Sex and the City
Michael Koresky on Milk
Gus Van Sant’s Milk opens hair-raisingly, with a succession of devastating pre-Stonewall archival images of gay men being rounded up by police and carted out of bars. Nearly all of them cover their faces in shame as film cameras attempt to move in close enough for a damning peek. The sequence, set to Danny Elfman’s atypically plaintive score, is notable not simply for its expert excavation of poignantly dated imagery, which does more to establish the mood, tone, and setting of the coming film than any fictionalized evocation could have, but also because it situates it in a strictly political realm. In other words, Milk, despite its personal and monolithic title, and a novel, humane central performance, will not be the portrait of a man but rather a movement, the radicalization of a time and place. Politician Harvey Milk remains something of an abstraction, even as we see every step of his political ascendancy. The approach speaks to everything irrefutably right and somewhat lacking in Milk, its importance and its datedness, its simultaneous steps forward and back. In other words, it’s the perfect film for a difficult, confused, but rich moment in a decades-long battle for civil rights.
A common, if under the radar, attack lobbed at Van Sant’s film is that by leaving out the facts of Harvey Milk’s alleged promiscuity, it reveals a biased agenda, to whitewash his life in the name of martyrdom. Apart from the obvious homophobia of this criticism (the assumption that promiscuity is a trait not only inherent but of major import to the character of this and all gay men), it’s also a telling response to the standard company line on the gay “lifestyle” in the years before the widespread outbreak of AIDS. Many of the films of this sort, itself made mostly by queer directors and documentarians (Gay Sex in the ’70s, The Trip, Sex Positive), paint the gay urban hubs of the 1970s with nostalgic abandon, the last guilt-free sexual havens before the chickens came home to roost in the 1980s.
Milk’s refusal to wear rose-tinted glasses in its depiction of the time (exemplified by that heartrending archival opening) is noteworthy, and a welcome corrective, but it’s also a decision that’s indicative of the film’s aim for complete accessibility, and helps situate it firmly within the canon of mainstream filmmaking about gay men, in which the liberation of identity is replaced by the tragedy of living (Brokeback Mountain, Longtime Companion, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Philadelphia). It’s a given in our culture, now as ever, that unapologetic images of gay sexuality are inherently threatening to the majority of American audiences and must be largely avoided if any breakthrough is to occur. Thus, gays and straights can both sigh with relief at the lack of genuinely palpable sensual content in either Brokeback or Milk, and certainly this is the key to their success.
Does Milk, with its purposely backward-looking forward thinking, exist in the here and now, or is it couched safely in some paradise lost—the San Francisco Seventies, which might as well be some consecrated netherworld at this point? As a civil-rights origin saga (albeit one that, in a telling move, elides Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Movement), Milk has the linear clarity and thematic transparency of any number of other American films of its kind (Malcolm X, Norma Rae, The Long Walk Home, North Country), and as such it has an intentionally marketable sheen. Milk’s heritage has nothing to do with any former queer cinema movements, but rather a distinctly American brand of noble mythmaking, a true legend in which one man rises above circumscribed outcast status and makes a difference, before a swift, brutal, nonsensical murder. Van Sant’s film is unquestioningly a call to arms (and certainly the film’s release in the same month as California’s instantly infamous Proposition 8 embarrassment solidified its evident contemporary relevance), but implicitly it also asks, by honoring the dead, where all the heroes have gone.
It’s a eulogy, not just for the man, but a movement that’s ever gathering steam even as it seems to have no central leader. Of course, this is the condition of the times, in which calls to action often come across as little more than electronic effluvium, as common and easy as they are ignored and cast off. The movement towards hagiography, then, is emotionally understandable. The result, of course, is that Milk falls back into a representational tradition, rather than busts out of it. This perhaps is wholly appropriate: he was a transgressor who knew he had to play by the rules of democracy to enact change, and the biopic Milk plays by the biopic guidebook in order to bring about awareness. And coming from a New Queer cinema progenitor such as Gus Van Sant, the result is doubly poignant: a once heralded outcast filmmaker turned prankster journeyman being welcomed by Hollywood’s outstretched open arms.
But what of sex? Is it disingenuous for a film such as this to largely forgo images of homosexual intimacy, or would an overabundance of forthright sexuality not only distract from the more pressing politics at hand but also continue to essentialize gay men? Is it necessary to make concessions to the straight audience (i.e., nonthreatening depictions of same-sex male kissing and touching) so you don’t end up preaching to the choir? To Van Sant’s credit, Milk is a mix: it’s emphatically polite, but it also takes great pains to interject moments in which its almost completely male cast members are acknowledged, or acknowledge each other, as sexual beings. Penn’s Harvey constantly remarks upon the adorability of Emile Hirsch’s cherubic, bespectacled Cleve Jones; Cleve, in turn, momentarily objectifies villain Dan White (“Is it just me or is he cute?”); and everyone and their mother seems to agree that James Franco, as long-suffering boyfriend Scott, is sex on a stick, whether fresh from a Hockney-esque daylight skinny dip in a backyard pool or exhaustingly trying to domesticate a distracted Harvey. There’s even an impromptu back-room blow job (offscreen and played for laughs) between two of Milk’s campaign assistants.
Yet Milk’s depiction of gay male sexuality is, like the rest of the film, expansive and nonchalant, rather than specific and passionate. Harvey and Scott’s relationship convinces because of Penn and Franco’s easy chemistry, not because their scenes together function as anything more than telegraphed screenplay relationship moments: Harvey and Scott frolicking in their new apartment, Scott smooshing Penn’s face with a cream pie, Scott pleading with Harvey to pay more attention to him than his political campaign, Scott telling Harvey to be careful following amateur death threats. One reason the memorably nonexplicit early scene in which the two first hook up following a chancy New York City subway meeting has been embraced by both critics and gay audiences might be because its aesthetic (super close-ups of eyes, mouths, hands, staring, feeling, disassociated in an edited pantomime of intimacy) can easily be recouped as Van Sant-ian. Yet the deconstructed, entwined male bodies in Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho seemed more a daring visual choice, unencumbered by studio expectations, than a solution to seemingly unmarketable material, as Franco and Penn’s sex scene feels. The weirdly emphatic grainy slo-mo zoom out of Harvey proudly making out with Scott on the stoop of their Castro Street camera shop only enhances the sense the love scenes have been unnecessarily, suspiciously overthought.
In moments like these, Harvey Milk seems both present and absent, and we become hyperaware of Penn as an inhabited image of a man rather than a naturalistic approximation, regardless of the dignity and passion the actor invests in the role. As is the case with many biopics of politicians, the righteous protagonist’s ascendance up the ladder parallels either the rise or fall of his or her moral or ethical awareness. And despite Black, Van Sant, and Penn’s somewhat simplified, easily arced portrayal of Milk as a wide-eyed wannabe city supervisor turned crusading elected official, there’s a refreshing nuance and authenticity to the film’s incremental, accessible description of public policymaking. In fact, Milk’s portrait of 1970s San Francisco—not just its hip huggers and Jheri curls, but more importantly its air of burgeoning social activism and the pragmatic, community-based steps it takes to institute change—may ultimately be its greatest selling point, even more so than the grandiose performance at its center or its appeal to straight audiences despite an almost complete lack of heterosexual identification. Though this resolutely non-niche film should not be condemned for trying to play wide, its everything-and-nothing nature tags it as somewhat anonymous. Harvey is depicted as the face of a disenfranchised people, which in this case makes him, ironically, relatively faceless.
The film’s casually abject portrayal of Milk’s post-Scott lover, Jack Lira, only makes matters worse. Missing Franco’s potent sensuality, which strutted across the screen with abandon, Diego Luna strikes a barely reverberative note of preening, effeminate solipsism and keeps hitting it over and over. The result is an unfair demonizing of an underdeveloped character, based though he may have been on a person few in Milk’s circle seemed to take a shine to, and an even less convincing portrait of same-sex relations than that of Harvey and Scott. In Luna’s representation of Jack, there’s even a lingering whiff of the problematic (but at least foregrounded) objectification of Latino men that provided Van Sant’s debut, Mala Noche, with its ideological engine. The film’s only admission that Harvey and Jack—depicted as little more than a disruptive influence on Harvey’s life, and a pale imitation of Scott—had any semblance of sexual chemistry comes during an embarrassing impromptu dinnertime seduction over rice and beans that seems tailor-made for uncomfortable audiences. In scene after scene, it’s okay to laugh at Jack, which effectively neuters him and perhaps a large chunk of the film itself.
Of course, the lack of sexual earthiness in Milk is entirely expected, especially when argued as a political expedient. A biopic portraiture which takes into account any formidable sexual inner life is as equally uncommon in heterosexual subjects, and Scott and Jack’s peripheral narrative involvement (they’re, respectively, respectful bystander and disorderly nuisance) is pitched at about the level of those female appendages one might see in Frost/Nixon or Ray. Therefore, is this shortcoming of Milk’s—that Harvey’s romantic relationships remain timid and sketched in—indicative of Hollywood’s continued squeamishness (sex scenes were allegedly added to the script at Penn’s request, but they didn’t make the final cut) or does it just come with the eternally masculine biopic territory? Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is even less concerned with Milk’s personal life than Van Sant’s film, which in comparison seems to make a sincere, concerted effort to present the man in a fuller, more physical manner. And indeed, in moments, Milk, for all its arguably necessary timidity, comes closer to being sexy than any encomium should ever hope to be. Still, maybe one day Hollywood will show a man ready for another kind of action.