Thursday, November 20, 2008

MILK and Irony

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

MILK and Irony

Irony held center stage at the press conference for “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s passionate biopic about the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States, that took place at The Regency Hotel in Manhattan a little more than two weeks after the passing of California’s (heavily financed by the Mormon Church) Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. It was Supervisor Harvey Milk himself who had been instrumental in the defeat of California’s Proposition 6 (a battle featured prominently in the film), which had been openly opposed by everyone from Governor Jerry Brown to Carter and Reagan. The victory over the measure that would have effectively banned homosexual teachers and their allies from the public school system occurred in the same (non-election) year Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, exactly three decades ago this month. Since those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, it’s no surprise Harvey Milk is not a household name, not even to the many young actors starring in Milk, who became aware of him only upon receiving the script.

And this is something Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who grew up gay and Mormon in California, and was the sole Mormon writer/producer on the Mormon-themed “Big Love” – yes, as I said, irony ruled the day!) and the panel of actors, including Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), James Franco (Milk’s lover Scott), Josh Brolin (assassin Dan White), Alison Pill (campaign manager Anne Kronenberg) and Emile Hirsch (Milk protégé/activist Cleve Jones) have set out to rectify. Of course, Van Sant only took on this labor of love once he’d gotten word that Oliver Stone was abandoning his own biopic (and yes, I’m going to gloss over the irony of Penn and Brolin both having famously worked with Stone, lest I begin to sound like a Stone conspiracy theorist). For Milk wasn’t just the colorful “Mayor of Castro Street,” who united gays, straights, blacks, whites, seniors and youth, through old-fashioned charm and newfound civic pride, but a civil rights leader in the mold of fellow slain activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

How important was this barely remembered man? When asked how history would have been different had Milk lived, Penn (nursing a cold; at one point an assistant walked up to offer a handkerchief) instantly and adamantly stated, “Less people would have died of AIDS. Reagan would have addressed it.” Not only was this remark incredibly perceptive, but absolutely correct. Ground zero for the AIDS epidemic happened also to be Harvey Milk’s backyard. And Milk (“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” his signature line) never tolerated silence in his backyard.

But Van Sant, seeming to shrink seated between Penn and Brolin, preferred, like Milk, to focus on hope not despair. The director drew a connection between the “new energy” of a different time to the latest national activism in response to Prop 8. Screenwriter Black saw parallel strategies, with Proposition 8 a descendant of the pre-Prop 6 initiatives of Dade County and Wichita, where anti-gay measures (neither of which included any mention of homosexuality in their wording) passed thanks to Anita Bryant and her own religious fervor. Yet when one woman tried to define the debate in terms of “religious faith vs. gay rights,” Penn stepped in to immediately correct her. Neither Prop 6 nor Prop 8 have anything to do with religion, he pointed out, but of simple “hatred and intolerance,” the very opposite of faith. And, he added, that issues (words) do indeed kill. People take their own lives when you take away their hope for the future – another “Milk” and Milk theme.

Regardless, it was none other than campy, Katherine Harris-like Anita Bryant who was responsible for the inventive use of archival footage in “Milk,” according to Black. Since the screenwriter was unable to craft the character without falling into caricature he decided to just let the real Anita Bryant speak for herself. Van Sant and his longtime DP Harris Savides then took Black’s idea and ran with it, flowing seamlessly between footage of the original marches, archival stills (often seen from the POV of the character Milk’s camera) and the actual on-location-in-SF shoot (where they went so far as to recreate Milk’s camera shop in the original shop!)

And speaking of his noticeably absent cinematographer, Van Sant admitted that while Savides’ talent first caught his eye, it was his reputation for being “the only DP Madonna would work with” that sealed the deal. (“She must be pretty discerning,” Van Sant figured.) Now every time he works with Savides he excitedly thinks, “Oh, I’ve got Madonna’s DP!” To which Penn deadpanned, “DP, ex-husband…” Even the statue of Milk that stands on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall where marriage ceremonies are held would have cracked a smile.

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