Saturday, January 03, 2009

MILK - the movie - updated

I noticed in the credits that it was Giuseppe Di Stefano singing "E lucevan le stelle" in the scene where Scott, unable to take the endless campaigning, walked out on Harvey. I am not sure if that was the first scene that brought tears to my eyes but there were many to come. I got misty at several points even reading the credits, and then thinking about it as I walked to the parking garage.

The younger generation's reactions to Milk would be of interest to me. Many will know nothing of the times and stories in this film. I was not in the Bay Area in the late 70s but I heard the stories. I remember Anita Bryant and the Florida Orange Growers. You could not get a screwdriver in any bar in West Hollywood at that time and it was years before I drank orange juice again. I remember the Coors boycott, though I could not join in, being a non-beer-drinker than and now. Most importantly, I remember the Briggs Amendment, Proposition 6, with its threat to all gay teachers and their supporters (and hinting at worse witch hunts to come). The threat of that evil proposition infected my life and relief at its defeat was staggering.

I held my breath every three years when the General Convention of the The Episcopal Church convened, praying they would not vote on gay ordination, fearing I would never be able to preside at an altar again.

Though I do not remember the exact year (1976? 77?), I do remember the New Year's Day when I was no longer a felon because private consensual acts between adults were no longer felonies in California.

All the vintage footage of the Castro was a real blast from the past - and from the present. I was just walking up and down Castro Street in September. While I always felt like an alien visiting there (we used to joke about being tourists from the burbs, even if the burbs were just across the Bay), it has been a place where it was OK to be gay. Not so when Harvey Milk and Scott Smith arrived there, but certainly as long as I remember. My ex and I did not hold hands in public anywhere but in the Castro or during Pride Day. OK, sometimes during church.

The incidents of gay bashing are still astonishing. The rhetoric against gays is staggering. Though the social ambience has changed greatly since the late 70s, these have not gone away. You can still be taunted, harrassed, beaten, or killed just for being who you are. The FBI hate crime statistics show that in 2007 "15.9 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation," with just over 1500 victims. It was 15.3 % in 2006, 13.8 % in 2005, 15.6% in 2004.

Bishops around the world fulminate against us. Hateful closeted queens (cough, B16, cough) wish all of us except their personal secretaries would just go away. Many people are, simply, terrified of us or of some imagined something we represent for them.

One of the most radical things Harvey Milk called for (in the movie, at least, I don't know how closely the film hews to facts in all instances) was for every one of us to come out. He felt that if folks realized that they knew us, their hearts would be turned. It was a heart-stopping moment in the film for me. I am out. 100%. You cannot know me for very long (maybe a day, perhaps a week, and maybe only fifteen minutes) without knowing I am gay. But I remember the terror of the closet, fears of being disowned, disfellowshipped, cast out - of being fired, refused housing, being spat upon, being betrayed, or worse. When Harvey calls for one of his campaign staff to call home and come out to family, it is frightening. I can imagine the call ending with a rupture that can never be healed. Not every parent joins PFLAG.

It is a great movie. Sean Penn, not surprisingly, does an amazing job of portraying Milk. The combination of acted and archival footage is skillful and effective. The rising backlash at that time of voters overturning progressive laws felt like a fresh kick in the gut.

Again and again I felt personal links to the film. At the end we are treated to snippets of what became of central characters, along with photos of the persons depicted in the movie. Throughout the movie I was not linking Cleve Jones with the man who conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Bam, another visceral hit. I remember visiting a site where the quilt was assembled and stored (it moved more than once) and I remember working on panels and seeing the names of people I know on panels and displays of portions in the lobby of Kaiser Hospital in Oakland and in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and the section we hung in a quilt show at Saint Cuthbert's.

I have driven and walked through the Civic Center neighborhood, attending operas at the War Memorial Opera House, and concerts at the Davies Symphony Center, and tonight I thought: San Francisco has the most beautiful city hall in the world.

In short, the story of Harvey Milk is part of MY story, and that of LGBT folk all across the United States. Watching this movie reminded me of the struggles of the past, the fear, the defeats, the agony, the victories. It reminded me of how far we have come. It reminded me how far we have to go.

I don't want protests, in any usual sense, when the invocation is given at Obama's inauguration. What I would love to see is millions of lighted candles held high on behalf of all those who have suffered in the struggle and in hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Holy Harvey, pray for us all.

MissLaura gives her review of the film at Daily Kos today.
--the BB


David said...

what a powerful post
what a generous sharing of your heart and experience.

even up here in Canada, Harvey's career and death resonated powerfully in individual lives.
so thank-you again.

i haven't seen 'Milk' yet, but did the film I expected to be the harder for me personally. 'Doubt' on New Year's Eve with a beloved sister.
It staggered us both, and i look forward to your take on this one too.

thanks Paul


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Dear Friend and I saw "Milk" a couple of weeks ago, and were blown away by it.

I knew who Cleve Jones was because I re-read Randy Shilt's book "And the Band Played On" about once a year. Cleve practically opens the book, and his story runs throughout it. (I reread it to remind myself of why I do the work I do, even when I get so frustrated with political appointees who really wouldn't care if every gay man or injection drug user in the U.S. died of AIDS...)

I still remember the Anita Bryant crusade---the fundamentalist school I went to used to send busloads of people to Washington to protest equal rights for women and GLBTs. They all thought Anita was the bees' knees. Sigh.

Change is coming, thank God. Not fast enough, by a long shot...but it IS coming. What really impressed me about Harvey Milk was his refusal to give up. He was defeated numerous times before he won, but he kept trying. That is a lesson I need to remember--incremental change will get us there. We just have to keep pushing.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Paul, I want to see "Milk", but it won't show around here. I have to travel to New Orleans to see it, and I haven't done that yet.

I remember all that you speak of, but from a different vantage point. We agree then and now that Anita Bryant was a buffoon with her crusade, but she did real damage. That was before the reigns were tightening up in the RCC, and we pretty much agreed that Bryant was wrong, wrong, wrong. Times change.

I need to get my butt to NO.

Paul said...

I have heard that Doubt is very powerful and look forward to seeing it. When and if I do, I promise to comment, David.

Doxy, thanks for the work you do. Cleve Jones is a name familiar to me but during the film I just was not making the connection - in part, I think, because he is introduced as a simpering youth and my image was a powerhouse older man I knew of from decades later. And bless him for the work he continues to do.

Mimi, you are right. Bryant seemed like a buffoon but she was so popular and so personable that one could easily forget the real damage she was doing. I don't need to point out the contemporary parallels.

the cajun said...

Thanks for posting this review and a bit of personal history. I was around during the same period, though in NYC working as a cameraman and part time bartender. I remember well the “No Juice, Bitch” signs on Pride Day and many years without OJ anywhere to be found in the Village.
I hope to see the film this week (it arrived here last week) and pray that I will be ready for it.
Thanks also, for the “Holy Harvey” icon.

Paul said...

Thanks for stopping by, Cajun. Just popped over to your place and yes, Frank Rich is great reading on a winter day. Or any time when he is tearing the Bush Crime Group to shreds.

susankay said...

Paul -- in some ways the story of St Harvey is ALL our stories. Black, brown, poor, Jew, Muslim and female (even the white Christian males who are brave enough to really love us) -- we are all just simply human beings who get beat upon and deeply hurt -- physically, emotionally and spiritually by people who are driven by fear (which then masquerades as hate) rather than by hope and love. We do have so far to go.

Pray that we are brave enough to hope.

Paul said...

Amen to your observation, Susankay. It is a universal experience and we have far to go, all together.

And a hearty amen to your prayer.