Tuesday, 27 January 2009

milk (d. gus van sant, w. dustin lance black)

The friend with whom I went to see this film found it moving - as we walked out into the night she said something about it being a wonderful film, then looked in my direction and saw I wasn't responding and said - oh, didn't you like it?

It wouldn't be accurate to say I didn't like it, but it did feel like a bit of a mess. The film itself got me thinking about all the issues it wanted me too (and even researching why the poignancy of Milk's achievement is just as great today), but it also got me thinking about what makes a good film, a good story, a good biopic. If not in that order.

Milk's story is inspirational, and in the exhortations to change, and the film's emphasis on minorities, possesses a seemingly conscious hint of Obamisation. It's one of those stories that needs to be told, and Penn's performance as Milk is impressive, capturing the fey steeliness which Milk discovered in his forties. Van Sant threads archive footage into his narrative, and the sequence when Milk first arrives in Castro with his boyfriend has a verve and energy which seems to conjure up that heady time, on the cusp of the sixties' end. Milk's transformation from rakish hippie back to clean-cut businessman who could fit into the machine, also seems indicative of the sacrifices the minority/ counter culture had to make to secure representation and status, a process which also seems to have reached a logical conclusion in the election of the US' new president.

However, and I'll comment on that word in a moment, the screenplay seems to struggle to keep up with the succession of events which comprised the last ten years or so of Milk's life. Boyfriends come and go, (there were more who were edited out) and Milk tries year after year to win political office. The confusing details of Proposition Six are fought and defeated, whilst Milk learns to become a politician, making strategic alliances and campaigning on populist issues, such as dog shit. Somewhere in it all, yoked together by the recorded monologue Penn/ Milk makes in the event of his death, there is the narrative of a man overcoming his own insecurities, his own struggle to come out, as well as his fascination with the edgier side of gay culture (personified in the film by the underdeveloped suicidal boyfriend, Jack Lira). This story - the story of the man as well as the activist - keeps getting in the way of the other story, which is the story of the activist as martyr, and to my mind these stories (and perhaps others as well) ended up cluttering the two hours of screen time to such an extent that, charismatic though many of the characters depicted were, as well as being beautifully acted, the whole never hung together, and the movie seemed to move along like a car caught in the wrong gear.

However... I spend all my days dwelling in the portals of Character, Narrative, Premise and those other touchstones of the orthodox script. Scripts are constantly being skewered on the railings of my 'however'. And it is, in part, by these terms that I choose to judge Milk. Whereas my friend found herself absorbed in the simple story, which is, without doubt, moving and uplifting. Which is all that matters, as films are not made in search of perfection, rather, they seek to strike a chord with their given audience. And there's not much doubt that Milk does this. Given this my cavils seem kind of beside the point.


Briefly, on the subject of biopics. This is a curious phenomenon, and one perhaps has different rules to the usual objectives of dramatic cinema. Where most films are seeking to make entertainment, the biopic is more concerned with writing history. Which is an elusive thing to capture in a narrative-friendly fashion, (ay there's the rub), as history doesn't conform to the rules of storytelling, which recreates truth to meet its own ends. (Apologies for the amount of brackets, but please imagine a whole host of notes in the margin, or a flurry of inverted commas packaged around almost every thought herewith expressed.) Milk's flaws (in my eyes) are perhaps nothing but the determination of history to refuse to let facts work in a programmed, machine-like, manner. Given all this I started to think that it's almost impossible to create a dramatically satisfying biopic. And then I remembered how much I enjoyed Che: Part 1, earlier this month; and then, as I write, I recall how much I took from The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which is when all's said and done, a biopic. The trick, of course, is to be subjective, and also, to have no fear of distorting the apparent truth in the quest for those truths which are not so apparent, which do not lie on the surface. If that's what you're looking for.

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