Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Movie Review: Milk

Harvey Milk was 48-years-old when he became the first openly gay man elected to public office, and one of Milk’s largest battles centered on the fight in 1978 against California’s Proposition 6, which—if passed—would effectively fire homosexuals who taught in public schools. Sound somewhat familiar to the recent Proposition 8? So, why didn’t the movie producers release “Milk” before Election Day in order to influence voters, to show what Harvey and his friends fought for, to show how the passage of Proposition 8 is a step back in the gay rights movement that Harvey Milk fought so hard, and even died, for?

For one, producers were worried that the movie wouldn’t have a shelf life after Election Day, that’d it be seen as just a propaganda piece and nothing more.

The movie does, at times, teeter on the fine line between propaganda and a biopic of the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). But in the end, the movie is the inspiring story of Harvey Milk’s final, influential years, and how he struggled against not only evangelical Christians, like Anita Bryant who vocally dismissed homosexuals as ‘un-natural’, but also gays already in the gay political community who tried to quietly push a human rights agenda forward, rather than begin a gay rights movement.

Director Gus Van Sant spliced real footage from the ‘70s—such as notable speeches from Bryant—seamlessly with the rest of the movie’s grainy footage, creating a home-video feel, as if to say, ‘This is real life, people.’

The effect works, but the beginning speeds through Milk’s decision to run for political office, not just once, but four times, making it difficult to understand why Milk’s long-time boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), has trouble with Milk’s sudden political convictions. After all, the movie is keen to point out that Harvey was forty when he finally decided to ‘do something’ with his life—so what did influence him to finally run for office? Was it all about gay rights?

History suggests it was more about Milk’s frustrations with the political machine as a whole, about how little, and how slowly, things change. That isn’t totally clear in the movie and that’s most likely purposeful.

After all, the focus of the movie is clearly Harvey’s dedication to starting a gay right’s movement, encouraging his friends to come out of the closet to their friends and family—because how can friends and family discriminate against homosexuals and believe them to be unintelligent, un-natural people, if they realize they have friends and family members that they love who are gay? That’s, at least, what Milk’s argument is.

The movie briefly touches on the other issues Harvey cares about and fights for, but the message is clear: Milk is dedicated to the gay rights movement above all else, even if it means putting his life at risk. And this is where the movie excels.

As a supervisor in San Francisco, we see Harvey’s struggles as he forms—and then breaks—alliances, most notably with supervisor Dan White. We are given a glimpse (albeit, a very brief one) about why the gay rights movement is so important to Milk—three of his past four boyfriends committed suicide, unwilling to live in such an un-accepting world.

Milk begins to change the world by starting with San Francisco, by starting with individuals, by showing people that homosexuals are people too, and, in fact, they’re someone’s brother, sister, friend, cousin, mother, father, etc.

So, why was the movie released today, the day before Thanksgiving, and not before Election Day?

Tomorrow, November 27th, is the 30th anniversary of his death. The movie is a reminder of what Harvey Milk’s life stood for, and what we still need to fight against, namely Proposition 8 but also intolerance in general—and that’s how this movie will have plenty of shelf life for many years to come.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Christmastime in the City

When I was a kid, every year my family would travel to the city just before Christmas to see the lights, to ooh and aah over Santa's Workshop in Carson's windows, to discover what story the Marshall Field's windows held.

At Marshall Field's, we always had to start at the beginning of the "story," no matter if it was a story that we'd heard (or seen) many times before, like The Nutcracker. My younger sisters and I would squeeze through the throngs of people, attempting to get to the front to admire Clara twirl, or the MouseKing dance.

Now, years later, Carson's is gone. And Marshall Field's is now a Macy's. I've grown up, and I've moved to the city. Macy's on State Street is now part of my "neighborhood," and I pass it every day on my way to work with little thought about how some of my favorite Christmastime memories were on those very sidewalks. Granted, it didn't help that for the past few weeks the Macy's windows have been covered, with these words impressed onto the glass: "Pardon our appearance. A little magic is in store."

But, today, as I passed by the store, on the corner of Randolph and State, Christmas music filled the air, emanating from the new window displays, full of red clothed mannequins and toys that, of course, Macy's is selling. I inwardly groaned. I know there is still well over a month until Christmas, that the Nutcracker, or some other story, may eventually fill the windows - but it's not the same, and not just because it's no longer Marshall Field's.

I continued on, scurrying to work, until I got to Daly Plaza, where I typically cut through to save myself just a few steps. But, over the weekend, the plaza had been shut off--and a Christmas-time transformation has begun. White tents have been raised. Small stores, made out of wood, have been built. And, my favorite part of all, the large Christmas tree is being assembled. As a kid visiting this Christkindlmarket, and even just last year, I knew that there was no way this enormous tree was one single tree, but I had no clue how it came to be--until today.

They started with one very tall pole, surrounded by a few steel rings that narrow in size the higher up the tree they go. The workers attach the first tree to the top of the pole using a crane. Now, they are working their way down, filling the tree in from the middle and then expanding it outward. They haven't gotten far yet, but it's only to be expected that a 75 foot tree (or thereabouts) would take a while to create. But in a few days, the tree will be put together and strung with lights. The stores will be filled with German-American wares and food--and no matter what happens in the windows of Macy's, at least I know there'll still be plenty of Christmas-time magic in the city air.