Tuesday, 16 December 2008

MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

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Earlier this year, Gus Van Sant made Paranoid Park, another film in an experimental register that followed such works as Last Days (2005), Elephant (2003), and Gerry (2002). His new film, Milk, is a very different work, one in which Van Sant seemingly returns to his more mainstream works of the 1990s (Good Will Hunting [1997] Psycho [1998], and Finding Forrester [2000]). Clearly, Van Sant wants this more political work to reach a larger audience. However, I do not think he reverts to pedestrian style of his earlier mass audience efforts. In fact, I slightly prefer Milk to Paranoid Park. Both are near masterpieces of a comparable quality (if very different in approach), but Milk's greater political force makes me favour it more.

As a biopic, Milk is most interesting in how it rejects so many of the cliches of this mini-genre. It does not focus on Milk's early life. In fact, Milk's personal life in general takes a backstage to what actually made him interesting: his political activism. This is what the film is really about. Although Milk has been compared to Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), it avoids the problems to which Lee's film falls victim. Malcolm X becomes so consumed with its lead character's life and personality that it fails to be a really compelling about its political activism. Malcolm X as a figure ends up feeling very safe and even co-opted. This is not the case with Van Sant's Harvey Milk. The biggest surprise about the movie is that it does not play it safe politically. It argues that there is a need for more radical approaches and that middle-of-the-road liberal centrism is not always (or even usually) the real motor for change.

For this reason, I was reminded of The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), a most unlikely and no doubt highly idiosyncratic comparison on my part. Seeing the Castro and the oppression it faced from those in authority (an oppression whose wider history is seen in the opening credits [Figure 1]), I recalled the Casbah under French rule. In particular, the street protests that Van Sant depicts have an edge to them that uses the realist style that Pontecorvo conveys so well (Figures 2, 4-7). Milk's role as mediator is to represent this outrage and make happen the changes the community needs, not unlike the position of the FLN. In the gay movement, there is not the terrorism of the Algerian War, but there is every indication that Milk and his followers would result to this if their civil rights and safety continued to be abused. If Proposition 6, which is a major part of the narrative, had not been defeated in 1978, as the movement first believed, violence seemed a real and maybe necessary possibility. For this reason, Milk is more than just conventional Hollywood liberalism.

A large part of one's evaluation of Milk turns on how you view its more conventional and melodramatic moments. If you see these as Van Sant sacrificing artistic integrity to make his film more palpable for the popular audience, your evaluation will be more negative. But there is a way of reading these moments as working in concert with the more political scenes of collective action. Here I'm reminded of another great political work, the little known Scream from Silence (Anne-Claire Poirier, 1979). There's even a direct connection here with the use of the whistle as a defense against heterosexual male aggression and violence, which Van Sant uses for his most poetic shot in the film (Figure 3). In her tour de force of feminist activism, Poirier establishes a dialectic between Godardian style counter cinema and the melodrama of a suffering female victim. In his article on the film, André Loiselle argues that this combination of distance and emotion makes it both more emotionally resonant and politically effective. While Milk is not in the same category, I do think its melodramatic scenes and devices serve a purpose. For example, the sequence of Milk's murder uses a rack focus in which Milk looks out at his favorite opera (Figure 8). It is rather overblown, but it does reflect Milk and the gay movement's own fascination with the operatic aesthetic and thus is appropriate as a depiction of his final moment. If this and similar tactics, such as the musical score, are seen as an extension of the importance of emotion as well as reason, Milk can be viewed as less compromised and more authentic in its vision, even if that particular vision is not as pure as Van Sant's other recent films.

André Loiselle, “Despair as Empowerment: Melodrama and Counter-Cinema in Anne Claire Poirier’s Mournir à tue-tête (Scream from Silence)Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 8, no.2 (Fall 1999): 21-43.


Ed Howard said...

An interesting review Marc. As you know, I mostly liked the film, but I had real problems with its more conventional style. I think you're giving Van Sant more credit than he's earned for breaking biopic conventions, since he keeps far more of the "rules" than he breaks: the framing device that narrativizes the hero's life; the sweeping, generically "emotional" score; the way that Harvey's relationships are simplified and the men in his life treated as "wives" on the fringe of his political career. I think your defense of the music, especially, is stretching it: Van Sant has more than proved, in his last 4 films, that he can use music to evoke strong emotions without resorting to the kind of trite, manipulative soundtrack he uses here. I also can't see the defense of that absurd rack focus during the murder: saying that it's "emotional" isn't really enough. To me, the obtrusiveness of that device, its obvious artificiality and contrivance, only distracted me from what was, on its own merits, a highly emotional scene to begin with. It has the same effect as the montage splices Van Sant inserted into the murder scenes in Psycho, except in that case we were supposed to be distanced from both the on-screen murders and the famous classic he was remaking. One would guess that Van Sant didn't want his audience to be similarly distracted or distanced here.

I have great respect for the film for being so politically radical and really communicating the spirit of Harvey's political life, which is why I think Van Sant's best decision was the exclusive focus on Harvey's post-40 life. I just think there's a real disjunction between the film's political radicalism and its aesthetic conservativism.

Marc Raymond said...

Ultimately, you're probably more accurate in your assessment and the film may look worse to me years later. My review was more of an attempt to describe my reaction to the film and the fact is it was much different (and better) than I was expecting given the genre, especially its treatment of politics. Compared to masterpieces like BATTLE OF ALGIERS or SCREAM FROM SILENCE, it is limited by its conventions, but it does so much more within those conventions than a film like MALCOLM X.

Maybe I am giving Van Sant too much credit (odd since I'm not a huge fan). One moment that did strike me was early in the San Fran scenes, when Danny Nicoletta disagrees about Harvey's love of opera, seeing it as too over-the-top (he actually jumps up on a table to mock it). I think he could see this as Van Sant setting up his finale, and even commenting that the narrative of Milk's life does play like something on a grand scale. And I didn't mind the distancing of the technique of the rack focus at all, and I think it may have indeed been intentional. I don't think distance necessary entails lack of emotion, as many of the New Queer Cinema filmmakers like Van Sant and especially Todd Haynes are trying to show. Check out Haynes's video introduction on the Criterion ALI FEAR EATS THE SOUL for a discussion of this.

Another clear difference here is my musical sophistication is far less then yours so that aspect didn't bother me as much, although I agree it's not the strongest part of the movie. And I'm certainly more likely to overrate and forgive aesthetic shortcomings more than political ones.