“The politics of the Castro were essentially the politics of Harvey Milk—the hip politics that the forty-three-year-old convert to bohemia devised in the front room of his camera store,” wrote Frances FitzGerald in her brilliant report on the Castro for The New Yorker.
They were difficult to define without reference to the man himself. Randy Shilts…traced Milk’s decision to run for city supervisor a few months after he settled in the Castro to three incidents: first, the contretemps that Milk had with a state official over a hundred-dollar deposit against sales tax; second, his discovery that the local public school could not afford to buy enough slide projectors…;and, third, to his indignation at former Attorney General John Mitchell’s performance at the Senate Watergate hearings. This was typical Milk politics. The man had no received political opinions when he decided to run for office.”3
As we watch Milk improvise his new life—that is, as he jettisons being a private, closeted citizen in favor of being a gay father figure and then an almost comically underskilled but indefatigably enthusiastic burgeoning politician—we see how in sync all of that is with Van Sant’s improvisatory aesthetic, and how much that aesthetic is ruled by Van Sant’s interest, largely, in men, not women. (One of Milk‘s shortcomings is that the filmmakers leave out Milk’s intense and complex relationship with a number of powerful, politically active women, a fact that Epstein and Schmiechen address by letting those women speak.) He has a primarily visual sense of the world that works best when the actors have little, if anything, to say. One gets the sense that the minimal use of language leaves him free to invent the kind of stories he prefers to tell—often distinctly cinematic, critical responses to history, criminality, and literature.
In his exceptional 1991 film, My Own Private Idaho, the director “outs” Shakespeare by putting Falstaff’s love for Prince Hal in the foreground of the film, which is also populated by male hustlers. In Elephant (2003), the director and his invaluable cinematographer, Harris Savides (who also shot Milk ), devised a series of long, elegant tracking shots that followed a number of different high school “types”—the jock, the nerd, and so on—as they walked through the halls of their school, played sports, and hung out in the library. At the end of the film, two young boys, who briefly acknowledge their erotic attachment (again wordlessly), wreak havoc on their fellow students and the school by killing members of the student body, staff, and faculty. ( Elephant‘s minimal plot was based on the 1999 Columbine killings. Technically, the film owes a great deal to the late British director Alan Clarke’s 1989 film, also called Elephant, about a series of unexplained killings in Northern Ireland.)
Van Sant’s aesthetic is constricted by the fixed nature of biography. After Milk has brought us up to 1973, the year Milk decides to run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, one feels that Van Sant loses interest in the story. There’s no room for invention—not with his actors, or even his cinematographer. He must stick to the facts, or to those facts that make Milk Milk—that is, a subject worthy of a biopic. Early on in the film, when Van Sant inserts ghostly documentary images of people in and around the Castro in the 1970s into the montage, one has the sense that the director is making a subtle point about the film’s manufactured past in relation to the “real” past of the Castro.
As we watch Milk run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors (between 1973 and 1976, he ran and lost three times, twice for the Board of Supervisors and once for the California State Assembly), Penn becomes less of an ensemble player, and by all appearances begins to direct himself. It’s as if, denied the opportunity to play with the images as much as he’d like, Van Sant has given up playing at all. Left to his own devices, Penn becomes too actory. But it’s Emile Hirsch (playing Cleve Jones, Milk’s teenage protégé) who forces Penn to return to the seductive openness he demonstrated in the beginning of the film. Dressed in shorts, his hair a mass of curls, Jones was a recent transplant to San Francisco when he met Milk in the Castro in 1973. Having survived more than his share of anti-gay crimes in his home state of Arizona, Jones arrived in San Francisco armed with his only defense—his smart mouth, and reflexive irony.
By the time he meets Milk by chance near the latter’s camera shop and thinks he’s being hit on, Hirsch lets those defenses show—physically and verbally. He’s attracted to Milk’s paternalism and disturbed by that attraction. During that first meeting, he’s drawn to Milk as he walks away. But as Milk talks, Hirsch seems to resign himself to his attraction, letting his arms fall to his sides. In most of their scenes, Hirsch makes Penn resist the temptation to play cute by confronting him with a vulnerability that’s greater than his own. Indirectly, Hirsch represents Van Sant’s intuitive visual approach to filmmaking, while Penn sticks close to his need to please—a desire that mirrors Milk’s own desire to charm, always.
By 1975, Milk had become an ally of Mayor George Moscone, who helped institute a system by which candidates for the Board of Supervisors ran by district rather than from the city at large. In 1977, Milk launched his fourth campaign from the Castro, which is to say the newly created District Five. This time, he won the election—and a larger platform from which to articulate one of his biggest political causes, equal rights for gay people. The effects of his own history of secrecy weighed heavily on Milk. In the film, Penn puts it bluntly: “I’ve had four lovers, and three of them attempted suicide. And it’s my fault, because I made them stay in the closet.” Milk’s tendency to be drawn to the disenfranchised finds its final object, in a way, in Dan White, a straight, sports-loving San Francisco native who was one of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. (Given Milk’s early years as a sports enthusiast, it’s relatively easy to see why he feels for White: White is the man Milk could have become had he married and remained closeted.)
Just thirty-one years old and a new father, White, a former fireman, couldn’t make ends meet. He was already emotionally and fiscally overburdened when he joined the board—a low-paying gig. Unlike his colleague, White couldn’t handle the pressures of the job—or his lack of star power, certainly compared to that of his colleague Milk, who was evolving into something of a bigger star as his tenure went on. In their relatively brief scenes together, the more politically savvy Milk tries to connect with White, as played by Josh Brolin, to get him to talk about his sense of failure, all in an attempt to help him move on, and look forward. Brolin and Penn bring a homoerotic element to their scenes. They let their words drift as they pause, or go markedly silent as the other talks. Penn mutes his voice in his private scenes with Brolin, like a particularly caring coach.
Indeed, he’d like nothing more than to be White’s coach in the political arena, and Brolin shows how flattered and disturbed he is by Milk’s attention by looking across at him with furtive glances, his ramrod-straight back growing tighter and tighter. (Savides photographs the actors close together, sometimes in a tight two-shot; for another shot, he pulls the camera back, and we see a high wall dwarfing the two slight men, making them seem more human.) At times, the actors remind one of the brothers in Elia Kazan’s 1955 film version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a film made edgy by brother love, brother competition, all in the attempt to wrest love from the father. For Milk and White, that father was Moscone.
While Brolin is a remarkably controlled film actor—he doesn’t overact and give the camera more than it can handle; he keeps his facial muscles relatively still, and lets us read the fear and hatred in his eyes—he plays the heavy from the beginning, thus offering us few surprises. In the end, it’s more affecting to watch the real figure in the footage of him that’s included in The Times of Harvey Milk. White as himself is more nuanced. We watch as the all-American-looking straight guy walks and talks to a reporter in District 8, the southeastern portion of the city that had elected him. As he strolls along in a light-colored jacket, you’d never suspect that the man talking about the importance of sports in his general picture of a distinctly American way of life was capable of that other American pastime: violence.
White was the only member of the Board of Supervisors who refused to vote for the San Francisco gay civil rights bill, which would prevent gays from being fired from their jobs if they came out—a cause especially close to Milk’s heart. Nevertheless, the bill went through in the spring of 1978. In a fit of pique that fall, the seemingly luckless White resigned from the board; then, some days later, he asked to be reinstated. (White’s dramatic gesture was eclipsed by a greater event—the Jim Jones tragedy in Guyana.) Moscone refused White’s request; several days after that final rejection, White showed up at City Hall and killed Moscone, then Milk, before turning himself in at a local police station.
On the night Harvey Milk died, over 70,000 people gathered in silence in front of the San Francisco’s City Hall. Van Sant uses some of the footage shot that night to wrap his own film up, which, in form, certainly, borrows heavily from the structure Epstein and Schmiechen used to construct their documentary. ( Milk begins with Penn dictating his last will and testament into a tape recorder, while Epstein and Schmiechen use Milk’s actual tape recording as part of the voiceover narration in the early part of their film.)
One may find oneself powerfully moved by the images of candles flickering on that cold November night in San Francisco, and the close-ups of various stunned faces. But the question remains: Who owns Harvey Milk, and the rights to his hard-won, unequivocally “out” gayness? As one watches those lights flicker in San Francisco from the distance of thirty years now, one thinks of the dead in the Castro’s second cataclysmic event, after Harvey Milk’s assassination: AIDS. By the late 1980s, the community that sought and found physical and social freedom because of men like Harvey Milk was being decimated, and a new era of bigotry, prejudice, and secrecy had begun, sparking these words from Thom Gunn, San Francisco’s unofficial gay poet laureate:
My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.
Still, something was born out of those ashes: in 1985, the Hetrick-Martin Institute opened the Harvey Milk High School in New York’s East Village. The school is meant to provide social as well as educational support to those lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth who find it difficult or impossible to attend their neighborhood high schools because of violence or harassment.
"The Castro—I," The New Yorker, July 21, 1986.↩
“The Castro—I,” The New Yorker, July 21, 1986.↩