Sunday, November 30, 2008

Roxie's Watching: Australia & Milk

(Photo Credit: Bill Bray, Focus Features; Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk.)

When you are so full that gravy is oozing out of your pores and you've already made your way through the safe topics of conversation -- both of them -- with your family, what do you do with the rest of Thanksgiving weekend? You go to the movies, of course. The moms ventured out with the Mother of the Moosians to see Baz Luhrmann's Australia on Friday and caught Gus Van Sant's Milk Saturday evening after the MotM had safely returned to the heartland of America. Both films earned a paws up from the tough critics of Roxie's World, though Milk comes with a serious hankie alert. It will make you cry, kids, repeatedly, even if you aren't a menopausal queer still furious over the passage of California's Prop 8. We command you to see it, but be prepared for a little public weeping. Don't worry -- Everyone else in the theater will be wiping their eyes right along with you.

If you like Baz Luhrmann, you will love Australia. It's big, it's meta, it's gorgeously filmed, it's at least 20 minutes longer than it needed to be -- and yet no one in our party snuck out for a potty break before the closing credits had stopped rolling. A couple of pithy sentences from Ann Hornaday's Wa Po review capture the whole adventure rather nicely:
[Australia] doesn't wink as often as it genuflects toward its massive subject and, even more worshipfully, toward old-school Hollywood schmaltz. A wildly ambitious, luridly indulgent spectacle of romance, action, melodrama and revisionism, Australia is windy, overblown, utterly preposterous and insanely entertaining.
Insanely entertaining, people -- because you want to see Nicole Kidman fly across the screen on a horse as if she were born with a whip in her hand. Because you need to see Hugh Jackman without his shirt on. Because you love a multi-culti cutie-pie, and Brandon Walters, who plays the mixed race child of an Aboriginal woman and a white man, steals the show with his winsome smile and his remarkable affinity for The Wizard of Oz (told you the film was meta, didn't we?). The racial and colonial politics of Australia are no doubt a whole lot more complicated than its earnest message of love conquering difference and history seems to imply. (A telling detail is that, as in most such fantasies, dark-skinned characters who are allied with good-guy white characters tend to get killed, while mixed-race characters survive -- even though, as is the case here, tribute is paid to the necessity of a connection to Aboriginal culture.) Nonetheless, Australia succeeds because it isn't interested in nuance or analysis. It is interested in sentiment and spectacle, and it delivers both in spades. If you get that, you'll enjoy the long, bracing ride Luhrmann has in store for you. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review of Australia is here.)

Van Sant's Milk would be a remarkable film at any moment, but in this moment -- thirty years after Harvey Milk's murder, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, in November 1978 and three weeks after the passage of California's Prop 8 -- it has a poignancy and a political urgency that one can't quite imagine it having at any other time. Just three weeks before his death, Milk was the driving force behind the defeat of a California ballot initiative that would have led to mandatory firings of gay teachers in the state. As told in the film, the story of Milk's triumph on Prop 6 is a thrilling come-from-behind victory made possible by shrewd organizing and a politics of visibility. Over and over in the film, we see Milk demanding that queers come out, insisting that the battle for equality will be won by getting the heterosexual majority to see the homosexual minority. "If they know us," he insists, "they don't vote against us." Milk's tactics stand in stark contrast to the mealy-mouthed campaign waged by opponents of Prop 8, who were reluctant to place LGBT people and families at the center of the battle, pitching it instead as an abstract matter of rights.

Dennis Lim has an excellent piece on Milk in Slate that muses on whether Prop 8 would have passed if the film had opened in October rather than last week. (Van Sant himself entertained this question in an interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian and conceded that Milk, wily tactician that he was, would have opened the film earlier.) That question is, of course, impossible to answer, and we needn't burden the film or its maker with such responsibility. What we can do is use the occasion of the film and the painful passage of Prop 8 (and the other anti-gay initiatives that succeeded on Nov. 4) to re-acquaint ourselves with Milk's legacy and to re-assess the priorities and tactics of an LGBT political movement that has been far less effective than he was in the sole statewide referendum battle he fought before his tragic death. In the shadow of Prop 8, it is excruciating to watch Sean Penn's sublimely human Milk agonize on screen, thinking the battle against Prop 6 is doomed, and intoxicating to watch him revel in the unexpected victory. Thirty years later, we should be angry that the foes of equality are still subjecting LGBT civil rights to popular votes, but we should be ashamed that we haven't yet found a more effective means for waging these ballot battles. Thirty years later, we can honor Milk's memory by finally proving we have learned the lessons in democracy he worked so tirelessly and courageously to teach. See the film -- and then get to work.

(A. O. Scott's NYT review of Milk is here. Christie Keith has a review up on After Ellen. Keith also has an interview with Alison Pill, who plays Anne Kronenberg, the lesbian who managed Milk's successful campaign to get on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It's got some comments from Kronenberg and Van Sant as well.)


  1. Anonymous10:45 PM EST

    Thanks so much for linking to my interview, Roxie! And spreading the word about this great film.

  2. You bet, Christie -- Great work! Thanks for stopping by. Now, if you could just put in a tiny little plug for America's favorite dog blog devoted to politics, pop culture, and basketball to the HUGE audience over there at AfterEllen, I'd be much obliged. My humans are big ole dykes, after all. ;-)

  3. I thought Milk was beyond-belief phenomenal. Mixed in with a full slate of emotions -- elation, heartbreak, admiration -- was a profound sense of humiliation and embarrassment during the various scenes portraying Milk's relationship with the editors of The Advocate. I realized that HRC is basically running the same operation now as they did back then: whitewashing, sanitizing, and generally de-queerifying the LGBT rights movement and turning into an inert and nearly reprehensible sludge.

    I felt proud to work there over the summer (and, in fact, I'm still finishing up some work on a curriculum for churches about trans issues) but now I feel a distinct sense of shame. I'm taken aback every time I see the results of organic, true grassroots movements like Join the Impact and the depiction of Harvey Milk, Anne Kronenberg, and Cleve Jones' various campaigns. They do all the work and deserve all the credit. HRC is a pale, pathetic, "safe," button-down-gay-male-centric organization, and at this point I don't think I would ever choose to work there again. The LGBT rights movement is still essentially "Harvey Milk vs. The Machine," except the machine is now HRC. I couldn't be more depressed about that, having passionately lobbied for a job there and spent a lovely summer doing my best to make HRC work for the voiceless.

    I think I commented a few weeks ago, saying almost exactly the opposite things. Amazing how just one filmgoing experience can show me what I've been missing for months.

  4. It's important to see and acknowledge the limitations of HRC as an organization and a political strategy, Eitan, but there's no reason to be ashamed of having worked there. You were there to learn and to gain experience, not to set policy or make strategic decisions, which is where the real problems are.

    You make an excellent point about HRC having become "The Machine" -- The key question going forward is, Who (or what organization) is going to play the role of Harvey Milk? That's what we all need to be thinking about.

    Thanks for urging us and everyone to see the film. It is pretty phenomenal.


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