Saturday, January 17, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

Written and directed by Phillipe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long is a beautiful rendering of a complex relationship between two sisters who barely know each other, yet whose lives are bound together by a tragedy that’s finally understood only at the very end of the movie’s unfolding. Léa (the earnest, open-faced Elsa Zylberstein) arranges to shelter her older sister, Juliette (the quiet, mysterious, luminous Kristin Scott Thomas), when she’s released after serving a 15-year prison term for murdering her six-year-old son.

Léa dances around Juliette, trying to be unobtrusive yet yearning to peer into her face and her thoughts, trying to read through her opaqueness into her soul so that she can fathom Juliette’s violent act. Juliette politely averts her gaze; she arranges her face pleasantly enough, trying to meet the high bar of social expectation for civility and discourse, but she keeps her feelings obscured beneath an imperturbable mask.

Juliette, in fact, is an enigma to everyone. She wears prison-issued browns and grays in her skirt, blouse, and serviceable pumps, an outfit she rarely changes throughout the film. Juliette moves through her days of new freedom from one obligatory appointment to another, buffeted by the careful surveillance that structures her time. She meets her parole officer (Frederic Pierrot), a sad, lonely man who takes her to cafés to talk. Because he knows her crime but doesn’t seem to blame her for it, and doesn’t express much interest in her motivations, Juliette can be more open with him, even if their conversation remains superficial.

An intrusive social worker, on the other hand, determines to create a false intimacy that might allow Juliette to confess why she killed her boy. Even at her trial, Juliette had remained silent about her motives, rather than coming to her own defense. Juliette rebuffs the social worker’s presumptuous invitation to speak with a curt dismissal.

Perhaps because Juliette, who was a doctor before her imprisonment, is clearly an educated, upper-middle-class French woman (Scott Thomas carries off the French as impeccably as a native speaker), her incarceration for murder is incomprehensible, and forms the central mystery the film sets out to solve. Juliette’s refusal to speak about her crime, or about much of anything else, riles most people she encounters. She’s a woman who’s made her peace with her actions and feels no need to explain herself. But she breaks some implicit rule of feminine gendered behavior in her unwillingness to confess the motivation for her crime. Most people she meets think they can heal her by hearing her out. Others are simply undone by her silence.

At an excruciating dinner party to which she accompanies her sister and brother-in-law, the perfectly pleasant, intellectually inclined company laugh and gossip boisterously around her, while she sits quietly listening and smoking at the table. One of the more pompous, arrogant men decides that she’s been quiet enough and must tell them who she is and where she came from, where she’s been and what she’s done. When his demand becomes inescapable, Juliette quietly, matter-of-factly announces that she just finished a 15-year prison term for murder.

The group pauses silently for an instant before they break out in spontaneous, uproarious laughter, as though such a statement, coming from a beautiful, elegant, self-possessed woman, could only be a good joke. Juliette doesn’t correct their misapprehension. She smiles ruefully and returns to her silence. But in that one moment, her emotional isolation, the cost of the secret she carries, becomes crystal clear. Yet she doesn’t carry herself tragically; her self-containment befuddles those who expect her to need buoying up by proximity to their utterly normal, conventional lives.

Only a man named Michel, a professor at the same school where Léa teaches literature, can approach Juliette with empathy and understanding. He, too, has suffered a loss. He and Juliette visit galleries, where they look quietly at the art and let it speak to them. So many of the scenes in this film are about listening, about solitude, about the ways in which companionship sometimes only touches us lightly, although sometimes, that’s enough. Through Michel’s careful, occasional attention, Juliette gradually begins to come back to life. In one scene, leaving a museum, she touches his shoulder on the way down a flight of stairs. The gesture is momentous for her, but Claudel shoots it from a medium distance, as if respecting the character’s privacy.

Living with Léa and her husband, Luc, and their two young adopted Vietnamese children, Juliette works to be inconspicuous. But the rhythms of family life pull her in. Luc suspects her, at first, and refuses to leave her alone with their little girls. In fact, since at first I didn’t know why she killed her son, I, too, considered the possibility that she might be a bad person, a bad mother (god forbid), or that she’s waged some fight against “family” writ large. Luc's gradual acceptance of Juliette's reserve mirrors the spectator's slowly growing, grudging admiration.

When she and Léa visit their mother, who’s confined to a nursing home and suffers from Alzheimer’s, Léa warns Juliette that their mother hasn’t recognized her for some time. But in a too brief flash of lucidity during their meeting, when Léa has temporarily left the room, their mother does identify Juliette, and grasps her roughly in her arms. Léa returns and the moment passes. The older woman proceeds to treat them both brutally, shouting them out of her room, as if confirming that families can be cruel structures of purported kinship. It’s easy, at first, to think that Juliette has rebelled against its strictures in a terrible, violent way.

But as she continues to live with Léa and her family, the older daughter, P’tit Lys, grows fascinated by her aunt and her silence, with her obvious emotional difference from other adults. They play piano together; Juliette becomes the girl’s teacher, and gradually, the child teaches her to open her heart again. The piano also opens avenues for memory, as Juliette teaches P’tit Lys a duet that she and Léa played together when they were girls. The sisters acknowledge this small piece of a shared, happier past non-verbally, exchanging shy, tentative warm smiles.

I’ve Loved You So Long, in fact, works because of how little it verbalizes. Luc’s father, who’s been disabled by a stroke and can no longer speak, also lives with the family. Juliette is drawn to his benign, silent presence. She seeks out his quiet company, where she settles into relaxed mutual solitude as he reads or listens to music. Their inarticulate bond is lovely and moving.

Juliette, as played by Scott Thomas, is one of the most compelling female characters I’ve seen on screen in some time. She's made remarkable by how little she speaks yet how much she communicates nonetheless. Scott Thomas captivates the spectator with the quietness of her acting. Juliette’s silence, though, gives her power. She stands above quotidian life in her sad knowledge of something quite beyond the pleasantries and indignities of daily interactions. Only her duets with P’tit Lys bring her into the present. She arrives ruefully, at first, ready to flee back to her suspension in an unrevealed past.

Claudel often shoots Scott Thomas in close ups in which she’s smoking pensively, looking off into the distance at things the audience can’t see. Although what she’s thinking isn’t evident, watching Scott Thomas’s mind work and her face move, sometimes imperceptibly, is wrenching. In her silence, she accrues more power and commands more attention than those around her who blithely prattle on. In the face of her loss, in the face of her act, everything else is diminished. Yet she doesn’t judge her sister or her brother-in-law; as they proceed through their lives, she looks on with a poignant knowledge that she simply won’t share.

Juliette gets a job, ironically enough, working in the medical records department of a hospital. Halfway through her initial probationary period, she’s called into her supervisor’s office, where she’s told that her co-workers consider her unfriendly because she doesn’t talk enough. The scene is heartbreaking, as it’s clear how much Juliette needs a job that’s obviously beneath her abilities, and how much she’ll have to compromise her silent self to get along in a world of forced sociability. Her determination to keep the position forces her to play along, but it’s clear she won’t completely bow to workplace conventions.

Léa, though, chips away at Juliette’s remove, insisting that Juliette can talk to her. The younger sister’s admiration for her older sibling hasn’t been eradicated by their parents’ determination to erase Juliette from their lives. She keeps track of how long Juliette’s been gone in her diary, so that when her older sister returns, Léa can prove that her love has been faithful. Léa’s persistent effort to reconnect emotionally begins to wear Juliette down.

Zylberstein’s performance ennobles a character who could be played as an irritating pest. She performs Léa’s love for Juliette as utterly self-less and completely other-directed, even as she’s frustrated by her sister’s unwillingness to let her in emotionally. Zylberstein’s appealing mixture of innocence and sophistication, and her suppressed anger—which erupts in a painful scene when she’s teaching her students The Brothers Karamazov and one determines that murder is in fact redemptive, inducing her ire—keeps Léa from being a one-note, two-dimensional pawn of the plot. Her chemistry with Scott Thomas makes their gradually dawning intimacy believable. Juliette wants to trust Léa, but can’t let go of the magnitude of the weight she carries.

I won’t spoil the ending. It doesn’t reveal much a discerning spectator won’t have figured out well before, but it’s moving enough to leave for the film to reveal. Suffice it to say that Léa finally does persuade Juliette to tell her everything, which is the film’s one false note. As Foucault would say, we tend to invest confession with too much power, all of which implicates it in systems of discourse that entrap us in their ideological web.

When Juliette confesses her story and her motivation at the film’s finale, Claudel considers her words to be enough. She and Léa cry together, wrapped in one another’s arms. Michel rings at the door and Juliette calls out, “I’m here, Michel.” She turns to Léa to repeat meaningfully, “I’m here” and the film ends. Too quickly, confession brings Juliette fully back to life, too easily grateful for unburdening her truth on her sister.

I’ve Love You So Long offers a portrait of love between women—especially love between sisters—that we rarely get to see on screen. Neither Léa nor Juliette is sexualized and neither is forced to reveal their secrets by men. Their complex emotions tangle in ways that bind them whether or not they fully know their separate lives. Léa’s achievement in finally getting Juliette to reveal herself in some ways diminishes them both. I liked Juliette better as a mysterious, inscrutable woman who knows that speech can’t fix anything, who knows that memory is ultimately something you bear alone.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Billy Elliot

Seeing this little musical extravaganza (and that’s not, in this case, a contradiction in terms) was like seeing an evening’s worth of product placement, a musical based on a film determined to squeeze every penny from the success of its prior incarnation. That sounds cynical in a way I don’t mean; Billy Elliot works to the extent that it captures the surprising warmth of the terrific original film. But to change media requires placing the sad, whimsical, and finally hopeful story of the boy from a Northern England mining family who can’t suppress his sudden desire to be a ballet dancer into the relatively lumbering, static realm of the stage. The story feels a bit plodding, as a result, despite the creative team’s various attempts to mimic the film’s soaring effect.

Originally produced in London’s West End, the Broadway production includes only one carry-over performer in a leading role, the inimitable Haydn Gwynne as Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who uncovers Billy’s dancing talent. I saw David Alvarez in the title role (two other boys rotate in the lead with Alvarez). I caught the PBS-broadcast documentary, Finding Billy, about the extents to which the producers went to discover their American Billy, auditioning thousands of young boys from around the country in a series of extended workshops. The 15 finalists spent two weeks with director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling, and musical director David Chase, who carefully vetted the boys for their potential to act, dance, and sing the role. Billy performs center stage for most of the evening; the part requires not only the charisma of a leading man-child, but also the stamina of a polished, veteran performer.

Alvarez, the lovely, now 15-year-old Cuban-Canadian who studies at the American Ballet Theatre, is luminescent as Billy. Alvarez has a quiet command of the role. He’s wistful and slightly brooding, where another performer could be showy and temperamental (perhaps even one of the other two boys who share the role, based on how they appeared in Finding Billy). Alvarez’s strength is ballet. Although he does yeoman’s work with the shows tap and hip-hop inflected numbers, and although his acting is appealing and his singing adequate, watching this young man perform the classical moves is a revelation.

The scene in which Billy stumbles into Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet studio, wondrously attracted to the poses and positions she tries to craft on the bodies of her recalcitrant young girl students, is one of the most magical I’ve seen in recent theatre-going. In his second clandestine visit to her studio—his father thinks he’s out taking boxing lessons—Billy somehow clicks into position. In the curve of his arm and his back; in the tilt of his head; in the confident pointing of his feet, knees, and thighs; in the small rise of his chin; Billy embodies grace, beauty, and the potential in all of us to create something meaningful, if only for a moment.

Gwynne, as Mrs. Wilkinson, performs the scene beautifully, cloaking her astonishment at Billy’s talent and gently correcting his limbs into the proper position while it dawns on her that she’s found a very special boy with the potential to be a real artist. Her reaction tells more of a story than perhaps any other moment in the production, as a wistful yearning for what she’s lost and will never achieve struggles with her frank appreciation for Billy’s latent ability and her sheer enjoyment at seeing the beauty he’s already wrought.

Mrs. Wilkinson could be a clown role: the washed up, aging dancer consigned to a lifetime of putting heavy-set or gangly girls through the paces of Ballet 101, smoking while she teaches, wearing outrageously colored leg warmers and delivering cutting pronouncements about the lack of talent with which she’s surrounded. Mrs. Wilkinson could be played for laughs, like the self-serving Mrs. Hannigan in Annie. Instead, Gwynne makes the character the production’s emotional center, bringing nuance and care to each moment she’s on stage.

She becomes Billy’s surrogate mother (his own died tragically young, and appears to Billy as a ghost throughout the show), not because she wants to, but because Billy needs her protection and her care and she simply can’t refuse him. She’s moved by Billy’s talent and his sadness; in trumpeting his artistic potential, she’s not living vicariously so much as living at all. Billy reminds her of what art can do. In his physical transformations, she finds grace in an otherwise constrained life.

Billy Elliot paints in much broader strokes the lives of the striking miners whose struggle to keep their jobs and their livelihoods provide the surrounding story. Billy’s home life, administered haphazardly by his still grieving father and a tempestuous older brother who feels with his fists instead of his heart, is a caricature of working class values and lifestyles. Carole Shelley (late of a turn originating the role of Madame Morrible in Wicked) plays Grandma as a dithering joke, hiding her food, forgetting her daily routine, and offering Billy what limited affection she can muster as the family’s only woman. Gregory Jbara (who among other Broadway credits performed as the teddy bear-like gay bodyguard in Victor/Victoria) plays a stolid if limited Dad.

The scene in which Dad watches Billy dance for the first time in front of the judges at the Royal Ballet is Jbara’s finest. His astonished understanding of his son’s talent is moving and somehow true. Alvarez’s solo dance is a tour-de-force of frustrated emotion translated into gorgeous, compelling movement. Jbara’s transformation from an anxious, reluctant stage father unsure of himself in an elite environment to a proud father who sees a way out of certain poverty for his youngest son is another of the production’s few more emotionally complicated moments.

Otherwise, the musical’s emotional arc, signaled with a heavy hand by simplistic pop tunes with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, moves predictably from a fierce battle cry roused from striking miners to the resignation of defeat when after a year, they lose their strike and return to the mines with much reduced power and possibility. The dance numbers that convey the struggle between the workers and the police are beautifully choreographed, especially for “Solidarity,” in which miners, police, and the young girl ballet dancers weave together and dance among each other in a way that reveals them as finally one community with more in common than the rather arbitrary lines of their fight would suggest.

Of course, the striking miners support one another as they struggle not to starve without their wages, but their change of heart about Billy’s dancing comes too easily here to be persuasive. The musical is riddled with homophobic remarks about “poofs” (or, in the French, “poufs,” which my online dictionary seems to prefer), British slang for “fags”—any boy who doesn’t box and doesn’t want to be a miner like his older brother and father must be light in his loafers. That the community goes from such homophobic scoffing to financially supporting Billy’s quest to audition for the Royal Ballet with more than the few shillings they can spare happens too quickly here to make sense. The narrative feels contrived, going through its motions as it hurtles toward its inevitably uplifting, triumphal conclusion.

That anxiety about Billy’s sexuality, though, courses through more than one scene of Billy Elliot. Instead of addressing the issue and putting it, as it were, to bed, the book revisits Billy’s fey potential from beginning to end, as though “pouf” is a hiccough that won’t go away. The issue is most complex and nuanced in Billy’s scenes with his friend Michael, who is, in fact, queer. Early on, Michael persuades Billy to dress in his mother’s clothes as a prelude to the rousing number, “Expressing Yourself,” which Hall and John craft as one of the show’s best songs. It helps, too, that David Bologna, whom I saw play Michael, is a firecracker of a young performer. He plays to the audience, blatantly soliciting laughs and applause, but his virtuosic tap dancing, belting voice, and appealing countenance make him difficult to resist.

Bologna and Alvarez have more chemistry than any other combination of characters in Billy Elliot. Michael is Billy’s comic foil, while Mrs. Wilkinson his partner in his more serious emotional trajectory toward manhood. Michael’s late admission that he is, in fact, a “pouf,” is one of the show’s most unadorned and affecting moments, as it’s clear that as a queer boy, Michael will be trapped in the ultra-masculine world of miners without the escape route that Billy almost magically plots for himself.

The final moment of Billy Elliot is shared between Billy and Michael. As Billy leaves—up the aisle of the theatre’s house, for some reason—Michael rolls down stage center on the bicycle he’s pedaled throughout the show to say good-bye. Billy returns to the stage for the farewell, and kisses his friend chastely on the cheek. In this departing benediction, both boys acknowledge that only one of them will get out alive and, unfortunately, it won’t be the one whose queerness puts him most at risk by staying behind. The sad moment is a bittersweet coda to an otherwise redemptive narrative, and perhaps the only way to excuse all that anxiety about poufs.

In the UK, where Billy Elliot still plays to large audiences, the story’s political content must read more clearly and persuasively. For American spectators, a program note (rare for Broadway productions) explains the history of the 1984 miners strike in response to Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s threat to close down the industry. A second act party scene that parodies Thatcher’s much-reviled countenance with oversized puppet heads and caricatured actions could be particularly illegible to those who are most likely the show’s target audience—preteens and teenagers.

In its translation to the US, Billy Elliot loses what might otherwise be its political punch. The miners lose their strike after a long, hungry year, only to return to work chastened and defeated. Daldry makes the point beautifully; the company dons their miners clothes and hard hats, singing “Once we were Kings” as they descend into the stage floor as the song ends. The lights on their hats shine out at the audience as they’re lowered below the stage, blinding us for a moment but underlining that these men who work underground have literally been buried by Thatcher’s union-bashing, anti-worker machinations. The resonant image is chilling.

The New York reviews rhapsodized Billy Elliot as the saving grace of the Broadway season, and the show will probably win a number of Tony awards that will extend its box office life. I sat behind a woman who was seeing the show for the fourth time and provided an unsolicited disquisition about the differences among the three Billys and the two Michaels. Fans like her, and the word of mouth they’ll promote, should keep the show running despite the economic crisis that closed almost ten Broadway shows at once at the beginning of the month. Although I don’t think Billy Elliot deserves all of its critical encomiums, those few enchanting scenes that anchor an otherwise ordinary but perfectly pleasant evening make seeing it worthwhile.

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, January 05, 2009


Director Gus Van Sant’s biopic of murdered gay activist Harvey Milk begins where the story ends—with a tearful but stalwart Dianne Feinstein announcing Milk’s death, along with his colleague, San Francisco mayor George Moscone, at the hands of their fellow elected official, City Supervisor Dan White. On this archival footage, people gasping and crying “No!” can be heard over Feinstein’s grim announcement, as shock and loss become almost palpable in the crowd gathered at the news conference.

But as Van Sant—and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black—back away from the archive, they pick up their story with Milk (played with grace, humor, and respect by the remarkable Sean Penn) alone at a kitchen table with a 1970s-style tape recorder and microphone, narrating his life’s events to be listened to only in the case of his assassination. Milk, the film tells us, was paranoid but also prescient about his untimely demise; he never believed he’d live to see 50, and in fact, he died much too early, at 48.

Threading his story through the lens of Milk’s backward glance nicely frames the film in history, and also accomplishes one of Milk’s most important choices, which is to resist the pull of hagiography and to paint Harvey Milk in all his complexities. Milk’s narcissism, as he becomes more and more enamored of the limelight, is one of his least flattering aspects, and Van Sant doesn’t shy from scenes in which Milk engineers his own heroism. But at the same time, these moments only underline the man’s humanity; Harvey Milk had his good points and his bad, but he truly was one of the first out, nationally visible heroes of the contemporary lesbian and gay movement.

In Van Sant and Black’s telling of his story, Milk becomes a political activist nearly by accident. Shortly after his fortieth birthday, he moves with his young lover Scott (the adorable, sweetly empathetic James Franco) from New York to San Francisco, leaving behind years as a rather square insurance salesman to grow his hair long, wear jeans, and open a camera store on Castro Street in what was just then on the verge of becoming the city’s (if not the world’s) most famous gay (male) neighborhood. After he and Scotty proudly hang their “Castro Camera” sign in the window and kiss each other in the street to celebrate, a fellow merchant flaunts his own homophobia, letting Milk know that gay people aren’t welcomed as business owners.

Appalled and instantly righteous, Milk begins his first bit of organizing, spreading word on the street that anti-gay businesses should be boycotted. When his strategy works, and it’s clear that gay (male) dollars have some power and influence, the exultant Milk treats his former antagonist with good humor and friendship rather than derision. Milk truly was a “big tent”-style politico; he even worked hard to befriend Dan White, his fellow City Supervisor who would eventually take his life.

That we know what’s coming throws the events of the film into high relief and paints them with just enough irony to temper what might otherwise have been simple hero-worship. Each of Milk’s actions contributes to his own success and to greater visibility for gays (and presumably more than a few lesbians, although only one is featured in the film). At the time, the virus of what would eventually morph into the evangelical religious right was just starting to spread, inspired by a pretty white singer in Florida named Anita Bryant. Bryant’s campaign to repeal the Dade County ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians becomes the inciting incident in Milk’s life, as his own activism begins to take on national overtones.

Van Sant intercuts more archival footage, news reports from Walter Cronkite featuring gay rights stories, and an interview with Bryant and a very young Tom Brokaw, pushing the woman on what’s clearly her hatred for “homosexuals.” Bryant’s campaign comes west in the form of Proposition Six, or the Briggs Amendment, which would have prohibited gay men and lesbians and their supporters from teaching in the California public school system. The pernicious referendum would have legislated and condoned virulent homophobia, and Briggs pushed hard on all the hot-button stereotypes to get the proposition passed: gay men as pedophiles, the analogy of homosexuality with bestiality, and the inability of “queers” (used then to mean something much more derogatory than it does now) to reproduce.

The same ridiculous accusations continue to be trotted out by anti-gay marriage radical rightists today, and rarely do we hear the kinds of smart ripostes that Milk used in his debates with Briggs. Watching the film as it narrates activism from the 70s, it’s difficult not to be saddened that these puerile arguments about whether gay people deserve civil rights still rage.

One of Milk’s achievements is to put its subject’s story in a larger historical context. The film opens with still more black-and-white footage of police raids on gay bars in the 1940s and 50s, heartbreaking scenes of beautiful young men (mostly white, well dressed, and probably middle class) hauled out of bars by uniformed officers herding them with into vans to place them under arrest. The men shield their faces from the camera or look sad, ashamed, or defiant, but for the most part, an air of familiar resignation pervades these scenes. These police raids, prior to the Stonewall uprising in 1969, were regular entertainment for police in large cities across the country. Seeing actual news footage underlines how not so very long ago, gay male sexuality (or even simple public fraternizing) was criminalized.

In this context, the fact that Milk was out, proud, and loud about gay rights clarifies how remarkable his activism was, even twenty-odd years after the dark days for gays of the 1950s. Stonewall had happened by the time Milk left New York for the Bay Area, but aside from the import of its symbolic gesture, the uprising did little to actually change laws. Milk arrived in San Francisco and began his long fight for political office when very little (if any) pro-gay legislation had been essayed anywhere in the country.

Milk tells the story of the birth of an activist, someone fighting not just for himself, but for a nascent community that he in some ways helped to form. The film, to its credit, also clarifies that Milk’s wasn’t the only political line toed at the time. Scenes with David Goodstein (Zvi Howard Rosenman), the then-powerful owner of The Advocate, the first national gay and lesbian publication, and his minion (the wonderful Stephen Spinella), in which Milk asks for their endorsement for one of his numerous campaigns for public office, nicely illustrates the differences between an accommodationist, assimilationist gay politic and Milk’s strategy of insisting that gay male visibility will make a difference in public consciousness. That Milk’s tactic proves most effective should remind us, even now, that the politics of radical difference might be as effective as claiming that gay people are just like everyone else.

Although Milk thinks he’s the radical edge, he is judged by his young friend Cleve Jones for his willingness to work within the conventional political system to create change. Jones eventually joins Milk’s gang, and becomes one of his trusted advisors and most vigorous, creative promoters. But Van Sant and Black take care to demonstrate that the gay political movement of the late 1970s was comprised of different camps that were strategically at odds. (Jones, who advised on the film, went on to establish the Names Project, which tours the AIDS Memorial Quilt around the country as a poignant reminder of people who have died from the HIV/AIDS pandemic.)

The film also casts a witty glance at what it means to achieve a modicum of public power, in scenes in which we see Milk working as a San Francisco city supervisor: trading favors to achieve the numbers for his own pet projects; bullying Mayor Moscone into promoting his agenda and his methods; and demonstrating to Jones how to use the fabulous public staircase of San Francisco’s City Hall as a kind of theatre, making a Norma Desmond-esque entrance up the slick marble steps dancing with his head thrown back and arms out.

Milk clearly revels in his achievement and the influence he accrues, but he keeps a wry attitude toward what it means to be singular and gay in the halls of power. He works tirelessly to create coalitions, to fight for working people and unions members as well as to form common cause with African-American voters and politicos. Milk’s achievement is in its refusal to simplify what Milk’s rise to power meant—and how long it took to accomplish—and its nuanced exploration of how groundwork is laid for political change to make its torturously slow way through the system.

Because he’s taken such care, Van Sant shows Milk as a man in a constant state of becoming, even as he singlemindedly pursues his goals. Scott can’t withstand Milk’s intense, consuming dedication to the cause. He leaves Milk, even as he continues his own activist contributions. Milk’s new lover, Jack (Diego Luna), is a Latino queen attracted to Milk’s fame, who’s finally unable to contain the jealousy he feels for Milk’s more passionate relationship to his cause.

Age plays an important role in Milk. When Milk and Scott first meet, Scott is young, sporting a curly blond thicket of hair. He calls Harvey, “Old man”—at just 40, Milk is already over the hill under the terms of gay male youth culture. But Scott ages along with Milk as they both grow into their lives as political people. What age means becomes malleable, along with other styles and roles. For instance, Van Sant captures how clothing is really costume; Milk’s hair style and sartorial choices change to fit his political goals. He wears suits and ties while his friends dress in t-shirts and bell bottom jeans, because he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed by how he looks.

The politics of clothes recur throughout the film, and illustrate the different ways of being a gay man in the 1970s. One of Jack’s flaws, in fact, is his relative flamboyance, compared to Milk’s more buttoned-down staff of compatriots. That he wears a fur-lined hood on his red jacket, and carries himself with a more mincing affect, marks him as the tragic queen in the company of men determined not to fit prevailing gay stereotypes.

In fact, the more outré denizens of Castro culture are absent from Van Sant’s film. Even more conspicuously, so are the lesbian activists who surely played a larger role in San Francisco’s political scene in the mid- and late-70s. Allison Pill does a lovely job playing Anne Kronenberg, who joins Milk’s campaign as marketing director when Scott leaves. Kronenberg accuses Milk and his cronies of being afraid of women and teases them about their all-male fraternity. Milk insists that they take her in, but the character becomes the token lesbian. Milk doesn’t even let the poor woman have a girlfriend or another lesbian comrade to make her less singular.

In a recent interview in Curve magazine, Kronenberg noted that there really wasn’t a unified lesbian and gay movement in the late 70s, and that Milk was in fact one of the first gay men to reach out to lesbians to consolidate political power. She also says that she was busy working in feminist causes at the time, a situation mirrored, no doubt, by many middle-class young white women.

Milk’s cabal is also all white, except for one Asian-American man Milk consistently refers to as “Lotus Blossom” and the tragic Latino, Jack. The lack of people of color or women in Milk’s ranks might be a factor of his historical moment, but it would have been generous for Van Sant and Black to find ways to note and comment on this history. Although they lack diversity, Milk’s “cabinet” includes able friends and loyal supporters with unshakeable belief in the importance of his candidacy and his message. His collection of beautiful boys truly cares for one another, and they spark off each other’s ideas intellectually and politically. Politics, in Milk, is about tactics and strategy, but it’s also about conversation, about getting to know who people are, what they want, and how they feel.

Activism happened without the internet to bring people together in the 70s, a point Van Sant makes eloquently in a scene in which Milk proposes a rally and Cleve Jones sets in motion what used to be called “phone trees” to get the word out. Jones calls someone who calls someone who calls someone, as increasingly smaller square images of men holding phones to their ears multiply across the screen. The labor of politics becomes palpable in this image, along with the determination and dedication of the gay activists surrounding Milk to make change happen by getting people involved.

The enormity of the spontaneous candle-lit march from the Castro to City Hall to honor Milk’s life and to mourn his death ends Van Sant’s film, with Scott Smith and Anne Kronenberg staring in wonder and pride at the huge line of people marching in silent sadness toward the site of Milk’s murder. The moment is moving and beautiful; the fact that it’s true makes it wrenching.

Van Sant cast Milk with a number of gay actors who don’t necessarily play gay roles. To see the always terrific Denis O’Hare, for example, play the arch-conservative John Briggs, while Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, reminds audiences that sexual identity is performative in the largest sense, in that anyone can capture its surface codes and subtleties of gesture and style, whether playing straight or gay. Van Sant’s choices also underline that gay actors play straight all the time, and that there’s really no longer anything radical about straight actors playing gay. Penn’s performance as Milk shines not because of the risks he takes as a straight actor playing a gay activist, but because his acting here is so genuine, present, “real,” unfettered, and heart-felt. Milk was a man of large gestures, bold presence, palpable affection, good humor, and compassion; Penn captures these qualities with commitment and grace.

While Penn’s charisma as a actor is unparalleled, I’m not sure he quite captures what must have been the utter magnetism of Harvey Milk behind the megaphone on his soap box (literally, in his first claim on public attention, Van Sant has Milk climb onto a wooden box marked “soap”). I found the rally and demonstration scenes some of the least convincing. When he yells, “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you,” Penn sounds a bit canned, as though these moments are truly too historical for him to imbue with really heightened feeling.

The actor shines in the more spontaneous moments of Milk’s life and career: talking to a young wheel-chair bound gay man who thinks he can’t escape his parents’ determination to set him straight; debating Briggs point by point in publicly staged conversations; and most effectively, recording his thoughts about his history into his tape recorder, ruminating alone at the end of his life.

Likewise, while Van Sant eloquently intercuts archival footage with his fictionalized treatment, the rally and demonstration scenes, shot in color and carefully art-directed and costumed, appear as fake as indeed they are, compared to the hard-edged black-and-white realism of the documentary and news clips they play beside. That the staginess of those scenes rings false isn’t so much a complaint as an observation about the challenges of mixing genres to make a point. But because Milk is a deeply pedagogical film, as well as a poignant, moving, emotional dramatic one, the combination of real footage and fiction somehow works.

I came out in Boston in 1977-78, when much of Milk takes place. The first political demonstration I ever attended was a gay rights rally against Anita Bryant, outside her hotel room in Copley Square. I didn’t know other gay people. I was just beginning to suspect that “lesbian” might name me and my desires. I took myself to the rally on Boston’s T trains, and blended into a crowd of people who seemed happy and charged by being together, despite the fact that their presence was meant to protest Bryant’s bigotry and ignorance. Self-acceptance, let alone pride, was something I was struggling toward.

Hearing the speeches, and more memorably, listening to the crowd sing Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul” and Tom Robinson’s “Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay,” let me know that, clichéd as it sounds, I wasn’t alone, that there were others like me, and that they’d found language (and even music) that described who they were, who they wanted, and how valid were those desires. Watching Milk let me relieve a foundational part of my own history.

Milk is a sympathetic, sensitive portrait of an ordinary man who’s changed by being in a certain place at a certain time. At the end of one of Milk’s first scenes, when the clock strikes midnight, ushering in Milk’s 40th birthday, he turns to Scott, whom he’s just picked up on a subway platform in New York, and laments that he hasn’t yet done anything important with his life. Going to San Francisco puts Milk in the crucible of change for gay men and lesbians. From there, a combination of circumstance and his own lust for life and liberty propel him into activism.

Milk died a hero, but he didn’t set out to be one. He opened himself with compassion and caring; he was smart and had an acute sense of possibility and righteousness; and he knew, as profoundly as Barack Obama 30 years later, that people need hope. He used humor to great effect, but he was deadly serious about the importance of his activism and the necessity that people be able to look forward to a real future. Milk’s triumph is in how sad it leaves us that Harvey Milk died way too soon. We still need his heroism and his faith.

The Feminist Spectator