Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Milk & Kisses

Some movies you just can't be objective about—assessing the structure of the script, the texture of the cinematography, the timing of the editing, the skill of the actors and directors. Some movies you just have to take in, absorb and appreciate.

Recently I watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I can only describe as a film noir screwball comedy. The bodies pile up, and you laugh out loud because you can't believe they actually did that one thing that was just the next step past insane and absurd. It's a movie that carries some gay themes, but it also uses every element of character and script and plot to just completely derail your expectations into something much further out there than you ever imagined. I have a fondness for dark humor in movies—Grosse Point Blank is a favorite, for example—but it's rarely done so well, so effortlessly, so absolutely screwball nutty.

Then I watched Milk, and I'm not ashamed to say that I dropped everything I was doing, got totally absorbed, emotionally engaged, and cried at the end. I had been composing a piece of music, and it had been hard to get through the section I was working on, because it was all grunt work and copying, not very exciting once I've sketched it out, just lots of details to fill in. I put the movie on thinking I'd sort of half watch it while I got a few more pages of musical grunt work done. Well, I only got a page done, because the movie was so compelling, and increasingly so as it went along.

I'd actually bought Milk on DVD a month or so previous, but had not had a chance to watch it. I was catching up on my stack of movies I hadn't seen. I bought it because I knew I'd want it, I knew it would be good—but until I watched it I didn't know how much I'd be affected by it, or how much seeing San Francisco like it was in a time warp back to the 70s would be both exciting and spooky. This was, after all, that whole "free love" period between Stonewall and the onset of AIDS awareness. And it was a time social activism on many fronts; there are several rallies, marches, and a riot or two accurately recreated in the film. The silent candelit march from the Castro to City Hall, after Harvey was assassinated, was re-enacted just as it had happened, and filmed that way. And there were many extras in the crowd who had been in the original march.

It doesn't hurt that I am fond of watching films made in San Francisco; the City itself is often like a character in each film. In the year and a half or so I lived there, plus the many times I'd visited it before and after actually living there, I absorbed so much of the scenery and history, that watching Milk was spooky. I've stood on exactly those street corners and avenues and on the steps of City Hall where the movie was shot, and where the original events took place. It's really resonant how accurately they recreated everything. The movie isn't just a tribute to Harvey Milk, or a biopic, it's a dramatized history of actual events, intercut with a lot of period footage—Anita Bryant spreading hatred, for one, Walter Cronkite reporting the news, for another—and the original footage is scruffy and improvised enough, a signature of director Gus van Sant's directing style, that it all looked completely authentic to the period. I've lived there: I know how those streets smell, how they look in the fog, in the afternoon light, all that. And the film brought it all back.

I hear a lot of younger gay men saying they really don't get it, get what the big deal was all about, don't understand the history, why these things are really important still. Well, watch this movie: there's so much history in, factual and emotional, that you'll come away with a much deeper appreciation of what has been won, and what is still yet to be won. The movie's themes remain very timely—because it's all happening all over again, and we need to have hope all over again, and fight for our rights all over again.

Hope was Harvey Milk's constant refrain in many of his speeches. Hope was something we all need in order to live. Hope is something I personally struggle with, often feeling little of it, personally, in my own life. This film gave some hope back to me.

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