In a rather ironic twist of artistic fate, Milk, a film about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US, and directed by openly gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant, may very well seem at first glance, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester aside, the director's straightest film to date. Now of course I mean straight not in subject, but rather in the film's populist biopic story arc and its inevitable Oscar nominations and overall mainstream appeal.
Eschewing his recent experimentation with cinematic tropes, as in his Eastern European influenced death cycle of Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and his other 2008 release Paranoid Park, Van Sant has gone back to his more prosperous, and quite safer, Hollywood days and produced this obvious awards bait biopic whose main reason for existing, at least by studio standards, is to win Sean Penn a second Oscar. Yet at the same time, while other recent high profile celebrity biopics such as Ray, Walk the Line, Capote and The Queen run the same route of generic storytelling and pedestrian visual quality, usually only raised, if at all, by a strong central performance and not much else, Van Sant has taken an alternative route toward the exploration of his subject, and thus a course more fraught with artistic peril unheard of in most of Hollywood. In fact, once one digs a bit deeper than mere surface, one begins to realize that Milk may not be all that straight after all. In fact, hiding amongst this standard seeming biopic is a queer as hell little film indeed full of all the subtle little touches that make the film seem out of time and out of place, but in the most enthralling way possible.
Beautifully photographed by Harris Savides (Elephant, Birth) and replete with archival footage of actual events Milk is anything but your average biopic. Filmed with an almost vérité style and devoid of slick biopic boilerplate and acted with an urgency reminiscent of seventies young turk Hollywood, Van Sant's work of dramatic biography seems more a product of the setting's time than of our own. It seems as if Van Sant is not merely telling the story of Harvey Milk and his assassination in 1978 via historical documentation so much as he is releasing the story right there and right now, as it unfolds in real time. An impressive thing indeed for a director working within the studio system.
There may be a mainstream spine running through the film (that is inevitable considering the genre) and it may have Oscar written all over its face, but throughout it all, it is decorated with the subtle touches of an artist. Perhaps not what we have come to expect from Van Sant of late (the film seems more in tune with his early work like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho) but still, Milk, with all its creative nuances and almost subliminal artistry (much like studio-era directors hiding sexual innuendo and political anarchy within the confines of a seemingly middlebrow story), and with its obvious tragic finale, could merely be a more mainstream extension of his death cycle.
One does certainly wonder what Milk would have done (WWMD?) if he had lived. Van Sant's obviously necessary correlation between San Fransisco's 1978 Prop 6 vote, making it easy to fire gays and lesbians from jobs and 2008's Prop 8, essentially banning gay marriage in California makes for a myriad of what if scenarios and perhaps takes the film to another level altogether. From mere biopic, though artistically sound, to agenda film, there is certainly a message here and it is clear what needs to be done about such ludicrously inhumane socio-political propositions. Van Sant, more than just showing us the life of a great man - and Harvey Milk, personal flaws and demons aside was just that - wants to incite just the kind of uprising Harvey Milk and his companions d'politiques once did in their small part of San Fransisco. It is a much freer world for gays and lesbians since those dark days before Harvey Milk, but, judging from the prop 8 outcome, still quite a long way to go. To quote the man himself, "I am Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you." [01/12/09]