Best Picture Part 4: Milk

Part Four of a Five Part Series previewing the Best Picture nominees.

For all of his status as an offbeat visionary, and my claim to be a film geek, I'd only seen four Gus Van Sant films before I saw Milk in December. This includes his three most conventional films: a commercial and artistic success (Good Will Hunting), a cult classic (To Die For), and a regrettable foray into the conventional (Finding Forrester). My only experience with full-on, experimental Van Sant was 2003's Elephant, a slight-to-the-point-of-insubstantiality rumination on school shootings, told out of order with long stretches where the camera does nothing but wordlessly follow students through hallways.

So it might be unfair, but Elephant made me reluctant to give Last Days or Paranoid Park my money, and clearly helped me drag my heels in catching up with Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. I like Van Sant as a visual storyteller, but I just can't get into his cinema of aggressive paralysis- if nothing's happening, wake me up when something is. With this mentality, I understand that I'd sleep through most of Gerry.

But when I heard the premise and cast of Milk, and then saw the trailer, I found my reluctance waning- it looked like Van Sant had found a subject worthy of moviegoers patience, and he was the perfect director to put an end to cookie-cutter biopics of recent years (it's not good when Walk The Line can parody films about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash without really having to try that hard).

But did the expectations of a massive audience reign Van Sant in too far?

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Milk certainly starts out dreamily artistic- Danny Elfman's relatively non-melodic score (for Elfman, anyway) somberly opens over a montage of police raiding gay bars and clubs in the 50s and 60s, leading eventually to the televised announcement that Harvey Milk and the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, had been shot and killed.

From there, however, we're treated to a largely conventional biography- a linear story of Milk's progression into public office follows, punctuated by the occasional framing device of Milk dictating his biography and will into a tape recorder, eight days before his assassination. The usually players are there, the only exception is the all-male cast- the initially supportive spouse that can't make the entire journey (James Franco), the new young thing that turns out to be a bad idea (Diego Luna), a protege to mentor into greatness (Emile Hirsch).

It sort of leaves me torn- Milk is a great story, and it's almost refreshing to see homosexual relationships handled in a frank, straightforward way (not in too much of a say, Will and Grace way, if you know what I mean), but where was Van Sant?

Harris Savides' cinematography retains the biggest influence of Van Sant's style- loving shots of Penn and Franco pan at asymetrical angles and fade into white, one memorable shot is imposed on the side of a beating victims distress whistle, and the real life mourners of Harvey Milk carrying candles down the streets in a miles-long procession is memorably recreated.

And even as a storyteller, Van Sant doesn't mince facts or give in to idolatry- he doesn't decide to omit the fact that Milk lost elections several times before his victory, or the fact that that victory was over another homosexual man, eventually. And I particularly enjoyed the small focus on Milk's assassin, Dan White, a fellow supervisor that had earlier invited Milk to his child's christening.

This relationship could have been painted with much more seething antagonism than was shown, but Milk depicts the ill-fated colleagues as professionals at a loss to understand one another, and civil until things begin unraveling for White. Van Sant also resists the urge to focus on the trial, ludicrous "twinkie" defense and terrible insufficient conviction of White for manslaughter.

And of course, the director surely had a lot to do with coaching out the performances, especially of younger stars like Hirsch, Franco, and Luna who were pitch perfect in drumming up subtlety or anxiety (Luna's character) when called for. Penn and Brolin aren't exactly the smallest egos to wrangle under control either, if consummate professionals.

The whole cast, really, managed to capture a sense of togetherness that the movement engendered- it might be that the issues they fought for are still of vital importance, or the appeal of flesh and blood heroism against archival footage of villains like Anita Bryant. But you care about these people, and their victories and defeats.

Every now and then, biopic tropes chime in and interrupt the naturalism, be they true stories or not- in particular, a random call to Milk from a wheelchair bound young gay man contemplating suicide seemed a bit heavy-handed, as did his later thankful call after he escapes his unsympathetic family. Harvey Milk is inspiring enough without making him larger-than-life. Let the facts (and Sean Penn) worry about Harvey Milk, and keep the story out of the way.

When all is said and done, Milk is a moving, artfully beautiful film- if someone of no previous reputation had directed it, I doubt I'd wonder what could have been done differently. But Gus Van Sant is Gus Van Sant, and for once I had signed up to see where his wildest flights of fancy could take a moving story. I was willing to sit through Elephant-level indulgence, because it was off of Van Sant's shoulders to get me to care in the first place, for once.

It might not be fair, in the end, to think of it that way- does Milk get nominated for every guild award under the sun and Best Picture if Van Sant goes off the rails? Probably not. And it may not even have retained the small touches that set it apart without him on the project to begin with. So along with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk is one the two films that I'd be much happier to see win the Best Picture Oscar over Slumdog Millionaire, as well as the only two nominees that don't provoke my The Dark Knight exclusion anger.

1 Response to "Best Picture Part 4: Milk"

  1. Kathleen says:

    Okay, I know that Keanu Reeves is there, but it's one of my favorite ever modern adaptations of Shakespearean characters. It is, for instance, better done than: West Side Story, Ten Things I Hate About You, and She's All That. I say with confidence that you probably watched those movies, therefore you should shut up and see My Own Private Idaho.

    Yes, Van Sant is a crazy person in many places, but that is whence cometh teh awesome. After all, it takes a crazy person to make Prince Hal a gay prostitute.

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