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Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008) February 7, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Biopic, Hollywood, Queer.


Directed by Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin

The bullet did not destroy every closet door but it did manage to shake the rickety foundations of a stifling convention. Like every great man, Harvey Milk died when almost all his aspirations were falling into place, when he was just beginning to fulfill the hopes of every gay man in San Francisco, and when every little step he made for the movement became a huge leap to every homosexual all across America. Gus Van Sant details the travails of the last few years of his life, the time when Milk felt he hasn’t done anything yet that he could be proud of, by giving us a vignette of brimming happiness, a drop of vitriol that burns less because it is diluted with too much water, the effect stops when we feel the prickling heat. The mixture of archival footage, interviews, commercials, and screen texts with the actual narrative works. The overwhelming layers of Milk’s remaining years reveal that the film intends not only to punctuate his influence and significant social reform, but also to bookmark a turning point in history when homophobia is militantly defied as a religion. Van Sant’s competence is unquestionable; he has given Milk’s life a combination of entertaining flair and upright seriousness that characterize his advocacy. But the story almost kills me with too much focus, that while it has touched me pensively, leading to a lot of disorganized thoughts on whether a free society is ever possible, it fails to arrest me completely. Milk’s political struggle and personal life seem not to connect. Like threads weaved in different clothes, they form a recognizable yet distant attachment to their whole. The Academy supposes a biopic of a rebellious icon qualifies for eternal recognition – – social responsibility? moral compensation? alleviation of guilt? – – but compared with Van Sant’s other films, Milk only feels like an exercise, a safe exercise that makes up for its timeliness and Penn’s ubiquitously gay nuances.



1. Jayclops - March 3, 2009

“leading to a lot of disorganized thoughts on whether a free society is ever possible” Wow. Same thoughts on that one. I guess what may fail to arrest us is that we are not on that struggling side, for to be truly arrested I think, we have to be on that demography captured in Lance Black’s and Penn’s speech. But the advocacy is staggering, and if only to give us a glimpse of that period in the movement, is laudable. And maybe those threads don’t have to necessarily weave seamlessly? I see two portraits there: Harvey as advocate, bravely battling society’s discrimination and indifference, and Harvey, the gay man struggling to provide balance and normalcy to an “unnormal” life. But nevertheless, it was also fun to watch the ensemble. It should’ve won for Gus the Director Oscar, even the film. Most deserved among the five I think.

2. Richard Bolisay - March 3, 2009

I agree that it is the best among the five, but then the nominees are weak this year. There is no There Will Be Blood greatness, no No Country fun, or Michael Clayton suspense. Milk is fine, I liked it, but it lacks the punch that I expect, or maybe it doesn’t need one? I don’t know, I was just a little underwhelmed after seeing it. Diego Luna’s character is off-putting, though that maybe is intentional. Penn and Franco look good together, that I can say. And yeah, those speeches were the best of the night.

Regarding not being on “the struggling side,” aren’t we?

3. Jayclops - March 3, 2009

Well, on the struggle for a just and free society, yes.

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