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Milk (2008)

As previously noted, I cringe when I see men kiss—so when I watch this film I have to roll my eyes away from the screen at certain points. Overall, I like Milk (2008)—though mostly due to autism. I find that the filter used to aesthetically suggest the 1970s calms me. So after my latest autistic rage because people constantly say one thing and do another it helps to lie on the floor, in appropriate material (not removed from the washer-dryer too recently), with my 16:00hrs milk and cookie (it must be the same every day; if I use a different glass it tastes different), and with the curtains drawn exactly to the little chink in the plastic runner (I have to do this myself because other people never find the right place), and watch this 1970s filter. The actual content is less important than the filter, but the content interests too.

Milk features a fine performance from Sean Penn, for which he won an Oscar—a political award, a bit like Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize for being black and president, though Penn really deserved it in this case because he captures Harvey Milk very well; he even does this uncanny little lisp as he talks about his romances with his poo (a term of affection between male homosexuals in 1970s San Francisco, not a reference to anal sex). However, this film is really outright political propaganda, so much so that it could be taken as a little instructional film as regards civic values in the West.

Plot: Harvey Milk turns forty in 1970 and quits his conformist corporate job in NYC thanks to influence from his younger bf; the pair cross the country and open a camera shop on the Castro—Milk turns from a dull conformist into a jean-wearing, pot-smoking hippie. However, he is drawn into politics in SF and comes to lead a political insurgency against both the closeted gay establishment and City Hall.

Milk becomes a national figure, the third openly-homosexual elected public official in the US. In the process, he alienates Dan White, a conservative former cop also on the City Board, and White eventually assassinates Milk—he becomes a secular martyr in American politics; and, as a former naval officer, he even has a ship named after him.

Early in the film, Milk confronts David Goldstein—publisher of the same-sex newspaper, The Advocate; and also, as with Milk, a Jew (obviously, name). I mention this not just from rabid obsession with the Jews, but because Milk’s Jewishness is foregrounded in the film: when he arrives on the Castro and is met by a hostile shopkeeper he mentions that he is queer and Jewish in a self-deprecatory joke edged with moral superiority.

Milk wants homosexual politics to be militant, proud, and on the streets with openly homo candidates on the ballot. Goldstein wants to work behind the scenes with sympathetic normies. Milk’s stance is seen to be vindicated—in one scene the hapless Goldstein is shut out from Milk’s raucous victory party.

Milk is not really about buggery, it’s about leftist politics. From the very first Milk makes this sappy speech about how his campaign will unite “the seniors, the disabled, the gays, the youths, the blacks …” Indeed, the film opens and closes with Milk’s recorded address, made in the event he was assassinated, in which he repeats his laundry list of what he calls “us”. Where have I seen that laundry list before? On the website of the CPUSA in the early 2000s, by which time the CPUSA had abandoned “the proletariat” and spoke about the “laundry list”; the broad coalition against monopoly capital: the seniors, the gays, the youths, the whoever-seems-a-likely-candidate to use this week…

This is why among the earliest moments in Milk is an awkward gee-shucks scene where Milk wins over the Teamsters—you know, the salt-of-the-earth truck drivers who bury you in concrete in the anchor point of a new baseball stadium if you rat to Bobby Kennedy about labor relations in Cincinnati. Milk wins ‘em over with queer support for tha’ union, so soon enough those blue-collar boys hire openly gay drivers. A grizzled old eyetalian in a donkey-jacket eyes up Milk and says: “Youse might be faggots, but youse alrite by us. Youse union faggots.” “It’s all simply divine, poo,” replies Milk. A violin plays, the lion (Teamster trucker) lies down with the lamb (the pansy from the Castro)—the heart swells, it all turns out alwight in the end; we’re all best frens. Well, not really—but that is the scene’s sentimental gist. Paradoxically, “the seniors” are also on board with Milk—he’s their champion; although at the same time they were surely the constituency least amenable to pot-smoking bathhouse frequenters. Propaganda > reality.

Lesbians, who’d have ‘em eh? You might have formed the view—I know I did when I first heard about LGBT as a teenager—that it’s all the same, and that everyone whoops it up at the gay bar in perfect harmony and covers each other’s backs and…no. As I discovered when I went to the Eurovision Song Contest, there is quite some tension between lesbians and homosexual men; and sometimes they do not get on at all.

Eurovision is for men really, I saw a few lesbians there—mostly the girls were fag hags; yet this was no great occasions for lesbian anthropology, I was too busy trying not be outed as a hetero (“Have they guessed yet?”). What I did gather was that the lesbians were a touchy subject. This is why Milk has a section where Milk gets a new political adviser, Anne Kronenberg; at first Milk’s flying circus expresses catty scepticism as regards Annie K, yet Milk—a progressive saint who can unite anyone in the cause of social justice—soon smooths the situation over and the lesbo becomes an integral addition to Team Milk.

Milk’s political idealism is interspersed with commercial cynicism; hence the liquor store owner who initially warns Milk off the Castro is won over when Milk’s camera-shop-cum-hangout brings in a new customer base. We see him overwhelmed with merry queers who press dollar bill after dollar bill into his hands—turns out God’s law is easily overturned for the pink dollar (the cynical subtext to the scene). In a final perverse touch, Milk cheerily sends his regards to the storeowner’s wife—a-ha, ha, ha Mr. Milk is a family man (not).

This brings us to the film’s central conflict, the conflict between Dan White and Harvey Milk. Names: this is a conflict between Mr. White (the white knight: cop, fireman, and family man) and Mr. Milk (a substance that appears white, though it easily becomes rancid)—white versus what appears white. The centrepiece to this conflict is a vote on a same-sex civil rights ordinance for SF. The camera horizontally pans along the table of Supervisors: black Supervisor, aye; woman Supervisor, aye; Asian Supervisor, aye; gay Supervisor, aye; white Supervisor, nay—motion passed, universal acclaim. You see, Asians, blacks, Latinos, women, gays, lesbians, seniors, the disabled, even your poor little dog Pogo have one common enemy—Mr. Dan White, the white man; and this is the film’s real point.

To compound his central felony, being a white man, Dan White is also Christian (worse, a Catholic) who happens to come from a family long-rooted in SF. His working-class neighbourhood is portrayed in the film in washed-out and sinister colours, the camera creeps past house upon house—so conformist, so dull, so drab in the rain. Nothing like the Castro with its cheerful liquor store and neighbourly Teamsters and heroin and murders in the park and men who walk stark bollock naked down the street.

I remember I walked down the Castro once and my friend turned to me and said, “That guy’s naked. The guy who just walked past us is completely naked.” I wasn’t disturbed, it was just so anomalous my mind didn’t read it at all; yet when I looked round—the ass was about to round a corner—it was true, and that’s the Castro for you. White’s “sinister” neighbourhood was not about to be ravaged by AIDS a few years after Milk was assassinated—and perhaps that is why the film needs camera tricks to convince people that it is “evil”.

The film plays quite a few tricks with the facts to demonise White. He is shown to object to a mental health clinic for youths being situated in his ward. The clinic is portrayed as a neutral state-backed initiative to help deprived youths—in reality it was a Catholic institution, although in the film White’s objection to it is couched as if the mean Christian is a hypocrite who doesn’t want to help marginal youths whereas Milk is the “true Christian”. With gaslighting like that, you have to wonder why exactly an ex-policeman and firefighter would snap and assassinate Milk—perhaps he was too straightforward for emotional manipulation undergirded by mafia-run unions, opportunist liquor store owners, and drug addicts.

Similar sliminess occurs over Milk’s objection to the Briggs Initiative: this was a failed ballot initiative, similar to current attempts to stop CRT and gender ideology, to ban queer teachers. Milk is portrayed as besting Briggs in public debate, yet Milk equivocates over the proportional overrepresentation of same-sex child sex offenders—the real crux. Briggs is portrayed as tongue-tied, whereas the cute lil’ queer handily bests him with winsome points. Yet if you watch this segment of the film with the facts in mind you see that the scene has been contrived to gloss over the details—and that Briggs couldn’t have been so weak in public debate. Then again, pretty good for a propaganda film.

Milk is a film about how the same-sex issue was dragged from the closet, from the careful and cautious Goldstein queers, into da streets to be deployed as a wedge to attack white Christian men—who despite their deep roots in the city and their blue-collar public service are portrayed as “evil”, and need to get used to being, as Milk explicitly tells White, “a minority here”.

Reality: the coalition of the oppressed has no more quiddity than Kim Jung-un’s contention that North Korea is based on the workers, peasantry, and intelligentsia united under the party’s guidance. Even lesbians don’t necessarily see their interests as synonymous with homosexual men—to say the least. Harvey Milk is America’s Pavel Morozov; the little Soviet boy murdered because he informed on his parents, and then celebrated as a martyr by the Komsomol; and that is why the US Navy has a ship called the USS Harvey Milk, nothing to do with whether he liked boys or not at all—and everything to do with political expedience.


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