Sunday, February 15, 2009

Milk

Yesterday, my mom and dad came over to watch Anna, which allowed Heidi and I to escape the clutches of parenting for a few hours. Don't misread me - I love being a parent, but, like everything else, there are times that you can use a little diversion. So we actually got a chance to have a real honest-to-God date. The fact that it was Valentine's Day was purely coincidental. We don't really celebrate it much, not because we are vehemently opposed to a holiday being thrust upon us by greeting card companies, but just because we don't need a holiday to remind us to appreciate each other.

Anyway, we ended up going to see Milk. We wanted to have seen at least one of the movies up for an Oscar (besides Wall-E) and of all the ones nominated, this was the one we wanted most to see. I knew the story of Harvey Milk pretty well. The story of his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is told (in condensed form) in Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On (still one of my all time favorite books) and I still remember the year that the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature even though I was only 12. So most of the details of the movie were not news to me, although I will admit to having forgotten about the Twinkie Defense.

But just because you know the story (and that the story ends tragically) does not mean that the movie was not worth watching. I mean, how many of us went to Titanic multiple times? The story is exquisitely told, even if I thought that the pacing of the movie was off, but that was largely because a big chunk of time was distilled down into two hours. Sean Penn disappeared into the role of Harvey Milk which is to his credit. He was cast completely against type, but when they ran footage of the actual Harvey Milk at the end of the film, it was hard telling the difference. This was also the case with most of the rest of the cast. Additionally, the recreation of the Castro in the 70s was amazing - you felt like you were there. It's attention to detail like that that is to be commended.

I'm not too worried about spoilers because pretty much everyone knows the premise of the movie and how it ends with Milk's assassination. And even if you didn't know that, you find out the ending within the first 10 minutes. Heidi commented that it reminded her of the set up of Moulin Rouge, where you find out that Satine is doomed in the first five minutes which makes her death at the end of the film that much easier to handle. Otherwise, you'd have walked out of the theater pissed off because they dared give you an unhappy ending. Wanting to take no chances on that, Milk does much the same thing.

Much has been made of the timeliness of the movie, especially in light of the passage of Proposition 8 in California last November. There were eerie parallels between Prop 8 and Prop 6 (aka the Briggs Initiative) that was proposed in 1978 to ban gay and lesbian teachers as well as those who supported gay issues. It was disturbing how little the rhetoric used in the movie to support Prop 6 had changed from the rhetoric that Prop 8 supporters used. It reinforced in my mind that while gay rights may have moved many miles since Stonewall, there is still a long ways to go. The fact that the same arguments that were used to attempt to ban gay schoolteachers could be used over 30 years later to ban gay marriage is shameful. We should know better.

The movie moved me tremendously, much more than I thought it would since I went in knowing most of the details. The recreation of 30,000 people marching on City Hall the night of Milk's assassination (which was a mixture of real footage and that filmed for the movie) was something to behold. The take-home message I got out of the movie was that these people believed in something. They were authentic and stood up for what they believed in, even when it was an uphill battle, which it was for most of the time period documented in the film. May we all strive to be as authentic as they were.

Ultimately, while the movie ends tragically, it is not sad. The movement was bigger than Harvey Milk, gained steam after his death and continues to this day. Heidi mentioned that you have a better understanding for the disappointment that the organizers against Prop 8 felt because they were following Milk's model. Perhaps it was the fact that it was marriage and not simply "jobs" that made it different this time. But, as one of the characters said in the movie, the minute you take away the rights of someone else, you have no leg to stand on when they come to take away your rights. That is what we should be remembering.

I had been struggling with what I wanted to write about Milk for most of what needs to be said has already been said in other places. But today, as I was watching The X-Files, Scully said something that I thought fit in well with the theme of the movie. Mulder had bought a key chain for her for her birthday that had an emblem of the Apollo 11 moon landing on it, and at the end of the episode she says:
Scully: [holding an Apollo 11 keychain] I actually was thinking about, uh, this gift that you gave me for my birthday. You never got to tell me why you gave it to me or what it means, but I think I know. I think that you appreciate that there are extraordinary men and women and extraordinary moments when history leaps forward on the backs of these individuals, that what can be imagined can be achieved, that you must dare to dream, but that there's no substitute for perseverance and hard work and teamwork because no one gets there alone; and that, while we commemorate the... the greatness of these events and the individuals who achieve them, we cannot forget the sacrifice of those who make these achievements and leaps possible.
Milk was one of these men, and I couldn't agree more with her sentiment. Although Mulder responded with "I just thought it was a pretty cool key chain."

3 comments:

Paul said...

it certainly is a great and powerful movie. All the performances were great in it, and the message - as you said - particularly relevant thirty years later. And that is the reason why the film is quite quite sad indeed :( We need more Dan and Heidis in this world.

John said...

My favorite movie of the year for the reasons you expressed. Ditto what Paul said about you and Heidi, too. It'll come around eventually.

Jeff said...

Get the soundtrack. It is just as great. One of my favorite movies of the year.