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Monday, February 20, 2017
Gus Van Sant | Milk
out of sync
by Douglas Messerli
Dustin Lance Black (screenplay), Gus Van Sant (director) Milk / 2008
I missed this 2008 biopic of San Francisco supervisor, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), shot to death by his highly disturbed fellow supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin), along with then San Francisco mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber); my companion Howard saw it at the time, and encouraged me to see it, but for some reason I cannot now recall, I never visited the theater.
Although I might have wished that Harvey Milk might have been portrayed by a truly gay actor, Penn’s performance is excellent, as is the (perhaps) closeted Brolin figure and many of the others, not truly gay, but who nonetheless play gay figures credibly, including James Franco as Milk’s early lover, Scott Smith, the man who brought him out of the closet and into the crucible of San Francisco’s Castro district.
In Van Sant’s telling, it almost appears that Milk was destined to his political aspirations and ultimate achievements from the beginning. But the few scenes we have early on, as Milk picks up a cute boy in the subway to help him celebrate his 40th birthday, do not even suggest that this transformation might have been imaginable, despite his ability to even convince the young pick-up, who claims he does not have sex with men over forty, to not only join him for the night, but to move across the nation with him as his companion.
In fact, the whole movie, despite its dedication to the actual events, seemed to be somehow out of sync with my own personal memories and experiences. Who would have thought that in the early 1970s San Francisco was still a very difficult place in which to be gay, with regular police raids on Castro bars, regular arrestment of gay denizens, and even street murders of gays simply walking their lovers home?
I tried desperately to remind myself of those horrible events. But my year in 1969 in New York, where every night I visited gay bars—many of them far more tawdry and controversial than the Castro bars mentioned—simply did not accord. I never once, in almost a year in New York, encountered an intruding policeman, and never for one instant did I feel threatened. Perhaps I should have been. Certainly, Milk, at the same period of time, was almost paranoid, warning his young friend that he should not have agreed to go with the elder man.
Only a few days after I left New York, on June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall riots took place, almost permanently, so I imagined, changing the entire landscape for gays throughout the country. I had often stopped by the Stonewall, on my way to a much wilder place—with a late night back room for open group sex. But I have never felt any possible danger. Clearly I was wrong; maybe I was just lucky.
Yet in Madison, Wisconsin the year after, when I met my long-time companion and now husband, Howard, at that campus’ first gay liberation meeting, I still felt no danger. Politics, yes, could land you in jail for that, and I experienced the violent campus riots in late 1969 and 1970. But not sex! Howard and I were a few of the first University of Wisconsin students to openly protest the seminal gay film, The Boys in the Band, for its stereotypical characters. We’d seen—and even appreciated the film (I had even been an usher for its off-Broadway productions in New York)—but both of us and others resented its presentation of gay “types.”
I am not doubting, given the facts, that Milk made radical governmental changes in San Francisco and across the nation, particularly with regard to Anita Bryant’s terrifying attempts (much like some supporters of Trump) to take away gay rights, which Milk quite brilliantly stood up for. And I am sure that in San Francisco, the gay wealthy were not quick to embrace his open populism and his true challenges to the local governmental machines. I’m just saying that the facts rather startled me. I had no idea, at the time, that we gays were still being treated like deviants and second-class citizens in the most openly gay community in the national. Let me just admit, that this movie was terribly revealing to me, and brought a lot of tears to my eyes. Milk’s challenges to the young street boy, Cleve Jones, were even a bit shocking.
I too was taunted as a gay boy in my high school days in 1960, but that it had continued to happen in Phoenix (Jones’ hometown) in the mid-1970s tortured me. Maybe Howard and I, embedded in the liberal art and literary world, had just been isolated from what so many others suffered, even in totally liberal societies such as San Francisco. Today, I can only explain it that we were in the bubble that is now most of California.
But Milk helped make that bubble, even if he had to offer up his own life to make it possible. And what you realize in watching Van Sant’s fine film is that it could revert to another reality in a flip of the hand. Well, maybe not that quickly, but in a blink and a nod. The rights the LBGT community has achieved are not there forever, and might be revoked, as they were in Weimar Germany, without our even imagining that possibility. Rights must be fought for, as Milk every day realized, and which helped to make him the hero that nearly everybody in the Castro perceived him to be. Around us there is always the bigotry and hate, despite even the protections of money, prestige, position, which I guess we had—although we never perceive it that way. Milk was a populist street-fighter, and knew that such a position might surely cost him his life.
The way Penn beautifully portrays him, Milk always had a sense of hope and a delightfully sly smile that charmed the best of his friends and even the worst of his enemies. And perhaps it was that charming smile that finally got to the heart of the angry man hating himself for whom he was: Dan White, who after release from prison—shockingly only seven years for manslaughter instead of murder— committed suicide. He was no longer welcome in any major California community, had lost his marriage, and, clearly, his entire identity, even if he had been saved from what was surely a hate crime. Later, it came out that he had originally intended on killing two others, supervisor Ruth Carol Silver and future San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown.
Los Angeles, February 20, 2017