Thursday, December 18, 2008


Wednesday evening, I finally got to see Milk, the new biographical motion picture about Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay Americans to hold elected office. The film has all of the usual flaws of biopics. The compression of a human life into 90-120 minutes leaves little time to explore nuances of character or depict how the film's subject negotiated the humdrum routine that makes up so much of life, and Milk is no exception. The film also removes, reorders, and blends together events and even people in service of its overarching narrative. Moreover, viewers come to biopics knowing how the story will end -- and for Harvey Milk, the story ended tragically and far too soon.

However, Milk's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black treat Harvey Milk not as a two-dimensional hero but as a kind, savvy, funny, exuberant, and flawed human being, and Sean Penn's probably going to get a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. The supporting cast amply complements his nuanced performance, even if their characters feel a bit flattened at times.

The film also highlights Milk's gift for the theater and give-and-take of politics. The many Americans who have no living memory of Harvey Milk -- the younger members of Generation X and all of the Millennials -- and who think of him only as a gay martyr if they think of him at all might be surprised to learn that he was such a shrewd and inventive politician.

Contemporary audiences will find the political struggles depicted in the film continue to resonate today. Harvey Milk was instrumental in defeating the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 ballot measure that would have prohibited gay men and lesbians and straight people supportive of gay rights from teaching or otherwise working in California's public schools, and viewers of this film cannot help but think of the recent passage of Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California. One can't help but wonder what might have happened had Milk not been assassinated in 1978; one also wonders whether an early autumn release of Milk, which is doing well at the box office, might have been a rallying point for the anti-Proposition 8 forces.

Archivists should note that the film makes extensive use of archival footage, some of which is striking. The clips used at the opening of the film document raids on gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s. Well-dressed men are herded into paddywagons, trying as best they can to shield their faces from the camera, or handcuffed and escorted out of the premises. At one point, the camera lingers on one bespectacled man sitting on a barstool, hands over his face, trembling or perhaps weeping as the police and other patrons mill about the bar. Suddenly, he looks up, grabs his drink, and tosses the contents of the glass at the camera. Cut.

Other archival footage in the film depicts, among other things:
  • A stricken Dianne Feinstein, then president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, announcing to the public on the evening of 27 November 1978 that both Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been murdered within City Hall earlier that day; Feinstein discovered Milk's body in his office.
  • Anita Bryant outlining her staunch opposition to gay rights.
  • Street scenes of San Francisco's Castro neighborhood circa 1975.
  • Aerial views of San Francisco circa 1975.
This archival film and television footage is skillfully blended with new footage shot by Van Sant and company. This blending serves to reinforce the film's claims to veracity, and archivists -- and film scholars -- may want to think more systematically and critically about the use of archival records to give fictional or fictionalized worlds the aura of authenticity.

Milk's end credits don't supply detailed information about the source of these clips (apart from acknowledging an immense debt to makers of the superb 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk), but it's apparent that the filmmakers looked high and low for footage that they could use. I was also pleased to note that the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Historical Society and the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives were thanked in the credits.

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