There is really no other cinema better to watch the latest Gus Van Sant biopic "Milk" than the Castro theater in the Castro district of San Francisco. I was lucky enough to watch this film there, and through the serrendiptuous incongruity of watching the film but a few blocks from where the fictionalized events on the screen actually took place, I actually blew out some kind of metacircular safety valve between the fictionalized San Francisco on the screen and the flesh-and-blood city where I live.
"Milk" is a biopic of Harvey Milk, an icon of the gay movement as the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Milk was the lightning rod for that filthy piece of proposed legislation known as Proposition 6 in 1978, a legislation that proposed to fire any gay teacher in Californian schools, as well as any other person who supports them. In the film, Harvey Milk spearheads the efforts to fight this legislation, and in doing so brought homosexuality into the mainstream body politic.
The timing of the film is portentious as "Milk" was released not long after Proposition 8 of the 2008 election was passed. Proposition 8 seeks to ban gay marriage in the state of California. From Proposition to Proposition 8 of 2008, we suddenly see the arc of gay rights through the 21st century. Of particular note is the apparent failure of the modern leaders of the gay movement to heed the political lessons of Harvey Milk – to fight anti-gay fear-mongering legislations, you must put a face – a family member, a friend, a coworker – to the issue at hand.
The film is astonishing if only for the performance by Sean Penn as he inhabits Harvery Milk. But I had gone to see this film with two film buffs, who were unmoved by the film. For them, watching a great acting performance and letting a resonant story unfold was not enough. They had come for experimental camera shots and nonsequiter riffs of earlier Gus Van Sant movies, but unfortuantely, they could not jerk off to a film that was so manifestedly Hollywood. I'm beginning to suspect that their technophilia has displaced a certain humanity in their aesthetics.
Indeed "Milk" captures San Francisco in a way that I've never seen on celluloid. It is a period piece, faithfully recreating a sepia-toned image of San Francisco in the swirling 1970's, a place vaguely familiar. It gave the city a lush hue that I had overlooked in my 5 years here. I had wrongly assumed that the gay community had been in San Francisco since time immemorial but through the film, I learnt that the gayfication of the Castro happened in the 1970's.
The most gut-wrenching scene was when a young boy, stuck in the Midwest, contemplating suicide, calls Milk, after reading about his electoral success in a newspaper. Milk pleads with him to leave, buy a bus ticket, to go anywhere. To go to San Francisco. The boy answers that he can't because he's in a wheelchair. San Francisco today remains the refuge for the other in the United States. Young Americans from every cardinal direction who find themselves adrift in life will eventually, like homing pigeons, arrive on the pavements of San Francisco. In no other city across the vast expanses of the United States of America will you find such a variegated collection of misfits, artists, perverts and visionaries. This is its beauty and its strangeness. And it freaks the fuck out of the bile-filled pseudo-christians of the Deep South. When the film ended, I walked out of the celluloid San Francisco of the 1970's into the darker if not wisers streets of the San Francisco of 2008.