Friday, November 14, 2008

Spoiling Milk

So i saw MILK, the movie about gay activist Harvey Milk today.
It’s an amazing film, total Oscar bait, a powerful political story lead by Sean Penn who must be one of the finest actors in his generation.

I had some reservations about having a well known straight actor take on such a flamboyant role, but he goes at it with gusto. Like any good movie about politics Milk sucks you in, into Milk’s cause, into his world, his fight. It isn’t just a “gay story” but a universal fight for rights, a David vs Goliath situation told artfully by Gus Van Sant.

But again i noticed two cliches done right. First movie cliché is the narration.
Many a movie has been ruined by too much narration, holding the audience’s hand all along the way.

Here Milk starts with Harvey sitting a table in 1975 speaking into a cassette player.
He’s recording a tape to played in the event of his death. A nice screenwriters trick to help set up the story? Sure. But it's a plausible one because as Milk explains he's in a dangerous fight. Gay rights weren't taken for granted back then. Even in San Fransisco Milk was angering the establishment. The taped speech works as a linking device. It sets the stakes and gives Milk way to explain just what they were fighting for, while also reminding us he’s living on borrow time.

Speaking of borrowed time, the second cliché, done right, is the death scene.


We know from the opening frame Milk will be murdered. Near the end of the movie it becomes clear who will do it.

But the act, the final confrontation is done with about as much poetry and grace such a heinous act can handle. I wont go into specifics, but (again spoiler) after the shot we see a beautiful tableau.
A side profile of Harvey Milk. Frozen for a moment.
Then he falls, against a window looking outside the City Hall.
Across the street he sees the posters for the opera Tosca.
Milk a long time opera fan just took in his first performance.
With the reflection of the Tosca's tragic hero in his eyes, Milks takes his bow.

My description does damage to the moment on film, but it’s a beaut.

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