Earlier this week, I delivered a brief address at one of the schools where I teach, Emerson College. The resident assistants in the college’s dorms screened Gus Van Sant’s Academy Award-winning film Milk, and they invited me to share some comments about the movie in relation to gay representations in cinema and popular culture. Thanks to all of the students who attended and stayed for our engaging discussion afterwards. Here are the remarks that I prepared for the occasion:
Gus Van Sant’s Milk is an ideal launching pad for considering gay representations in cinema, partly due to its style and subject, and partly due to the point in history at which it arrived. I first saw the movie at an advance screening at Boston Common cinema with my Evolution of Queer Identity class, before the film was officially released three years ago. Cleve Jones, the character played by Emile Hirsch, attended that screening to host a Q&A afterwards, and he noted how coincidental the film’s timing was, in relation to the debate over Proposition 8 in California, which was unfolding at the same time. Younger people, especially, began to participate in a huge and highly visible wave of social activism in support of same-sex marriage rights, the kind of widespread political activism that we also witness in the movie Milk and had not seen very much of here in the United States since the days of Supervisor Harvey Milk himself.
While I do think the movie takes a few small missteps, slightly over-dramatizing or over-sentimentalizing just a handful of times, I find Milk to be a beautiful and important film overall. The movie culminates in a climax that’s all-too-typical of queer-themed cinema, sadly, in that our gay hero dies, but Milk is special in that its hero lives on and looms large in gay cultural history, indeed in our country’s history, even if he didn’t actually survive. His legacy is foreshadowed by the final image he sees from an office window during the tragic assassination scene: the banners for the opera Tosca that’s playing across the street. Harvey Milk, a lifelong devotee of opera, knows at the moment of his death that the narrative of his own life has been irreversibly transformed and altered, and that his life story will now carry the emotional and dramatic potency of an opera itself.
Despite the political urgency of the film, I find the most radical aspect of the movie to be its candid depiction of physical and romantic intimacy between its two central male characters, Milk (Sean Penn) and his partner Scott Smith (James Franco). With the exception of films like Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia, rarely do we see gay male romance portrayed in mainstream cinematic fare, unless it’s presented to the audience as a joke or for comic relief. As the gay writer Allen Barnett perceptively observed in his wonderful short story titled “Snapshot,” “There’s nothing more serious than the desire of one man for another.” In her book Epistemology of the Closet, the late queer theorist Eve Sedgwick referred to this particular kind of seriousness as “the swirls of totalizing knowledge-power that circulate so violently around any but the most openly acknowledged gay male identity.”
Physical and romantic tenderness depicted between men on screen has always been risky, and it continues to be somewhat risky today. While so-called mainstream audiences have become a little more comfortable watching open affection between men, fairly strict limits still remain firmly in place regarding just how much physicality between two men a straight audience is willing to accept or tolerate. The fact that Milk does not back down from this overt physicality — from the early scene of Sean Penn and James Franco flirtatiously chatting in the stairwell of a New York City subway station — is vital to the film and the integrity of its inherent message. If cultural acceptance of gay people is to continue to progress, and if same-sex marriage is eventually to become a federally legalized reality for everyone in our country, then open and honest images of men in love with men, and women in love with women, and everything else in between, must persist in such natural and forthright artistic representations.
The most moving moment in the film, for me, is the moment just after Harvey Milk is fatally shot, when he flashes back in his mind to the scene of himself talking quietly in bed with Scott, James Franco’s character. Harvey Milk’s lasting presence in queer history, and in American history-at-large, is due to his key role as a progressive public figure; however, what he stood for politically — full equality and honorable treatment of queer people and individuals from all underrepresented groups — would have far less meaning without this brief glimpse into his private, intimate life. Our public lives have value as direct extensions of who we are in our daily private lives, so our private lives and our public lives must both be dignified in the eyes of our society, in order for our time on this earth to be truly fulfilled.