Thursday, April 23, 2009
Having Your Heroes Handed To You
My wife and I finally sat down last night to watch Milk. Overall, it was what I expected. Sean Penn turned in another solid performance, as did Josh Brolin (Brolin turns in one of the most convincing drunk scenes I've ever seen). The film was shot skillfully, and I was sympathetic to the subject matter: I'm about as liberal when it comes to sexual politics as you can get. But something in me refused to budge for the movie, and I went to bed feely oddly ambivalent; not about Harvey Milk or gay rights, but about the film.
I think there are two reasons why.
First, and perhaps most superficially, I feel like the movie focused too much on the the political Harvey Milk. Sean Penn's portrayal of him was compelling, and it would've been interesting to see more of his life. I know it probably wouldn't be such a great idea in our A.D.D. culture, but what this movie really might've needed was an extra hour.
The second factor may not be the movie's fault, although I suspect maybe a little of it is. The Zeitgeist message about this film seemed to be something along the lines of, 'This is an important film. You will watch it, you will admire Harvey Milk, and you will expand your consciousness on the issue of gay rights.' I was ready to believe. In fact, I was sure I would believe. But I didn't.
I admire what Harvey Milk did, and I appreciate his position as the first (openly) gay man elected to U.S. high office. Harvey Milk was a patriotic American who risked--and ultimately lost--his life to advance the rights of his fellow citizens. But I don't believe in saints, secular or otherwise, and I don't like having my heroes handed to me.
I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I am also bothered in a fairly profound way by the mythologizing of human beings. George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk...all men who made themselves consequential, all men who engaged the world in the name of something bigger than themselves. There's just something about the way that we choose to remember them that robs them of their human status, that makes them seem like demigods. In our mythologizing, we forget that Washington was a slave owner, or that Lincoln loved to tell dirty jokes. We forget that Dr. King struggled with the bottle, and with marital fidelity, and, while I don't have the full story on Harvey Milk yet, I got a clear sense of things the movie wasn't telling me about him. If you ask me, the aformentioned aspects of these men make what they ultimately did seem even more incredible. That a guy like me--some shmuck with weaknesses, appetites, and doubts--could aspire to change anything at all is absolutely inspiring. It makes me wonder why we erase these parts of our heroes' lives. Is it because if we accepted that they too were fully human, then maybe we'd run out of excuses as to why we haven't engaged our lives as fully as possible? Or is it that if we hollow out these men into mere symbols we can suddenly stuff them full of the things we want, turning them into monuments to our own ideas, aspirations, and biases?
I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm learning how to handle ambiguity.
" Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is possible that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never had much temptation to be human beings." -George Orwell