be showing Milk, just as it did Brokeback Mountain a few years ago.

The two films are interesting to compare, as they illuminate different aspects of the gay rights movement, and strike different “nerves” in heterosexual United States. Milk — even if it wins numerous Oscars — will never be the phenomenon that Brokeback Mountain was, partly because it does not carry the same semantic charge. Brokeback Mountain is a fictionalized and highly emotional romance as well as a queering of the presumably heterosexual Western genre and its mythic representations of U.S. masculinity. That is arguably the main reason it caused such a pop culture panic in some quarters. On the other hand, Milk is a true story about self-defined gay men and their struggles to find a voice within mainstream U.S. politics. (Paradoxically however, Milk features more scenes of male-male intimacy than does Brokeback Mountain.)

Milk may ultimately be the more important film because of its ties to “real life” and its ambitions to rediscover and re-circulate an important story still missing from most accounts of the nation’s civil rights movement. Although both films roughly chronicle the same time period (the immediate pre- and post-Stonewall eras of the 1960s and the 1970s), Milk is concerned with actual historical (and contemporary) politics, while Brokeback is concerned with mythic ones. Indeed, it is hard not to read Milk in light of the election of Barack Obama, as both Obama and Milk championed a “message of hope” for the underrepresented. Similarly, Milk’s focus on California’s Briggs Initiative (homophobic legislation of the era designed to remove LGBT teachers from public schools) eerily echoes the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California. Both laws sought to legislate discrimination via voter mandate, overruling court-ordered decisions about equal rights protections.

For anyone who does not know, Milk tells the story of the first openly gay elected official in the United States, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), who was assassinated in 1978 by an unhinged right wing politician named Dan White (played by Josh Brolin). Their story had been told on film once before, in the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Milk — although scripted by Dustin Lance Black (The Journey of Jared Price [2000], Big Love [2006-]) and enacted by upcoming Hollywood stars like James Franco and Emile Hirsch — remains remarkably faithful to the facts of Harvey Milk’s life, at least as represented by the documentary. Milk even goes a bit further than the documentary in relating the emotional intricacies of Harvey’s character, noting the suicides that plagued his lovers, including that of Jack Lira (Diego Luna), an incident missing from the documentary altogether. In fact, footage from The Times of Harvey Milk as well as other documentaries and television news shows of the era commingle with recreated scenes throughout Milk, a facet of its queer hybrid style that director Gus Van Sant wanted to bring to the film since he first became involved with it. (Somewhat infamously, a Hollywood biopic about Harvey Milk had languished in development hell since at least the early 1990s.)

It is not just the presence of New Queer Cinema alumnus Gus Van Sant that makes Milk “neo-queer,” a term that might also describe most if not all of these recent hybrid boutique films with LGBT content. I use the term neo-queer to distinguish these films from New Queer Cinema itself, a movement of early 1990s tiny-budgeted activist and independent films like Poison (1991), The Living End (1992), and Van Sant’s own My Own Private Idaho (1991). Neo-queer films represent a development from those films, chiefly through bigger budgets, the backing of major studios, and less “in-your-face” rhetoric. And although I would be loathe to label these boutique films as New Queer Cinema, they are nonetheless queer in style and content via their insistence on historicizing their subjects’ sexualities, a primary goal of queer theory, New Queer Cinema, and other forms of queer artistic practice. Thus, rather than wallow in a fuzzy glowing nostalgia (which the lighting crew and cinematographer Harris Savides took pains to eschew)[1][open endnotes in new window], Milk uses documentary and television footage as a way to anchor Harvey’s life in an actual historical era.

Like The Times of Harvey Milk, Milk is as much about a movement and an era as it is about a man (a point Sean Penn’s Harvey makes throughout the film). Thus, we see Harvey’s lover Scott transform from late-1960s hippy to mid-1970s clone, while listening to the music of David Bowie, Sylvester, and faux-Euro pop (on a turntable!) scored by Danny Elfman. Internecine battles between the era’s gay leaders are also dramatized, as when David Goodstein, then-editor of The Advocate advocates a go-slow approach to Harvey’s direct challenges. Anita Bryant’s mid-1970s crusade against civil rights protections for LGBT Americans, and California State Senator Briggs’s Proposition 6 campaign are both given extensive screen time. The then-everyday occurrences of police brutality, hate mail, rural isolation, and fear of attack just walking down the street are all dramatized in Milk, and the actual hate crime murder of Robert Hillsboro becomes a key point in the narrative. Perhaps most remarkably, the film opens with documentary footage from the 1960s that depicts the then-standard practice of police officers raiding peaceful gay bars, rounding up and handcuffing men in suits who look like refugees from AMC’s Mad Men (yet another recent text to historicize carefully the sexualities of previous generations). These are all important historical facts about the gay rights movement that straight audiences (as well as younger queer ones) may never have considered before.

Van Sant also uses still photos, various film stocks, and simulated home movie footage (as when Harvey and Scott first travel west to San Francisco) to underline his concern with the specific discourses of various visual forms. Like much queer cinema (and especially the work of Todd Haynes), Milk’s visually mixed style literally underlines the ways and means that cinematic and televisual apparatuses can and do construct multiple histories of singular events. Harvey too, like many countercultural leaders and queer filmmakers, was acutely aware of the aesthetic nature of political discourse. As the film shows, he was not opposed to staging press conferences or street demonstrations as grand theatrical events, much like his beloved operas. And while the film demonstrates that politics is theatrical, it itself simultaneously attests to the political nature of art.

Theorists like Monica B. Pearl have noted New Queer Cinema’s gestation within the AIDS crisis, and the ways that its films are “preoccupied with death and time and history.”[1] Milk is set entirely before the AIDS crisis, yet it too is preoccupied with those themes, deliberately playing with time and history as they lead up to Harvey’s death. After its initial montage of documentary footage, Milk introduces its central framing device: Harvey himself in 1978 narrating a tape of his life to be played in case of his death. (Many of these lines are taken directly from Milk’s actual recordings.) Periodically the film returns to this scene as Harvey’s story unfolds more or less in chronological order: his meeting with Scott in New York City, their opening a camera store in the Castro that was also an impromptu community center, his several unsuccessful runs for office, and his ultimate election to City Supervisor. Time becomes most obviously unstuck in the quiet sequence preceding Milk’s assassination. In it, Harvey’s dimly-lit late night talk on the telephone with Scott — reminiscing about their past and some possible future — is intercut with the harsh light of the next morning, as Dan White sits on his suburban couch, plotting his revenge against Milk and Mayor Moscone (who was his other victim).

The film also features some Van Sant signature auteur touches: slow-motion shots of falling chads that recall the fizzing bubbles washing over the images of Drugstore Cowboy (1989), along with multiple split-screen images of a telephone tree that suggest both the magazine cover pin-ups of My Own Private Idaho as well as Van Sant’s Warhol-inspired urge for serial reproduction. Most obviously, the floating steadicam shots that follow Dan White through the corridors of City Hall the morning of his murderous rampage bring to mind their similar use in Elephant (2003). But it is Van Sant’s intermingling of the real and the fictionalized that remains at the core of Milk’s queer style. Several actual key players from the era (including Tom Ammiano, a gay teacher who fought hard against the Briggs Initiative and later became a City Supervisor himself) appear in minor roles. And the film ends with a sequence that shows the “real life” figures that the film’s characters were based upon — from Cleve Jones (who would go on to create the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt) to Danny Nicoletta (a photographer who documented much of the era’s struggles).

It is nice to see actor Lucas Grabeel, best known for playing the crypto-gay boy Ryan Evans in the High School Musical franchise (2006, 2007, 2008), here playing the out-and-proud Danny Nicoletta. Perhaps that fact best illustrates the nexus of where cinema and sexuality exist in 2009. Every year or so — at least since they bought up most of the independent film distributors in the 1990s — Hollywood releases a thoughtful film or two about queer Americans and their civil rights (or lack thereof), and those films often receive a great deal of critical praise. Yet, those same subjects are still forbidden from being mentioned in most high schools, let alone High School Musical blockbusters, where the queer kids are still hidden behind closet doors, albeit flashy ones. Personally, I long for the day when gay history and practical, factual information about sexuality can be taught in the public schools and not be relegated to the art house theatre. As good and as important a film like Milk is, it is still a drop in the bucket of pop culture discourses (like those constructing Ryan Evans in High School Musical) that still represent queers as sniveling stereotypes conveying ideologies of secrecy, shame, and marginalization.

I will end with a few personal observations/anecdotes. I encountered a great deal of homophobic hostility when I first attempted to teach The Times of Harvey Milk to a general student body here at the University of North Texas, some 9 years ago. Catcalls and homophobic remarks in the classroom led me to hand out some information specifically on the subject, which was resented by the students not only for its subject matter but perhaps even more so for being extra required reading. Student evaluations accused me of pushing the “gay agenda,” and I still get an occasional comment or two along those lines. Since then however, issues (and readings) about race, class, gender, and sexuality are built into all my classes as a matter of course. Furthermore, UNT now has a “Study of Sexualities” minor program, several active campus groups for queer students and faculty, and a few years ago The Advocate even named UNT as a good school for LGBT students. So things do change. Films like Milk may still be few and far between, but their very existence plays an important role in the ongoing hegemonic negotiation of sexuality and civil rights in the United States.

Notes

1. See Jean Oppenheimer, “A High Price for Progress,” American Cinematographer (December 2008) 29-43.

2. Monica B. Pearl, “AIDS and New Queer Cinema,” in Michele Aaron, ed., New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004) 28.


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