15 December, 2008

Movie Review: Milk (2008)

A couple of months ago, I expressed an optimistic excitement for the Harvey Milk biopic that recently came out. Having now seen the movie, I thought I'd clarify my disappointment.

Milk isn't a terrible movie--it's not even a bad movie--but it's nowhere near the level of gay masterpiece I hoped it would be. It's a conventional, unambiguous rallying cry with no real impact.

Gus Van Sant has done some very original, highly stylized, downright weird films in the past decade. My Own Private Idaho was Shakespeare's world populated by gay prostitutes, with still life sex scenes and split screens and over-the-top dialogue; Psycho was a more surreal (and more scandalous) shot-for-shot replay of the Hitchcock original; Elephant was a hyper-realistic photograph of teenage violence starring no-name high school actors; and so on. His most conventional film was Good Will Hunting, but that at least was moving and had momentum, as well as a terrific soundtrack. Milk is just plain standard. Each character--though based on real people--can be summed up in a simple sentence, such as Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones, the tenacious queer who... well, I don't even need a full sentence. That's about it.

Sean Penn is convincing and sweet as the 40-year-old New York insurance man who realizes how boring his life is and decides to head west and make an impact. He seems to settle on a life of gay political activism simply because it's the most convenient; the attention, the theatrics, and the social bonding seem almost as important--if not more so--than the actual revolution.

Which is an interesting idea, but not one that the movie really allows you to dwell on. Milk, with its fast-paced biopic structure (here's one important event... then here's another one a year later... then a close friend dies... and then there's a small triumph... and then...) and its attention to political activism, wants to be a cry for equality, not a complex, ambiguous character study. Harvey is reduced to the role of hero, champion, martyr. You're not allowed to be skeptical of his background, his relationships, his motivation, his manipulative methods. You know he's the good guy because he's on the side of equality--the ends justify the means and all that--and so you have to root for him, and that's that.

But I don't enjoy that. I like rooting for villains. I like feeling sorry for the assholes. I like believing, even for just one turbulent moment, that what the psycho killer is saying makes perfect sense. And I can't stand a flawless hero. I can't stand being forced to side with someone.

And as for Harvey Milk as portrayed in this film--well, he just wasn't that inspirational. Look, I'm queer and I'm liberal and all of that. It's a subject that's very close to me. Plus, I'm a sucker for inspiration, and I cry several times a year in movie theaters. But his speeches and his rallies never made me feel anything other than mildly interested on an intellectual level. The bad direction is part of that--the cinematography choices were dreadful, with very little camerawork standing out as exceptional. With each march and protest, a still camera looks head-on at the faces of the few stars as they march forward. Why? If we're supposed to be immersed in the riot, to feel like we're a part of it, why would be facing the rioters? Why would we be so still? Why not throw the camera into the action, shakily following behind the other marchers? But there's none of that.

Maybe Van Sant was trying to prove that gay people are just as normal and boring as straight people, that their inspirational biopics can be just as color-by-numbers and boring as straight biopics. But who wants to see that? Harvey was loud--"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!"--Harvey was theatrical. The gay movement at that time loved to shout out loud. So why such a stifling story?

There's only one aspect of the film that's interesting, and that's the relationship between Harvey Milk and Dan White (Josh Brolin, in a fine performance), the straight-laced police officer and political rival. Their awkward dance is compelling--Dan "the man" tries to please and work with, however distantly, his minority colleague, while Harvey desires only to destroy the competitor who represents everything he detests and opposes. Dan keeps promises that Harvey breaks. Dan drunkenly stumbles in the shadows of his fading conservative beliefs--beliefs he doesn't even necessarily understand or trust anymore--while Harvey milks up the limelight. It's a sad and scary battle of wits, and one that paints a dark, political tinge on the otherwise spotless Harvey, but the theme is confined to a few short scenes and left largely unexplored.

As a movie focusing strictly on Dan vs. Harvey, this could have been a good film, but by expanding this into an eight-year-long historical examination of how great San Francisco is and how wonderful and downtrodden gay people always are, the movie strays into the realm of simple, sweeping statements. I'm disappointed by how much critical acclaim this film is getting; aside from Penn and Brolin it's rather lackluster.

d: Gus Van Sant w: Dustin Lance Black
(Sean Penn, Josh Brolin)

12 December, 2008

In which I complain about US Airways

I made plans over three months ago to go camping under the stars at Death Valley National Park, the darkest, deepest, driest, hottest place in the country (or is it the world?). The night sky is so unpolluted by light and clouds that you can see pretty much any star you'll ever be able to see with the naked eye, plus the Milky Way galaxy on its side, stretching across the horizon.

I was excited. I very much have a romantic attachment to stargazing, as well as campfires and uncomfortable tent sleep. I eagerly anticipated abandoned mines, paleolithic artifacts, coyotes, and seventy degree sunshine in December. I also cautiously anticipated a thirty-nine degree night by packing a suitcase full of blankets, sleeping bags, sweatshirts, insulated jeans, a tent, and some pillows. A bag so heavy and big that I had to check it while my carry-on contained little more than a book (I'm working on Middlemarch by George Eliot now, and it's not very compelling three hundred pages in, but it's okay).

Paul, who's staying with his family in Las Vegas this week--Las Vegas, a city I despise, full of hungover, miserable tourists who have been drinking and gambling and eating at buffets for thirty-four hours straight, miserable tourism industry employees who have to deal with said tourists, no notable cuisine, no common fashion sense, giant blinking billboards of Bette Midler's airbrushed legs, overpriced everything, immigrants thrusting out litter describing women with stars on their nipples, people convinced you really can get something for nothing, hundreds of obese people in cowboy hats, and for some reason my sister and her daughter whom I miss--and I had made all the plans, reserving the rental car, getting the directions, figuring out the campsite, packing the bags, and timing everything so that I could arrive Tuesday evening, we could camp Tuesday night, hike Wednesday morning and afternoon, and hang out with my sister Wednesday night all before I had to fly back Thursday morning (a total of eleven hours of travel, plus the time zone differential) to return to work today.

Fifteen dollars to check the bag each way on an airplane that didn't even offer complimentary water or in-flight entertainment of any kind. (Not even headphones? Come on!). I arrived in Las Vegas. My baggage did not. Not until six hours later, when it was too late to do anything involving a national park. So I spent two nights in Vegas. Two nights in motherfucking Vegas, and I barely got to see my sister. All this money I spent... for two nights in Vegas.

And the woman in the baggage claim office says, "No, there's no refund. The baggage claim only guarantees the transportation, not the time." Are you fucking kidding? What does that even mean? What kind of customer service is that, US Airways? You ruined my goddamn vacation.

I shall seek retribution soon.

Of course she never has breakfast at Tiffany's!

I remember seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's in my "film studies" elective class in seventh grade, though I don't really remember much of it other than daffy, romantic banter, a cutesy moment centered on a Cracker Jack box, talk of a guy in Sing Sing, and a bespectacled Mickey Rooney screaming down a flight of stairs. I also distinctly remember having no idea what the title meant and deciding that it was an intentional non sequitur serving only to confuse. She never has breakfast at Tiffany's! How could she? It's a jewelry store.

So when I decided to read the novella a few days ago, I actually didn't expect much insight. In fact, when gabby, beautiful Holly Golightly--to a certain extent a New York City escort, to another extent a social butterfly and starlet, but quite possibly none of the above--first drops the titular line, it is indeed a non sequitur. She confesses:
I don't mean I'd mind being rich and famous. That's very much on my schedule, and someday I'll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I'd like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany's.

At that point it's not even clear if she's talking about the store or some friend's house, though other than her big dumb lovable brother Fred--long estranged by the trials of adulthood--she doesn't seem to have any real friends she thinks of by name and would make such plans involving. But soon after, hugging the cat that lives in her transient apartment, she clarifies:

Poor slob... poor slob without a name. It's a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven't right to give him one: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don't belong to each other: he's an independent, and so am I. I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together. I'm not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it's like.... It's like Tiffany's.... Not that I give a damn about jewelry.... It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

Tiffany's is home, and as revealed throughout the book through the eyes of a nameless neighbor narrator she lovingly calls Fred (for a while), Holly spends her whole life looking for it, abandoning her abusive childhood, slipping away from an empty teen marriage, escaping all ties and titles (her business card simply states, "Holly Golightly, traveling"), and eventually fleeing the country to South America and then onward to third-world Africa.

Holly and the narrator are cursed by their excessive talent and their overwhelming ambition. In a world populated by pudgy-faced millionaires with baby complexes, huge, flat-chested women who seductively accentuate their speech impediments, and other such absurdities, they are two smart, young souls bursting with life and ability and unwilling to be imprisoned by anything less than their desert. The narrator, it's assumed, succeeds because he's able to focus his energy on the singular goal of being a published writer, but Holly is unable to align her broad array of exceptional talents and gifts, which brought her from an impoverished life in the deep south to the upper echelons of fashionable New York society.

She despises zoos for their cages, lives out of a few hastily packed cardboard boxes, never seems to sleep, and talks several interesting pages at a time. Breakfast at Tiffany's is hilarious, scandalous (I'm curious to see how the G-rated Audrey Hepburn movie was even made, now that I know about the drugs, sex, and language that proliferate the source material), and rich with modern absurdities, but Capote treats his shy, nameless narrator and his wayward star with a heartfelt tenderness. Their relationship is sweet though not quite romantic, and their peaceful success is yearned for by the reader.

In the end, as Holly prepares a hasty departure, she unleashes her moniker-less feline friend (the cat is like the narrator, who she first calls Fred and then calls Buddy, never bothering to learn the real name because she knows she's destined to lose him in short time), who runs off to find his own Tiffany's while she, perhaps tragically, continues her quest for a sense of belonging and a chance to stop and breathe.


There are three additional short stories compiled with Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of them very diverse: "House of Flowers," a fable about Haitian prostitutes and Carnivale that reminded me of Black Orpheus; "A Diamond Guitar," a precursor to The Shawshank Redemption; and "A Christmas Memory," a beautiful recollection of a perfect friendship.

Of the three, the last is by far my favorite. Capote writes of two friends and distant cousins, one a septuagenarian and the other a seven-year-old, the former as youthful as the latter is wise, preparing for an advancing Southern Christmas by baking fruitcakes for distant acquaintances (motorists who once broke down at the driveway, the bus driver, the President of the United States) and crafting gifts and decorations. Capote's images are precise, as in this scene where the two misfits, neither with any source of traditional income, dig out their savings to prepare for grocery shopping:

Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man's eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies.

The pair enjoy Christmas richly without material goods, savoring the smells of good cooking, the warmth of companionship, and the taste of adventure. Yet for all its tenderness and tranquility, in spite of its familiar theme and message, the story never comes off as schmaltzy, moralistic, or falsely nostalgic. It's a terrific snapshot of a sweet spot from childhood, and it deserves to be a Christmas classic by now, though unfortunately I'd never heard of it before.