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Beautiful Dreamer: Milk, Take 1

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Beautiful Dreamer: Milk, Take 1

Milk, Gus Van Sant’s labor of love biopic about civil rights leader Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States and later gunned down, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, three decades ago this month), is mainstream filmmaking at its finest and a perfect wedding of subject matter to director. For Milk, like Van Sant, was a former “radical” who learned to work within—even to embrace—the system, stealthily turning it to his advantage. What Milk is to extremist activists like Larry Kramer, Van Sant is to fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes—no longer a director of experimental art in the moving picture medium, but a maverick of the mini majors.

Even comparing Van Sant to Haynes is like weighing apples against oranges: Van Sant is as much of a sly showman as his subject, who grasped the power of rallying crowds with catchy lines (“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” a play on Anita Bryant’s scare tactic of gays “recruiting our children”) and staged events (stepping on dog poop to promote a pooper-scooper law)—an insider working covertly within the system. Indeed, Van Sant understands the power of schmaltz above nuance. Whatever you need to do to make your message accessible and heard loud and clear—evidenced in the director’s casting of straight marquee names (like Sean Penn as Milk, in an Oscar-worthy performance) in the lead roles at the expense of actual gay actors—is worth the creative price.

Told in broad strokes with a swift-moving script by Dustin Lance Black that can be prone to cringe-worthy scenes (the small town, suicidal queer kid who can’t run away to the big city because he’s in a wheelchair most definitely should have been cut), Milk as a whole is more than the sum of its cheesy missteps. As with Charles Burnett’s Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation I’m willing to forgive the blunders because the images are so strikingly inventive, because the director has such sheer passion for his story. Van Sant, like Burnett, combines a master’s expertise with a child’s sense of play.

Deftly, he weaves actual archival footage (often seen through the POV of the lead character’s camera lens), archival photos (including snapshots passed around in Milk’s camera shop), and news reports and interviews from the 70s (that Milk and his confidants watch on TV) with the footage from the San Francisco-based shoot where Van Sant and his crew recreated Milk’s store in its original location. The period costume and production design are meticulous—so much so that you can actually feel the Bay Area itself come out as a character. Van Sant and his longtime DP Harris Savides (Zodiac) work as one, most noticeably in an incremental slo-mo towards the end when Milk is about to be shot, the freeze on his profile more spectacular than any blood spilled.

The entire film is one seamless melding of past into present, much like Prop 6 (a battle that makes up a big chunk of Milk and which would have banned gay and lesbian teachers and their allies from California’s public school system had it not been defeated) is paralleled to the current Prop 8. And the straight actors, especially Penn as Milk and James Franco as his lover Scott Smith (Penn and Franco give Brokeback Mountain’s Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal a run for their chemistry money), are all astounding. If ever there was a reason for Sean Penn to stop pursuing his career as a mediocre director, this performance is it. Penn is an absolute chameleon; a metamorphosis occurs in which not a trace of the actor can be seen. He captures Milk’s sweet vulnerability, the essence of his charm, to a degree that is nearly shamanistic. Even the miscast Alison Pill as campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and a way-too-old Josh Brolin as assassin Dan White—a role originally meant for Matt Damon who would have been pitch perfect—are thrilling, as is the reclamation of hope that was the crux of Milk’s life.

Screenwriter Black rightly focuses on the “personal is political” love story (“It wasn’t just about rights or electoral politics, it was about the fact that he was in love with Scott or he was in love with Jack Lira—and he wanted that to be okay. He didn’t want to be judged for it. He wanted to have the right to be himself … politics for the sake of love” is how Black puts it in the press notes), of one man who never gave up against all odds. The opposite of an overnight success (Milk was in the closet until age forty, and the many years of losing election after election before reaching the San Francisco Board of Supervisors cost him his relationship with Smith), Milk was a hardworking everyman who only went into government because he believed he could make a positive difference in people’s lives. Politics transformed him, made him mature from an angry hippie reactionary to an open-minded optimist. After ticking off a list of gay community grievances in an early debate, an opponent wisely asks, “What are you for?” It was the last time Milk would be defeated in a campaign.

And yet, sadly, this American hero in the mold of MLK Jr. is known more for his violent death (shot point blank inside city hall by a colleague who would later claim the “Twinkie defense”) if he’s known at all. Smartly, Black sets out to rectify this by putting Milk’s life and love story at the forefront, virtually ignoring the lurid aspects of the tale. Killer Dan White is merely a footnote, not a raging right wing homophobe (he was too self-involved to be homophobic), but simply an unstable man who took every slight personally. When Milk is the only supervisor to take White up on the invitation to his son’s christening, he’s naïvely oblivious to the fact that Milk’s friendliness is also a calculated political move. Sappy? No more so than one of the lines Milk speaks into his tape recorder, a last will and testament to be played only “in the event of my assassination.”

“If a bullet should go through my head, let that bullet go through every closet door,” he states. Romantic and melodramatic and heartfelt and beautiful—that’s Milk, and Milk, in a nutshell.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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