I wondered for a moment, after watching the third or fourth of Milk’s many man-on-man make-out sessions, if I was just a wee bit prejudiced against gay men, and that explained my lack of response to the film. (It is also somewhat odd to watch a Hollywood film where a woman doesn’t appear or say a word until about an hour in. To an audience, gay or straight, which has come of age watching the camera adoringly record the eyes, hair, and teeth of a long line of screen goddesses stretching from Rita Hayworth to Angelina Jolie, the experience occasionally feels like it’s not worth the trouble. So I find myself in the odd position of being a straight guy feeling ambivalent about a gay film because it doesn’t have enough glamorous hair and makeup.)
I always find myself admiring heterosexual male stars as they simulate, very convincingly, gay lovemaking, foreplay, cuddling, and general couples-cutesiness. I imagine, if put into the shoes of Sean Penn making out with James Franco, I would laugh uncontrollably, or get pissed off that he didn’t shave that morning. Does this mean I’m prejudiced?
I don’t know, maybe. But I’m pretty sure that’s not why I didn’t like the movie.
A.O. Scott of the Times praised the film’s refusal to delve into psychological or sociological motivation to explain Harvey Milk. The movie tells us that Harvey is charismatic, and a fighter, and that’s about it. After that, it’s straight into the marching and bullhorns. But that’s not a movie. It’s not even a good documentary. You get the feeling the director (Gus Van Sant) and screenwriter may both have been a little too close to the material, which plays along to the beats of an extremely standard biopic, and simultaneously refuses to indulge in too much emotion or suspense or turns of plot—anything which might be construed as manipulative.
Cheap psychology is bad, but no psychology is worse. There was a real Harvey Milk, who by all accounts was extraordinary, but there has to be a movie Harvey Milk played by Sean Penn too, and the movie Harvey Milk is not endowed, by default, with all of the extraordinary qualities of the real one.
I will forgive Van Sant for failing to entertain. But I can’t forgive the movie for failing to provoke thought. There is a simple message of acceptance and hope at the heart of Harvey Milk’s story. But you can’t simply be told things at the movies. Whatever ideas we find in them, we have to discover ourselves. There is no way to access the material in Milk except exactly the way Van Sant wants us to–straight on, no questions asked. Egh. Nobody goes to the movies for a civics lesson.