The movie Milk was moving more for what it evoked than as a film itself. And not even for what it evoked as a film, but for what it triggered within my own set of meaningful cultural associations.

(Especially as we were watching it IN THE CASTRO THEATER. When the organ player (what is it with being at old movie houses with organ players these days?) finished and descended, they projected Milk’s name against the red velvet curtains. Being in a typical Castro packed house–hissing at Anita Bryant, sobbing at the end, Prop 8 still so fresh for everyone there.)

But so.

The emergence of lesbian culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s captured my imagination and work at a critical point during my college years. The opening documentary footage–of men from gay bars being arrested, hiding their faces from the cameras as they’re shoved into paddy wagons–hit harder than most of the film for me.

And also–the 1970s in the Bay Area was one of the most fascinating times and places in 20th century history. The flowering of all of the post-60s civil rights movements–feminism, gay rights, disability rights–Milk and Moscone–Jonestown and Patty Hearst. My parents immigrated to Berkeley in ’73 for grad school, I was born in Oakland in ’77: all my family’s myths surrounding my birth and my parents’ early marriage and life together happen in that land, in that moment.

I avidly read and re-read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, originally serialized at the
time in the almost dead San Francisco Examiner. These stories, and both “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple” and the (much more satisfying and illuminating) “Times of Harvey Milk” capture the era with all its turmoil and possibility, anxieties and opportunities. The tragedies which seem to capture the moment.

So while the cast (including, of course, Sean Penn) was terrific and watchable, it lacked depth, it lacked the jagged edges of the time. At the end, when I was weeping, it was because I was thinking about all the things the movie didn’t evoke:

  • Like, thinking that it would have killed Harvey to have seen AIDS decimate the community he poured himself into.
  • Like, the very real, deep wells of both pain and joy that created the Castro’s gay cultural explosion,
  • meaning: how, at its best, the Castro of the 70s is painted as a very hard-core sexual wonderland with real streaks of trauma and damage and ecstasy and freedom and creativity and bullshit and pleasure running through. The movie glanced at it, but it didn’t really land for me, swept up as it was in the heroic biopic martyr narrative.
  • though: I thought it was best captured in the uneasy tension of Milk’s first conversation with Cleve Jones on the street: a sloppy hippy in his 40s offering a teenage in tight jeans potential sexual/political mentorship. The few skittered fragments of a shitty childhood in Phoenix dispersed among the young hustler’s frivolous bitchery. But other than that I just didn’t feel it.
  • Like: the reality of cultural oppression. Twin Peaks Tavern, the bar on the corner of 17th and Castro, is important because it was the first gay bar that had big picture windows, so people on the outside could see who was drinking inside. At one point, that was a big deal.

The movie wasn’t rich with that. And perhaps the form is to blame–perhaps the great biopic is impossible. Who’s going to renew that form?

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