Monday, December 8, 2008

Movies: Milk

The more I write about movies, the more concerned I become about being repetitious. And yet, I must say it again: flashback is a lazy way of structuring narrative. Flashback inclines the filmmaker to create a series of superficial vignettes, strung together like beads on a cord, rather than an integrated length of film. We go to the movies to fully immerse ourselves in lives unlike our own. Why else the dark room, the larger than life screen, the surround-sound speakers? We want to swim in the water of cinema, wetting even the tops of our heads.

The usually impeccable Gus Van Sant makes this mistake in his new film Milk. After beautiful opening credits culled from stock black and white footage, Van Sant opens with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk sitting at a kitchen table. Milk is speaking into a microphone, taping his memoir, in case he is assassinated (which he eventually will be). This scene then invokes Milk’s memories, so that Van Sant cuts away to illustrate key moments in the gay activist’s life, each time coming back to the kitchen table, shaking us out of the past we were just slipping into, pulling us out of the water into some purgatorial, intermediate state—not really in the movie, but not quite out of it either.

What happens, then, is that the flashbacks become less about storytelling than moment-capturing. We watch a series of lifestyle commercials rather than a movie, groups of beautiful young boys hanging out in Milk’s Castro camera shop, in droopy mustaches and bell-bottomed pants, flush with the thrill of making something important happen, or two men in bed, their shadows wrestling, implying something dangerous and beautiful and different than anything straight lovers have experienced. Nothing binds these experiences to each other; Van Sant plunges his audience again and again into the dunking tank, rather than letting us swim through the pool.

Van Sant has always treated his male subjects with a particular tenderness, caressing their awkward faces with his camera (c.f. Gerry, Elephant, Paranoid Park). Milk is no departure from this signature, and if there is any reason to watch this movie, aside from Penn’s startlingly on-point performance, it is to see the way Van Sant handles James Franco’s wistful smile, or Emile Hirsch’s mercurial eyes.

Watching the trailer for Milk, my friends and I always laughed at the very end, when a giant credit, “screenplay by Dustin Lance Black” flashed across the screen, larger than any credit we had seen before. We laughed because the banner was only appropriate to a big-name writer, someone with serious cache. But the only appropriate response to this was, “who the hell is Dustin Lance Black?” And now we have an answer: the man responsible for this lazy screenplay, who, had he known better, would have written something that wasn't a waste of Van Sant, Penn, Franco, and Hirsch's special magic.

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