Manuel Betancourt

Milk, or How Van Sant and Penn serve it up well

December 7, 2008 · in Uncategorized

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Victor Garber, Alison Pill and Diego Luna.

To watch Gus Van Sant’s Milk is to be immersed in the world of Castro St in the 1970s. When the film starts, we are welcomed by archival footage of the political world on the streets, where homosexuals were arrested for no reason – it almost suggests to me that if Van Sant had had his way, he would have shot the entire film in a way that looked as if it were all archival footage (he finds ways around this: having pictures come alive, shooting some scenes up so close and so grainy they look old and dusty). If nothing else Milk needs to be the movie everyone who cares about Prop 8 and all other anti-gay laws passed this Nov 4th sees and recommends as widely as they can. For, unlike that other¬†Oscar-baiting ‘gay’ project that was robbed of its statuette to that horrid Paul Haggis “film,” Milk is unabashedly about the out, campy, in your face, ‘we’re here, we’re queer’ activist world of the 1970s civil rights movement (with man on man sex, drugs and blowjobs included!). Not something you see everyday on ‘mainstream’ movies, but which comes at a timely moment in this nation’s (cultural) politics.
There are many things to love in Milk,¬†many of which are its performers who so convincingly inhabit the characters they portray. Penn, who I’ve never really cared for is a revelation as the campy, strong-willed Harvey, and along with Franco he portrays one of the most realistic and (shall we say it?) ordinary gay couples I have seen on-screen. We feel for their relationship because it feels so ‘lived in’ and this is mostly due to Franco and Penn’s performances, whose furtive smiles, annoyed looks and witty dinner table talk sell us on their relationship. Also worth singling out are Hirsch and Brolin, the former for its sunny persona as Cleve Jones (oh to dance and be caught in a dark room with him!) and the latter for embodying the slowly boiling turmoil he reveals with tight fists and crunched teeth. The only person I couldn’t stand throughout was Diego Luna – maybe it was his hair, his facial hair, his accent or just his overall demeanour but god I just wanted him out of the frame every time he was on (a testament to how well he played the character? Maybe… but annoying nonetheless).
It may be a paint by the numbers biopic (and there’s only so many ways you can make that interesting) but Van Sant’s gritty direction, Danny Elfman’s score and Harris Savides documentary-style cinematography make the film resonate in a way that exceeds its oh-so Oscar-baity and politically “liberally progressive” message. A