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Milk

12 Feb

I’ve never found Sean Penn attractive. Shocking, I know, but all that brooding intensity is completely wasted on me, I’m afraid. Five minutes into Milk, however, as I watch him seduce the entirely-too-pretty James Franco in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a silly grin and a pick up line so tired they should shoot it to put it out of its misery, I suddenly got the hype.

It’s one of the many ways in which Penn so perfectly inhabits the character of Harvey Bernard Milk, the closeted insurance salesman from New York who became a gay rights activist, the first openly gay elected official in California and a symbol of hope for the LGBT community in the 1970s.

From the moment he bumps into Scott Smith (Franco), his lover for many years and a friend upto his assassination in 1978, in Milk, we’re constantly reminded that this is not a man who is conventionally handsome and is way too old to be deemed attractive in the gay scene he inhabits. But with his salesman charm and the sweetest smile you ever saw, his is a charisma that cannot be denied.

As the movie clips briskly along, you see him transform from the timid New York native who counsels the young Smith to be careful where he goes cruising to the man who openly makes out with his lover on the streets of San Francisco. On the other side of the continent from his old life and the fears that came with it, Harvey Milk is a man on a mission: forget bigotry, even mere tolerance will no longer do; he wants to be respected, openly acknowledged by the establishment (or as he prefers to call it, The Machine) for who he is.

That’s some dream for a man who can’t even get the gay establishment to back him, much less the larger Machine, which sends police officers with their badges covered to crack down on gay bars in the most brutal way possible. Although Milk and his avant garde friends revitalize his San Francisco neighborhood by making it gay friendly (now the preferred gentrification process in cities all over the United States), they are still at the mercy of the cops and bureaucrats who could care less.

As the neighborhood around Castro Street continues to attract more affluent people and its economy expands through the 1970s, the police continue their assault on the gay community… and pretty soon, Harvey Milk finds his soapbox. Although his political candidacy takes a while to find its wings, Milk is already the voice of the Castro and the gay community. He dubs himself the Mayor of Castro Street and the term catches on with the wider public.

But being the Mayor of Castro Street is far from a glamour job – it takes a toll on his personal life, and his political life continues to hammer around the fringes. Things finally come around for him, politically speaking, when the city allows each district to elect its own supervisor instead of following the citywide model it’d followed previously. In 1978, Harvey Milk is the first supervisor elected from the Castro District under the new rules.

It was going to be an interesting year, to say the least.

If director Gus van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black had set out to merely chronicle the life and evolution of a charismatic activist, Milk would still have been a pretty entertaining movie. But they have managed to make a movie about a lot more than that.

The first thing that strikes you about Milk, for instance, is its subtle aura of danger. Long before the assassination threats, crudely drawn on notepaper, show up the movie has made it clear that there is a deep psychological element to being gay that outsiders may never understand or, indeed, have thought about – fear.

It’s not just the fear of outing (something, by the way, that Harvey Milk wasn’t opposed to as long as it served the larger cause). It is the fear of violence, that one day out of the blue someone who doesn’t know you but doesn’t approve of your sexuality might be moved to violence by your mere existence. They might beat you, maim you, sexually assault you, even kill you. And when you are found or your remains are found or your disappearance is reported, nobody will care because the general feeling might be that you simply got what was coming to you.

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10 Comments

Posted by on February 12, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies

 

10 responses to “Milk

  1. pitu

    February 12, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Ooooo I am totally going to go catch this film now. I adore Sean Penn, he is an awesome actor. (rly loved him in Mystic River)

    I have very fond memories of college days in Hotlanta. I lived in Midtown in a pretty much 90% gay apartment complex. Made so many friends, went to the Gay Pride parade with them and we all used to take our dogs to the same dog park and then off for a beer or two. Some really fun parties too 😀

    One of my pals (an AIDS researcher at Emory) was actually a close friend of Elton John and he’d regale me with all the stories. Another pal was majorly into bodybuilding (and he was gorgeous btw) and I will never forget the night my dog and I accidentally spotted him skinny dipping in the apartment pool 😀 Hahhaa it was awesome. Poor thing never heard the last of it.

    And then there were the tranny friends they introduced me to. Some tranny magazine this chick from Buckhead used to publish and always gave me an extra copy. I always read it cover to cover 😀 Oh, and I introduced all my gaypals to Shahrukh Khan :-))))

    It wasn’t always fun and games though. So many of them escaped their little Southern towns to come to Atlanta (which was considered the SF of the South btw) just to escape prejudice or worse, ‘accidents’. A close friend of mine was abused terribly by his mom and stepdad when they found out he was gay. None of these guys had close family…….

    I miss my buddies 😦 Sorry for the comment hogging, I am just off in memoryland. And it’s refreshing to meet atleast one desi who doesn’t act like gays are scum of the earth :-X

    In fact you haz inspired a post 😀

     
  2. ana

    February 12, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    [It is the fear of violence, that one day out of the blue someone who doesn’t know you but doesn’t approve of your sexuality might be moved to violence by your mere existence. They might beat you, maim you, sexually assault you, even kill you. And when you are found or your remains are found or your disappearance is reported, nobody will care because the general feeling might be that you simply got what was coming to you.]

    I have thought about this, especially being around my buddies, but I’ve also thought about this in terms of someone who DOES know you, and does not approve of your sexuality. I actually tried writing a story around this and might get back to it.

    I don’t know if I’m going to watch Milk, but his story certainly is inspiring.

     
  3. Amey

    February 13, 2009 at 10:51 am

    “Milk” sounds like something from Michael Moore. An expose on the dairy industry…

     
  4. BVN

    February 14, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I too liked the movie, but the fear sub-plot could have been developed more. I did find a gap b\w the piece of paper and the note before the rally wherein there is no talk of fear. They could have put atleast one intimate conversation about dark forces, known unknowns and fears like that.

    But a good one! you watched the other ones in the running?

    btw, my 1 Re

    http://tvmtalkies.com/archives/591

     
  5. Gagan

    February 15, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    great review…..especially like the conclusion….hits home at the real injustice in really visceral way

     
  6. ravi

    February 16, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Hey Amrita what’s with idiots in India discriminating against women and Valentine’s day etc? Did you beat any of em punks up?

     
  7. Amrita

    February 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Pitu – I didn’t know you were from Hotlanta! Sounds like good times… what I really loved about this movie is how entertaining it is while skilfully showing you the desperation that lurked under their good times. Because it’s San Fran in the 70s, y’know, there’s a LOT of fun times. I really recommend it. I look forward to the post.

    Ana – that’s what cuts the deepest. There’s a scene in Milk that references that feeling and it’s powerful. I think it works as a movie though, not just as a message. Catch it sometime, even if it only comes on TV.

    Amey – ha, it’s SO much better. Moore btw is now working on a Wall St movie.

    BVN – i think that might have changed the focus of the movie. it’s a very delicate line between a movie and a moral and I think they erred on the side of caution. Thanks for the link! And yes, I’ve seen the other movies in the best pic race and the reviews are up for all of them except Frost Nixon which should be up tomorrow or thereabouts.

    Gagan – I think you’d like the movie too. 🙂

    Ravi – check out Connector’s Corner and click on the Pink Chaddi Campaign to know more 😀

     
  8. Amey

    February 18, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    That reminds me (don’t ask how). It sounds much more Madhur Bhandarkar than Michael Moore.

     
  9. Amrita

    February 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Well, now I HAVE to ask how! 😀

     
  10. Amey

    February 18, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Would “Wall St. -> Corporate -> Obvious Names -> MB” satisfy you?

     
 
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