Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Movie Review: The Times of Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) 8/10
This documentary tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city official elected in the United States. Opening with his assassination, the movie goes back to his life, focusing on his time in San Francisco politics, which ended with his assassination (along with Mayor George Moscone) by Dan White. The film examines the aftermath of Milk's death, including White's "Twinkie defense" trial and its results. Directed by Rob Epstein.

I think the most important thing to remember when watching The Times of Harvey Milk is that it was made in 1984, a mere six years after the events depicted. It was made before AIDS was known about by anyone other than epidemiologists. Before gay marriage existed as a political issue. The people interviewed in the movie have had only a short time to gain any perspective on their experiences and their loss. It also explains the hair.

It's as if the film is two time capsules; the capsule of San Francisco in the 1970s, the beginning of a flamboyant Gay Rights movement, the birth of Castro Street as a gay cultural center, and the high cost of this kind of openness. As well, the capsule of speaking openly as a gay activist to a filmmaker in 1984; neither of these times exist anymore, both are worth looking at.

One interesting thing about watching a documentary is that it allows you to look at your own perceptions and memory. I was a teenager in the 70s. I remember that someone named Harvey Milk was killed. I remember there was a "Twinkie defense" murder trial; I did not remember they were the same murder. I remembered nothing about peaceful or violent demonstrations either. Yet these were important events, and you and I are living in a world very much touched by these events. Harvey would have been proud.

The use of news footage, interviews, photographs, and home movies is well-done. Watching the film is seamless. The film is honest about Milk's flaws; his combativeness, restlessness, and temper. It is honest about the flaws of gay activists in general; it doesn't try to portray riots as a good thing, although it is sympathetic to the frustrations that led there. The net effect is kind of adulatory, but the details are not.

Unfortunately, "missing' footage is not addressed. Early on we learn that Milk's partner was named Scott Smith. Thereafter, Smith disappeared. I assume he declined to be in the movie, but the film would have been improved by saying so. Is he alive or dead? Was he still Milk's partner when Milk was killed? Was he at the candlelight vigil that night? The movie doesn't say. And as you can see, it really stuck in my craw. It dangled, unspoken. People have partners; life is shaped by that. There was a partner for a split-second, and then whoosh, he was gone. In a movie about gay life and about the profound effect of coming out of the closet, that's too big an omission. An explanation should have been offered.

Anyway, that's minor. This is an amazing piece of history that too few people know. Rent the movie now, before Milk comes out.

(Cross-posting on Castro Street)