Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Saw the film Milk the Other Day...

The reviews I read of the film "Milk" were all surprisingly positive in a way that made me want to see the film (as opposed to feeling an obligation to see the film). I say "surprisingly" because I find historical docudramas problematic in the sense that they walk this funny line between documentary and creative art, and they even invite themselves to be judged in those terms (that is, where people feel free to complain loudly at the slightest deviation from what "really happened"). I find that reviewers of these films feel that same discomfort, as they try to address both the film as drama and the film as documentary and rarely wind up being wholeheartedly positive (because given those two competing frameworks you can't be -- fulfilling one generally diminishes the other).

All that said, I was impressed with how well I found the film to work as a film even while adhering very closely to the now-historical characters and timelines it concerns itself with. At the end of the film there is a "what happened to them" presentation (like the one at the end of American Graffiti), where the line between "these real people" and "these characters in this film" vanishes entirely and it doesn't seem jarring.

So anyway: See the film. You probably know the story and you probably know the themes -- as if this were Greek tragedy -- but the story is an important one and the themes are resonant. And inspiring really, for current issues. These are the reasons I think this film is one of the rare docudramas that works for me.

What also worked for me was how accurately evocative the film was of its time -- the memories it evoked were more on the nature of flashbacks than memories, with the accompanying emotional context brought back to the surface. I'm not talking specifically about the events in San Francisco in the 70s -- we had our own openly gay politicians in Massachusetts to concern ourselves with at the time, contrary to the "only in San Francisco" claims of the film (my guess is that because Elaine Noble was female she was under the radar of the scriptwriters, although here I am complaining about how "real" the film was). No, the memories it evoked were of what it felt like to be homosexual in the 1970s.

The film uses actual television footage of Anita Bryant speaking publicly in support of repealing a gay rights initiative in Dade County Florida (in 1977), while Harvey Milk and his entourage watch in silent horror at the blatant bigotry and evil her remarks exemplify. We, in 2008, are presumably meant to respond in sympathy with Harvey Milk and of course we do and of course some of us did back then. But watching that footage (which I'm pretty sure I saw in its original broadcast) brought me back to 1977, where we really did hear that sort of thing all the time -- and the media encouraged it, presented the viewpoint as "reasonable", gave the most vile homophobes public platforms to spout their hatred without response or question -- because, after all, it was just "reporting the news". There is much nonsense of equal horror that gets bandied about today (Proposition 8 being the prominent example), but more and more of the establishment has joined the side of rightness and justice -- by which I mean that the very notion that ensuring gay rights is an issue of "fairness" is itself worlds and worlds beyond the general beliefs of 1977. Awful as the recent anti-gay votes have been, the public discourse is not anything like what it was back then. Watching that bit of the film brought it all back to me, with the bleeding pain unmuted by time.

There was another moment in the film that had a similar affect on me, a scene in which Harvey Milk insists to his staff that it is imperative that everybody come out to their families and friends. I was, as it happens, out to my family and friends in 1977, but that scene in the film reminded me of what that meant. At the time, coming out to anybody in any way was often met by complaints about what a bad thing it is to "make in issue" out of this. Mentioning a same-sex partner, speaking up when anti-gay (or simply gay-ignorant) remarks were dropped (and really, I think the current generation of younger folks would be astonished to know just how frequent and prevalent such remarks used to be, as innocuous social exchanges) -- anything at all that involved coming out meant you were "making a big deal of it". I struggled with that for years, at least until I helped start the lesbian/gay community band in Boston which made it possible to come out by talking about my involvement in a musical organization, which somehow snuck past the "don't make a big deal out of it" defensiveness.

My point is that I think that we -- as a culture - have lost the memories of how much we were forced to tolerate at the time, just to maintain our sanity and sense of fun. Which is a good thing. The movie "Milk" brought some of this back. And it only scratched the surface.
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