Monday, September 21, 2009


Ever since the release of Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), a biopic has been in the works. At one point, in 1991, Gus Van Sant was set to direct Robin Williams. The project fell through, but the fact that one proposed project after another had fallen through in all the years since is ample evidence of Hollywood's smell for a sure-fire hit as well as its cowardice. Finally, with an air of inevitability, Gus Van Sant's film, Milk (2008), with a new script and star, was released just in time for the California vote on Proposition 8, a California state constitution amendment which reads: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." The release's timing was, however, off. 52.24% of California voters said yes to the proposition, paving the way for future rallies and protests which led all the way up to Oscar Eve, when Sean Penn won for Best Actor.(1) I could see Penn's acceptance speech coming from 6,000 miles away.

The Times of Harvey Milk was an extraordinary documentary that encapsulated a story that might easily have been overlooked by anyone not involved in San Francisco's political scene. Harvey Milk was a gay man who moved to San Francisco from New York to escape a life of constant subterfuge - the life of every gay man living outside a major city. (2) Even in San Francisco, however, gays were subject to harassment from police and straight men, and many of them took to carrying whistles to alert others when they were under attack. Milk managed to organize the residents of the Castro district, where he and other gays were able to live openly. Milk's would have been just another San Francisco anecdote if Dan White, a fellow city supervisor, had not murdered him and the mayor in November 1978 for what appeared to be political reasons, although there were rumors, which will only ever be rumors, that White was in denial of his own gayness.

On his election to City Supervisor in 1977, Milk was quickly pushed into a leading role in the California vote on Proposition 6 which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. It was part of a broader, national movement, Save Our Children, whose figurehead was Anita Bryant. The proposition was defeated, and it was seen as a victory for Milk and a mandate for further gay rights legislation. Dan White supported Milk in the proposition's defeat, reportedly as a deal that would oblige Milk to support one of White's initiatives to block the moving of a mental hospital into his district. When Milk reneged on his promise, White was outraged, and submitted his resignation to the mayor. When White changed his mind and asked the mayor to return his resignation, the mayor, with Milk's encouragement, refused.

Van Sant gives ample credit to Rob Epstein's documentary in the end credits for Milk. A gay man himself, and a filmmaker who seems to invite controversy, Van Sant was probably attracted as much to Milk's violent death as to his strident sexuality. Milk's sexuality is depicted in the film quite naturally, which is remarkable for a mainstream film. Lately, the presence of straight men in gay roles is a commonplace. Aside from providing producers and audiences with the assurance that there is no untoward gratification going on, the phenomenon has a fetishistic feel to it, providing gay titillation watching them pretend to love men. It is comparable to the titillation some straight men claim to derive from watching women kissing. It would have been far braver, if less titillating, of Van Sant to cast a gay man in the role of Harvey Milk.

One critic, John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard, complained that the film failed to mention Milk's "polyamorous" affairs in order to placate the same-sex marriage crowd. Some opponents of gay marriage are convinced that, since the male libido is controlled by testosterone,(3) gay men are far more sexually active simply because their partners are under the influence of the same hormone. The "bath houses" where gay men go for gratification, which Milk mentions in the film, have been the subject of heterosexual curiosity, if only because there is no such counterpart in the straight world.

Sean Penn is utterly convincing as Milk, and could, I suppose, be commended for so fearlessly impersonating a gay man, if one believed it requires courage for a straight man to continually kiss someone of the same sex. Evidently, the Academy Awards thought so, in awarding Penn Best Actor. The only other commendable element of the film is its equally fearless re-creation of 1970s America. For quite a few other unsightly reasons, the '70s was a profoundly ugly decade. The clothes, the cars, the hair were merely an outward manifestation of an inward ugliness. Van Sant and his production and costume designers, Bill Groom and Danny Glicker, got it all frighteningly right.

Gay and straight people have always seemed to be living in parallel worlds. Of course, this is only because, heretofore, straight society insisted that it be so. Long before the American military adopted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it was an unwritten law for everyone else. By telling the straight world that they exist, gays have always risked backlashes from threatened straights, in defense of such shibboleths as "family values." Over the decades, propositions both for and against co-existence - the simple acceptance of gays living in the same world - come and go. That homosexuals have rights at all is thanks to people like Harvey Milk.

(1) Dustin Lance Black also won for Best Original Screenplay.
(2) In Milk, we first meet Harvey in medias res, picking up a cute man on the stairs of a New York subway.
(3) An average man has forty to sixty times the Testosterone levels of an average woman.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Gus Van Sant has always seemed to me a filmmaker who refuses to be taken seriously. His films have either been unbearably pixilated, blatantly commercial or portentously obvious. Gerry (2002), however, is formally exceptional, even if it, too, is ultimately disappointing.

Assuming that they started with a premise, perhaps nothing more than the misadventure of David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian in Rattlesnake Canyon, New Mexico in 1999 (1), Van Sant, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who are credited with the "screenplay", took a camera and crew to Death Valley and Utah (along with a sojourn in Argentina, thanks to a threatened SAG strike, which never materialized) and shot enough footage to illustrate the experience of two men who park their car and go for a hike in street clothes and without provisions (water, a map, a compass, a cellphone) on a "wilderness trail". After a remarkably short period of walking, and after nonchalantly departing from the otherwise well-marked trail, they find that they cannot find their way back to their car. What follows, though predictable (else why come this far?), is curiously absorbing, thanks to Harris Savides' camerawork, partaking of the ordeal like a participant, and because of Van Sant's refusal to indulge in any kind of dramatic emphasis, so that scenes, if one can call them that, occur without any sense of causation or connection.

Van Sant was probably just trying to demonstrate how the dialogue would probably have sounded between the two friends, without trying to use it as a means of our getting closer to them. The result is dire for the film, however. The problem with Gerry is that the characters are not delineated in any way. There is not even an attempt to give them names. Van Sant stated in an interview (2) that either character, or both, could be "Gerry" and that a working title for the film was The Actual Gerry. But to make a strained point, it would have taken very little to give these two men sufficient identity to make them resemble real people. It would also have helped if Damon and Affleck had tried to keep straight faces while delivering some of their purposely nonsensical and bootless dialogue.

Gerry reminded me of the Australian film, Japanese Story (2003), in which two people - a man and a woman - find themselves stuck (literally at one point) together in the Outback. One of them dies, by accident, and the other has to explain how it happened, first to the police, then to the man's bereft family. Whatever the shortcomings of that film, it at least invested the two people with identities, personalities, histories.

Van Sant, who remade Hitchcock's Psycho shot for shot, clearly believes (as Hitchcock himself believed) that as long as a film has formal integrity, other elements like story and character (i.e., "content") are unimportant. (3) The film is certainly formally interesting. It takes liberties with duration that remind me, irresistibly, of Antonioni. In a small way, Gerry could have been the film that Antonioni had made in America, if only the wrong people had not met him at the airport in 1968. (4) There were moments, watching Damon and Affleck walking in or out of the frame of such desolate beauty, that it seemed like glimpsing them on the surface of Mars. (5) Shot in three separate geographical locations, Savides works wonders bringing it all into a harmonious whole. Though time-lapse shots are used too much, who can object to so much throwaway beauty as the frame captures? There is a spectacular shot just after the murder when we see clouds racing away from us with the white ground alternating in shadow and light. The shot is a powerful metaphor of the ordeal that had just ended for one of the men and is just about to end for the other.

In the last scene of the film, Gerry (Matt Damon) is sitting in the back seat of another car, his face showing few traces of his perilous hike but a sunburn and a look of tired shock. He looks around him inside the car and sees a small boy beside him and a man driving the car. The man glances at Gerry in the rear-view mirror - and us, now looking from Gerry's perspective. I felt just like that man, wondering who on earth this Gerry in the back seat could be, no closer to understanding him at the end of the film than I was at the beginning.

(Here is something to ponder: what if neither Gerry was a smoker? What would they have used to make fire?)

(1) The NY Times review of a chronicle of the ordeal can be found here:
(2) The interview:
(3) The choice of Psycho was not, of course, a coincidence. Hitchcock made it in a hurry and it exposed the ugliness of much of his thinking about people - particularly women.
(4) I mean, of course, the Peploes.
(5) Roger Ebert wrote, with my, for once, full agreement: "We have lost the original eight hours of Greed (1925), Erich von Stroheim's film that ends with its heroes lost in Death Valley, but after seeing Gerry, I think we can call off the search for the missing footage."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Never Trust a Foreigner

A few weeks ago I was in a nearby port city here on my Philippine island, and I was approached by another foreigner, another American in fact, who introduced himself and then set about telling me all the reasons why this country is "crazy". I just stood there and let him have his say, and when he was done, or realized that I had heard enough, he invited me to a local expat hangout where I could regain my sanity and catch up on the generally scabrous adventures of the tiny expat community.

Needless to say, but I didn't take him up on his invitation. Whenever I encounter an expat who insists on pointing out to me how this country cannot get anything right or that it doesn't make any sense, I remind myself of the lines from two American films (both of which were directed by foreigners). The first line is from The Falcon and the Snowman, and is spoken by a Mexican policeman to Sean Penn (as the "Snowman" Daulton Lee) after Penn tells him angrily, upon being interrogated for days and made to wear only his underwear, "You can't do this to me! I'm an American!" To which the Mexican replies dryly, "This is not America." It is a warning not to expect anyone to give a damn what nationality you are.

The second line is from Chinatown, and is spoken to Jack Nicholson (as Jake Gittes) by his partner at the very end of the film when Jake turns to utter some choice words to a corrupt cop: "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown." It is a reminder to keep one's counsel and to observe the proverb, "a soft answer turneth away wrath".* Or, better still, no answer at all.

*Proberbs, 15:1

Department of Corrections: I was contacted recently by someone eager to point out to me that the titles of two of my posts are inaccurate. "Shouldn't it be three cheers for democracy and three cheers for the Nobel Prize?" he asked ingenuously. It should indeed be three. Except that, in both bases, my subjects were deserving of only two. Thanks, Mr. Helper.