Harvey Milk, Gus Van Sant and Kenneth Anger
Having made fun of Peter Travers recently for gushing over Gus Van Sant's film "Milk," I finally saw the thing and am inclined to similarly gush. Which doesn't make me into a Travers-style serial gusher, but at least the guy likes good stuff.
"Milk" means Harvey Milk, who moved to San Francisco in 1972, helped transform that city's Castro dictrict into a gay mecca, was elected a city supervisor and was shot to death (along with the mayor, George Moscone) in 1978. The assailant was another, painfully unstable supervisor, Dan White. White was only charged with manslaughter, spent a mere five years in jail and committed suicide two years after he got out.
Aside from a string of brilliant performances, starting with Sean Penn as Milk, and despite a slightly over-artsy obsession with "Tosca," in a performance starring fat singers on a tacky set, which I don't quite understand, the film is superb in its evocation of San Francisco in the 70's and its nuanced view of Milk himself.
Brilliant and charismatic, he was also self-obsessed and, by the end, morphing into a calculating politician, willing to go back on his word and just a little power-mad. But his charm and his passion for gay rights never flagged, and Van Sant's film captures all that and much more. "A TOTAL TRIUMPH!" I might be inclined to say, but Travers already said that. So I'll just settle for Tony Scott in the NY Times, who called it "a marvel."
Kenneth Anger is a sort of marvel, too, in his own wildly eccentric, flamboyantly gay way. Reminds me of David Del Tredici; the two ought to collaborate. Born in Santa Monica and now living back in Los Angeles, Anger was a child actor and dancer and then a filmmaker from an early age, active in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris and other European hotspots. His films were and are defiantly, wonderfully avant-garde, and reflect his lifelong interest in the occult.
A couple of weeks ago he was at the RedCat Theater in the bowels of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, regaling a full house of latter-day hipsters with some of his recent shorts (he's resumed making films after a 20-year hiatus) and a restored print of one of his classics, "Scorpio Rising," from 1963.
"Milk" portrays a gay culture; "Scorpio Rising" epitomizes it, albeit from 15 years before Milk's heyday, when gay life was still closeted. Its dream-like images of motorcycle club members fetishistically polishing their gleaming machines and then cavorting obscenely at a masked party, interspersed with brooding photos of (male) 50's biker heartthrobs and, with delirious incongruity, footage from an old Hollywood film about Jesus and his desciples, make for an astonishing 29 minutes.
At 80, Anger was still there, buoyant and ebullient. But it was sobering to be reminded that Milk was assassinated just as the AIDS tsunami broke, putting an effective end to the defensive, triumphalist bravado of the gay culture of the late 70's in San Francisco, New York and world wide. One of the members of Milk's entourage, Clive Jones (in a lovely performance by Emile Hirsch, the star of the film Penn directed, "Into the Wild"), went on to conceive and oversee the deeply moving AIDS quilt.
Jones survived, along with Anger, but the heady vision that gay values would sweep to acceptance, or even prevail, did not. Would Milk have long outlived White's murderous bullets? Have Californians, and Americans, learned anything, with the passage of Proposition 8?
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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