December 18, 2008

Van Sant’s Redemption

By: Noelle Daly

Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which was screened to early audiences in late November, had been preceded by months, and even years, of heightened anticipation—well before the storm clouds of the Prop 8 campaigns gathered in California. Film crews descended upon San Francisco’s Castro district, the historic epicenter of the gay rights movement Harvey Milk had helmed, to re-create its ’70s-era heyday. San Franciscans, thrilled that their local hero would finally be honored with a feature film, cheerfully endured disruptions in street traffic and public bus service and queued up for a chance to serve as an extra. Friends and associates of the slain City Supervisor served as consultants, costumers and still-photographers. Amid the mounting exuberance, longtime observers of Van Sant’s unique and confounding oeuvre—which has been largely devoted to exploring the essence of masculine beauty and bonding—speculated about what the project signaled for his renewed artistic vitality.

Despite Van Sant’s status alongside auteurs like Jim Jarmusch as an early-’90s progenitor of independent cinema*, Van Sant has had a middling critical record. His erratic career trajectory, vacillating between lucrative studio commissions (To Die For, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester) and more artistic yet uneven fare, has frustrated audiences who may roll their eyes at his more blatant misfires while remaining intrigued by the next film on the horizon. As the editors of Reverse Shot magazine put it, introducing their recent Van Sant symposium,  “[his] genre hopping has been tagged as opportunistic as often as visionary . . . [his] aesthetic has been as malleable as putty.”

Van Sant recently returned to critical approbation with a triptych of elegiac films that each linger in the vague span of time just before certain death—whether violent (the Columbine-inspired Elephant), self-dealt (Last Days, an ode to Kurt Cobain), or metaphysical (Gerry). The audience’s foreknowledge of the bleak final curtain allowed Van Sant to experiment with or even wholly abandon conventional narrative, creating an atmosphere as luminous as it is funereal. This group of films, as well as the more recent, highly acclaimed Paranoid Park, shares a dreamy, minimalist aesthetic that ranges from exquisite beauty to excruciating boredom. As ever, Van Sant dwells among the doomed outsiders and the beautiful lost boys. The films offer a seductive intimacy with them while refusing to plumb their psychological depths. They mumble, but also mesmerize.

But if Van Sant has honed an aesthetic precision since the vivid though muddy 1990s works, he still lacks focus and purpose as a director. Whatever vision he may have remains evasive; perhaps the only constant has been his reluctance to make clear, conscious choices. Whether filling out the well-worn formula of the “inspirational mentor” flick, or dabbling with mood and tone—for instance, long, uncut scenes of a lead languidly preparing a bowl of cereal or ambling along some windswept, unnamed road—he carries out each project with the same apparent lassitude. It is this lack of exertion that so flummoxes his critics. He seems to luck into his successes by virtue of his collaborators’ contributions (the winning Affleck/Damon script, the artfully composed frames of expert DP Harris Savides, or the naturalistic, haunting performances of his best actors, notably River Phoenix), and shrug dismissively at his more egregious failures (the offensive irrelevance of the Psycho remake, the cloying sentimentality of Finding Forrester, and that preposterous yawn of a film, Gerry). One could fault his non-commercial work for pretentiousness, if he evinced any interest in impressing anyone.

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This tenuous record of achievement had me bracing for embarrassment as I headed into Milk, with its potential both for hero worship and fallen-martyr piety. I expected Van Sant to lazily observe the conventions of previous Oscar-bound biopics like Ray, Walk the Line and The Aviator—benign mediocrities all. And, true to form, Milk is rife with triumph-against-adversity platitudes, cheesy montages and swelling strings to ensure nary a dry eye in the house. (The most maudlin subplot features a wheelchair-bound, suicidal gay teenager who telephones Milk in despair as his parents are about to have him committed, and then calls again a year later to report that he resisted and finally came out, thanks to Milk’s advice and example.)

Yet Milk doesn’t simply fall into the biopic sandtrap of presenting the hagiographic over the human. Rather, he seems to have finally made a choice: He sets out to canonize his subject by deliberately fashioning his story into grand theater. Part of this is sheer spectacle. There’s the seething near-riot that Milk rises above to quell, bullhorn in hand: First a subjective camera places the viewer in a panic-inducing position as we are jostled among the angry protesters, then it soars above to watch Milk address the crowd against a red-golden glare of neon light. This scene is echoed in the overwhelming parade of mourners in candlelight vigil at the film’s closing. The whirlwind of color and joyful release in the film’s rendering of the 1976 Gay Freedom Day parade, led by lei-adorned Milk astride a bright convertible, is a thrill to behold.

In addition to the visual pyrotechnics, Van Sant uses a dramatic device to elevate the story. He makes a theme of Milk’s devotion to opera, and underscores it by making something operatic of the film itself. The narrative progresses in well-defined acts, as our hero is circled by villains both comic (the absurd John Briggs, author of a statewide proposition to fire all gay teachers and their supporters in the public school system) and sinister (the doll-like, serenely hateful Anita Bryant, a pop-singer turned anti-gay rights crusader, who appears only in archival footage but elicited vigorous boos and hisses from most early audiences). Dan White, the disturbed (and suggested closet-case) city supervisor and ultimate murderer, is a quiet menace, the treacherous Iago of the piece.

The night before his death, Milk attends a performance of Tosca and is overcome during the final scenes as the diva throws herself off a bridge to her death. Close to dawn, he calls his estranged lover (played by the phenomenal James Franco) in an emotional reunion, saying that music restored his youth and romanticism. The next day, as he falls to his knees under White’s fire (in slow-motion echo of the opera heroine’s majestic end), his eyes fix upon the Tosca banners adorning the opera house across the street.

Van Sant’s decision for such heightened theatricality is apropos, for Milk himself was a consummate showman. Early on, in the face of his partner’s skepticism about challenging the hostile neighborhood merchant association, he proclaims, “politics is theater.” He was an effervescent personality who charmed away the cynicism of young protégés like Cleve Jones (played by a droll, mischievous Emile Hirsch), and who used humor to diffuse tension when addressing conservative audiences (“I know I’m not what you were expecting, but I left my high heels at home.”) He had a flair for publicity, endearing himself to the media and public with a winsome “pick up dog-poop” campaign before pushing toward his serious gay rights ordinance. And Milk had a director’s eye for staging: In a key scene, he enlists Jones to lead an angry, potentially destructive crowd in a protest march from the Castro to City Hall, where he appears just in time to mediate the conflict, earning the Mayor’s gratitude. Indeed, for all his steely resolve and political instinct (earning him a “Boss Tweed” comparison from Mayor Moscone), Milk appears less angry activist than playful impresario to a movement.

Where the film might have risked artificiality, Sean Penn’s remarkable performance as Milk brings great depth and humanity to the character. In a radical departure from previous roles, he presents Milk with a blend of whimsy, openheartedness, and something like a dancer’s spry physicality. But there is arresting seriousness, too, in his intonation “this is our lives we’re fighting for”, in his often tragic need to rescue others, and in the single-minded zeal that alienates those closest to him.

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Why then, after years of either punching the clock to collect a paycheck from Hollywood, or aimlessly tinkering about with art films as a private hobby, did Van Sant first take on a project so fraught with sociopolitical import, and then direct it with uncharacteristic fanfare and ardor? Milk carries certain Van Sant trademarks—the intuitive, artful depictions of male intimacy, street life, and predestined death—but none of the shambling posture that marred his earlier efforts. For all its flaws, Milk has a sense of public purpose and urgency unlike any of his other films.

As a member of the gay community, which has now moved past widespread acceptance to mainstream celebration, Van Sant may have felt moved to inscribe Milk’s life and achievements into our national story before memory of the violent persecution gays so recently faced dulled in memory. While Milk has long been familiar in San Francisco as “The Mayor of Castro Street” or “Saint Harvey”, his story is not told in American high-school civics lessons alongside those of Rosa Parks or Betty Friedan. Milk’s boldness and sheer exuberance make it remarkable both as a potent “message film” and as a striking shift from Van Sant’s previous work. Its Hollywood flourishes and heady drama, even as they skirt sentimentality, secure for Harvey Milk an indelible place in the epic story of the American civil rights movement.

*See the then-avant garde Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and the brilliant but flawed My Own Private Idaho.

-Noelle Daly is assistant editor of The American Interest.