Two DVD’s – one freshly minted and
the other from the recycled bin – offer their specific insights into the soul
of liberal America at the dawn of the Age of Obama.
The ever shortening window between
a great movie’s life on the big screen and the DVD release means that many fans
will clutch their copies of Focus Features’ Milk while the bio pic still
graces more than 400 screens and is inching past a very respectable $45 million
dollar worldwide box office gross, while many still bask in the afterglow of
Oscar speeches by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and lead actor Sean Penn.
What does the DVD offer that can’t
be cribbed from You Tube? The deleted scenes section of the bonus features
contains two poignant moments that probably should have made the theatrical
release. Sean Penn reprises the day when Harvey Milk got dressed up in clown
makeup and gave his transplanted hometown a glimpse of the man behind the
politician’s mask. Another reveals a tantalizing expansion of the truncated
subplot of Harvey’s last relationship. One mark of a great film is pitch
perfect casting: the Mexican star Diego Luna invests Harvey's last love, Jack
Lira, with a pathos mixed with unexpected humor. The Harvey/Jack subplot
illustrates the unabashed neediness of even the most together activist. In the
deleted scene Luna’s brilliant comic take on Lira’s high strung neediness comes
into sharper focus as he challenges an exasperated Milk to share his fantasy
about appearing on TV’s The Price Is Right.
Eventually this masterwork will find its proper home
on a Criterion edition. Here are excerpts from my original review.
Milk begins on a silent scream as a middle-aged man,
hiding his face behind a newspaper during a police raid on a gay bar, tosses a
drink into the lens of a newsreel camera.
Borrowing a trick from Billy Wilder's Sunset
Boulevard, where a dead man tartly tells the story behind his untimely
demise, this made in San Francisco Greek tragedy -- nimbly staged by Gus Van Sant
from Dustin Lance Black's passionate, meticulously researched screenplay –
becomes a humane political thriller with a grasp of the nuts and bolts of
government intrigue and its crushing impact on real lives that rivals All
the President's Men.
For decades the goal of weaving a
fictional template for the slain gay politician's achingly brief career has
tempted and ultimately frustrated an array of talents from Oliver Stone to Milk
biographer Randy Shilts to Van Sant himself. To screenwriter Black the core of
the problem was locating the emotional heartbeat of the story, the elusive but
vital role Milk played in the imaginations of queer kids looking for a father
Harvey's story kicks off May, 1970
when the emotionally drained insurance man picks up a cute curly-haired trick,
Scott Smith (James Franco) on a New York subway platform. Pleading his case to
the bemused pretty boy to have sex before he turns forty – Van Sant displays
his trademark bedroom reticence in a emotionally revealing series of eyeball
close-ups which put us inside the heads of this legendary couple -- Harvey
erotically abducts the soft spoken Mississippi refugee, absconding to a West
Coast Valhalla so foreign to either of their experiences that it could easily
have been named Oz. After the expiration of their unemployment checks threatens
their pot supply, Harvey and Scott open a small camera shop downstairs from
their Castro walkup. The store quickly becomes a neighborhood club house for a
bevy of underemployed hirsute young men.
The drama boils over as Harvey's
ambition to be the first out gay man with power at city hall clashes with the
barely concealed resentments of straight residents who find their tribune in a
mercurial ex-cop Dan White -- Josh Brolin is truly scary as a drowning man driven
by a toxic mixture of insecurity, self-loathing, envy and some mysterious
x-factor the filmmakers hint may been a deeply sublimated confusion between the
demands of living up to an unobtainable masculinity and Harvey's example of a
free-wheeling libidinous male bonding.
Milk allows us to rediscover
Sean Penn as he sheds the weight of years of playing increasing crazed
anti-heroes in films like Mystic River and 21 Grams. Penn drops all macho posturing to give us a low key, gentle Harvey, who can
still suggest a prickly edge. A telling scene towards the end of the film has
Penn's Harvey giving in to his inner girl as he realizes his greatest triumph,
the upset defeat of the anti-gay teacher Briggs Initiative.
Emile Hirsch beguiles as the
charismatic boy Pied Piper Cleve Jones. The dramatic arc between Harvey and
Cleve gives us a rare glimpse of an older gay man as a father/mentor to a
younger apprentice – the totality of their screen time is as refreshing as the
avuncular bond between Michael Douglas' pot smoking teacher and Tobey Maguire's
suicidal young writer in Wonder Boys.