Harvey Milk - Sean Penn.jpgWe drove up to Chicago to see my mother-in-law over Thanksgiving, and in the hours it would take to finish preparations on the turkey and stuffing and pies and Brussel sprouts and potatoes and more, I snuck out to catch a matinee of Milk at the Century Centre Cinema on Clark and Diversey.

I barely got a ticket, so many other people had the same idea. Now, you can call me gay, straight or Christina Applegate, as long as you don’t call me late for Thanksgiving dinner, but the movie transfixed the packed house and nobody was leaving early to take a turkey out of the oven. The crowd applauded at the finish.

The film is about the first openly gay elected official in American politics, Harvey Milk, a city supervisor in San Francisco in the 1970s. His persistence to be elected, campaign after campaign, despite the odds, came at much personal cost. He received threats. He lost partners. But “indefatigable” was his middle name. Harvey Indefatigable Milk. Ultimately, it cost him his life.


Anyway, Milk is the best American movie I’ve seen this year and if I believed in star ratings, it could have my whole sticker book. It is a reminder of the history of human rights struggle in the United States and of how much remains to be done. Sean Penn portrays Harvey Milk with such selflessness, appeal and uncharacteristic humor, I can’t think of anyone else in serious contention for the Best Actor Oscar.

Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) plays hustler-turned-community organizer Cleve Jones so winningly, he is immediately forgiven for Speed Racer. James Franco, Diego Luna, Josh Brolin (as Milk’s assassin, Dan White) and many others portray a gamut of gayness. They are the most authentic-seeming characters you are likely to see in any movie this year. Director Gus Van Sant has given us a real actor’s movie, nourishing and rich. Forget the turkey. This is the feast.

Working with writer Dustin Vance Black, Van Sant has made a skillful movie, employing documentary footage of the times, the marches, the arrests, the political struggles which parallel today’s Proposition 8 effort shockingly. We see the objectivity of Walter Cronkite and the awful prejudice of Anita Bryant woven into the narrative.

Gus Van Sant is sui generis as a film director. He has given us some of the most mainstream movies (To Die For, Good Will Hunting) and some of the most brazenly experimental (Gerry, Paranoid Park), without compromising. He makes the movies he wants to make, and how he wants to make them. His first film, a 1982 film short, The Discipline of DE, was based on a short piece by William Burroughs and was distributed by Champaign film distributor Ron Epple. It was about the theory of “Do Easy,” a Zen-like mindset of behavior for doing daily tasks. (Very useful for two-point tosses of paper wads into the wastebasket.)

Of all the problems and violence in the world, the fact that gayness has become so prominent a political issue is, frankly, weird beyond belief. But, the country has always found ways to exhibit a blind eye and collective psychosis — native American genocide, blacklisting of artists, Japanese internment camps, detainee torture, etc.

Perhaps prejudice and oppression against gay people is beginning to wane. Barack Obama did welcome gays and straights openly in his Grant Park acceptance speech. That in itself was a first. Ronald Reagan refused to even mention the word AIDS in speeches, even as thousands succumbed, leaving a devastation greater than a hurricane.

I wrote for the gay newspaper The Advocate in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was still based in San Francisco. The market was uncrowded and they bought my stuff regularly, eventually making me a contributing editor. It was a great gig. I watched my editor, Brent Harris, succumb to AIDS before it had a name, when it was called the “gay cancer.” The editors of The Advocate are portrayed in Milk as hapless members of the establishment, afraid to rock the boat. Nobody really knew how to make change happen in those days.

When bluesman and songwriter Steve Earle moved from Nashville to the West Village, he told The New Yorker, “I need to be able to walk out of my door and see a same-sex biracial couple walking down the street holding hands. That makes me feel safe.”

There’s a guy who gets it. Diversity liberates us all.

Some might say Milk dips slightly into the sentimental a touch or two, as with the boy in the wheelchair calling Harvey for encouragement. Others are likely to point out the stylistic touches of Van Sant. He uses tracking shots as Dan White strolls down the hallway set on gunning down San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Milk. Those shots parallel Van Sant’s Columbine movie, Elephant, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2003. (Add this to your rental list, too.) To think that Josh Brolin also portrayed George W. Bush this year and subsequently portrays the assassin of America’s first elected gay politician.

Milk alludes to the fact that Dan White, a city official who repeatedly invoked his family values in opposing Milk, was perhaps a closeted gay. (Roger Ebert claims it outright, without evidence, in his review.) In the film’s footage, we hear the words of Anita Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs saying the same things we hear from social conservatives today: that gay people are destroying the family and marriage. When Anita Bryant is shown saying to the television cameras that she “loves the homosexual,” while at the same time she was trying to make homosexuality illegal, people in the audience at the Century Centre Cinema gasped at the obvious hypocrisy.

Even today, so-called family values conservatives offer nothing for gay people other than death. (Change orientation? Try using a scissors with your non-dominant hand sometime. You can probably do it, but the result is a pretty sloppy paper doll.)

Basically, whether they know it or not, those opposing gay rights simply long for a return of the closet. The destructive power of repression and the closet are embodied in Dan White, who committed suicide two years after being released from prison.

Of the closet, Harvey Milk said, never again. That toothpaste tube has been squeezed. It is one of the movie’s great moments of clarity and resolve when Penn shows Milk urging others to abandon the lie.

By phone, Milk counsels a boy in the wheelchair who is contemplating suicide. “Without hope,” he says, “life isn’t worth living.”

You might even say Harvey Milk offered the flaming audacity of hope.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 28
Keeping to the Female

He who is aware of the Male
But keeps to the Female
Becomes the ravine of the world.
Being the ravine of the world,
He has the original character which is not cut up,
And returns again to the innocence of the babe.

Note: Milk will play at Boardman’s Art Theatre in January.