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Just back from a rare night out - the Tindersticks at the Opera House, preceded by Elfin Saddle, a Montreal band I'd never heard of until today. Imagine The Incredible String Band meets DNA via Terry Riley. Ten years ago, I would have predicted that all the kids would be making music on their laptops, not singing folky drones accompanied by accordion, tuba and musical saw - who knew? Here's a lousy cellphone picture:

The Tindersticks were great - better than I expected. Morose music for the middle-aged is about the best way I can think of describing it. I couldn't help but notice though, that despite the frisking and bag search at the door, patrons still managed to smuggle in cameras, and that a live music concert nowadays will mean watching the band while noticing little LCD screens popping up in your line of sight as concertgoers try to frame a shot with their point-and-shoot digital cameras.

I used to watch shows imagining that I was in the band, taking note of what the guitarist did, back when I still nursed frustrated musical ambitions. Those are mostly gone now, but it seems that whatever concerts I'll manage to attend for the balance of my life will find me looking away from the band and at the little screens in front of me, while my mind rages and seethes at the obvious mistakes the picture-takers are making. ("Turn off the damned flash - you're too far away. Switch to available light mode. Oh, for fuck's sake, you can hold it steadier than that, can't you? Ahh, goddamit, you call that framing?") Better to stay at home, really.

ONE AFTERNOON IN THE EARLY '80S I watched the patrons of The Gasworks, a now defunct heavy metal bar on Yonge Street, empty out onto the street to chase a pair of drag queens who'd made the mistake of straying a block over from the city's "gay ghetto" on Church Street. A year or two later I was living in the area, and was walking past the same spot on a bright summer day when a long-haired man with a handlebar moustache shoved me full in the chest. "Fucking faggot," he snarled, his face seething with rage.

I won't deny that my outrage at the time had more to do with the fact that I wasn't gay, but it's hard not to experience this sort of bullying and not feel sympathy for the people who might be its targets far more than once in their whole adult life. This is the sort of social empathy that Gus Van Sant's Milk has relied on in hopes of an audience larger than the one for The Times Of Harvey Milk, the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary on the same subject.

Milk was "the first openly gay candidate elected to public office" - it's the phrase used most often to sum up his place in history, but it's not strictly true, since a lesbian, Elaine Noble, was elected to the Massachussets House of Representatives in 1974, three years before Milk won his third campaign for city supervisor in San Francisco. Milk's distinction, however, was that he was the first politician to run and win on a platform that explicitly championed gay rights, and the most famous martyr of the gay rights movement.

In Van Sant's film, Sean Penn plays Milk as a natural political animal; not long after we first see him, picking up a young man (James Franco as Scott Smith, Milk's longtime lover) in a New York subway on the eve of his 40th birthday, the pair have driven across the country to San Francisco and Harvey has grown out his hair and come out of the closet. The city is experiencing a post-60s economic slump, and Harvey has opened a camera shop and begun networking the city's gay population clustering around the Castro district.

It's not long before Harvey is literally standing on a soapbox and announcing his candidacy for city council. The film only glancingly mentions that Milk was a Republican, and begins after he'd been an enthusiastic volunteer in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Coming out obviously freed Milk to put himself on the political frontlines, but Van Sant is unfortunately too eager to get Milk in the Castro's ground zero to afford us a glimpse of this interesting, even confounding, biographical foreground.

Sean Penn's personal politics are both repellent and naive to me - the former hardly excused by the latter - but only the most partisan would deny his very real talent. It's most evident when he avoids politics; he has a fine grasp of the actor's craft that he not only brings to his own performances, but to his work as a director - it made Into The Wild a gripping film to watch in spite of the main character's maddening rush to self-destruction.

There have been some complaints that Penn "played gay" a bit too broadly with Milk, but even a casual glance at documentary footage of the man reveals that the fluttering hands and other queeny gestures are actually a remarkable approximation of Milk in person. Penn's Harvey Milk manages to be both guileless and politically adroit, and the actor never makes these contradictions feel incompatible. He makes Milk personify gay politics in the pre-AIDS era - idealistic and theatrical and motivated mostly by a desire for equal treatment, politically and socially.

Penn's performance isn't the only reason why Milk works - from Franco to Emile Hirsch's role as one of Milk's most loyal friends and supporters to Josh Brolin as his nemesis and fellow supervisor, Dan White, Van Sant puts Penn in a setting that doesn't turn his performance into an isolated star turn. It also helps that Van Sant is hardly a notable stylist - his best work is straightforward, workmanlike narrative filmmaking with few if any conspicuous touches of "direction." Sequences such as the one illustrating Hirsch's character at the centre of a network of activists - a multi-frame mosaic that plays like a tribute to the the title sequence from The Brady Bunch - are rare exceptions, and for the most part Van Sant works purely in the service of the story.

And it is, to be sure, a great story. I remember reading about Harvey Milk's death at the dawn of the '80s - the news was overshadowed at the time by the Jonestown mass suicide, which happened just before Dan White shot Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone to death in City Hall. Even at the end of the '70s, it seemed like a horrible new precedent, even before White's lawyers introduced the infamous "Twinkie defense" in court.

It took much longer for the connection between Jim Jones' People's Temple and Moscone and Milk to be recognized - the cult leader had made himself a major player in San Francisco city politics, and members of the Temple worked on Milk's campaigns, though Milk was apparently wary of them. Moscone appointed Jones to the city's Human Rights Commission in 1976 in gratitude for his help in getting him elected, and shut down the investigation into the Temple after Jones and his followers fled to Guyana. Jones was also a major supporter of Jerry Brown's bid for the California governorship - such is the tangled web of progressive politics in San Francisco and California, and you can't help but wonder why Van Sant's film ends without a mention of Jones.

The most problematic side of Milk comes out in a scene where Penn addresses a meeting of his inner circle, insisting that they have to start outing prominent but closeted gays in order to counter Proposition 6, the anti-gay measure introduced by state legislator John Briggs, riding on the back of Anita Bryant's crusade against homosexuality in the '70s. "There's such a thing as the right to privacy," objects one of his supporters.

"In this movement at this time," Penn as Milk says, "privacy is the enemy."

The strategy set the tone for much of what would happen to gay activism during the AIDS pandemic of the '80s, as epitomized by the conflict between activists Randy Shilts and Michelangelo Signorile over the issue of outing. Moving from outrage to stridency ended up deflating the movement's momentum ultimately, as it began blurring the distinction between civil rights and human rights in pursuit of ever more bullying rhetorical firepower.

"We were so righteous, Harvey and I," recalls Carol Ruth Silver, a supervisor who co-sponsored a bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation with Milk, in a bonus feature on the Milk DVD. "We thought we could do no wrong and that anybody who opposed us was just off the wall."

This attitude has metastasized into the bitter political impasse we're living in today, with an apparently unbridgeable gulf between positions staked out on the right and left, and a promiscuous tendency to villify your enemy in the worst terms possible. It was probably the inspiration behind Penn's bathetic acceptance speech after he won an Oscar for Milk, with its pointed attempt to create an equivalence between Briggs' Proposition 6, which sought to out and fire gay teachers in the state's public school system, and Proposition 8, the amendment to the California constitution that disallowed gay marriage and won in a vote last November.

The amendment's success inflamed the passions on both sides, as Proposition 8's opponents led a campaign to shame and vilify its supporters - a campaign that took on a selective tone as Mormons and Catholics were targeted almost exclusively, and black and Latino churches were judiciously ignored. While Briggs' Proposition 6 was clearly - to contemporary eyes at least - a hideous assault on civic rights that would obviously result in witch hunts and Soviet-style "informing," with scant recourse to defense on the part of its victims, Proposition 8's supporters were regarded as the underdogs, to be swept aside by the tide of progressive history, but it didn't turn out quite as planned.

The Briggs Initiative was opposed by everyone from Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, so its defeat probably wasn't quite the nailbiter seen in the film - it ended up being voted down by almost 60% of California voters, who obviously had the good sense to see how basic civil rights would be violated. (It was even defeated in conservative Orange County, Briggs' own district.) Proposition 8's opponents have made the classic mistake of turning a civil rights issue into one of human rights - a fallacy that might well be called the Canadian Error - and galvanized a reaction from undecided voters who might otherwise not have cared about gays entering into a marriage contract if they didn't percieve a subsequent threat to religious rights in the bellicose rhetoric that's become a default mode.

Some defenders of the amendment have said that the state should get out of the marriage business altogether, in which case gays looking for consecration of their unions above and beyond the legal protections afforded by common law can seek it among the proliferation of denominations who either support gay marriage or are in the process of splintering over the issue. In any case, any chance of a rational discussion of the issue has joined the death penalty, abortion and stem cell research in the realm of topics where reason has long since fled.

Finally, I couldn't help but wonder if Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black didn't end up giving Josh Brolin more leeway than they intended for his portrayal of Dan White. The movie feints at suggestions that White might have been deeply closeted, and Brolin's performance suggests a disturbed man who might have been marginally homophobic, but who was probably moved to murder more by desperation and paranoia. It has to be remembered that George Moscone, a heterosexual, was the first person White murdered that day, though he dies offscreen in the film, and his name has receded in history next to Milk's.

Milk may be gay rights' biggest martyr, but a case can be made that being gay wasn't near as major a factor in his death when compared to, say, Matthew Shepard or Brandon Teena, or the countless victims of theocratic Muslim regimes like Iran. This doesn't make Harvey Milk any less fascinating or important or diminish his place in the history of the gay rights' movement, but it does complicate the mythology in ways that are unlikely to get talked about as long as the most vocal proponents on both sides of the issue make reasonable discussion virtually impossible, and Van Sant's basically hagiographical film probably won't elbow out much room for debate.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved


i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

rick -at- rickmcginnis.com


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