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

12 comments:

Lodo Grdzak said...

While I don't patronage any movies that don't feature a talking animal, I believe MILK is what's known in the business as a "message movie." (Also frequently referred to as a formulaic, bad movie). But in fairness, I never saw it so I cant say.

Spencer Troxell said...

It was clearly a "message movie". I think I've outgrown that category. It may be time for me to adopt your talking animal philosophy. Ratatouille was a fantastic movie. In fact, from this point forward, I think Hollywood should just remake Ratatouille from here on out. It'll certainly make buying tickets easier.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

It was a message movie, which I avoid. I have read a little about this "gentleman", and believe they took a corrupt politician who was gay and tried to make him into a freedom fighter. So typical hollywierd follow the politically correct road garbage. Maybe they should re-learn they are in the entertainment industry and get back to that.

Spencer Troxell said...

I'm all for the movie's message, I just don't think it should've been the main point. If you're going to make a movie about a guy, make a movie about a guy. By primarily using Harvey Milk's political career to put forward a (albeit noble) message, we miss alot of what made him tick as a man, and surely he did things in the nearly 49 years before he hit the Castro that would've given us a better picture of him, and made for a more enjoyable movie-watching experience.

GbiZ said...

Dont you think message movies can get to some people? Its a quick way to catch up on an issue.

Spencer Troxell said...

I'm sure message movies can get to some people, I just think I may have outgrown them at this point. I've moved on to embracing Lodo's 'talking animal' movie watching model.

A quick way to catch up on an issue? I'm not sure that sounds like a good idea. A movie may be a nice aperitif to some deep research, but I don't expect to have a thorough understanding of the different theories on climate change just because I watched 'The Day After Tomorrow', or even 'An Inconvenient Truth'.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

I wouldn't have a problem with a message movie, if it is accurate portrayal of the subject. If you make it accurate it becomes boring to most and not a ticket seller, so they put a spin on it, jazz up parts, add drama and explosions, then what started out as the rise of a immigrant holocaust survivor who built his own business turns into DIE HARD VIII: He Burned the Bagels. I would bet some porn versions are more accurate then the big box offices movie, especially when its about politics.

Spencer Troxell said...

Except I would actually go see 'DIE HARD VIII: He Burned the Bagels'.

You could very well be right about porn versions being more accurate than biopics, although I doubt the actual historical figures were anywhere nearly as well endowed.

GbiZ said...

"although I doubt the actual historical figures were anywhere nearly as well endowed"... with certain inalienable rights?

Spencer Troxell said...

You could certainly put it that way.

Willie Y said...

Did anyone see Romancing the Bone? Movies makers have to try to draw many peole into see their movies. They have to punch it up to attract the average movie goer.
I liked Milk a lot. All I need from a movie is to be entertained for a couple of hours.

Spencer Troxell said...

I certainly wouldn't tell anyone not to watch 'Milk'. I was just surprised by how little it moved me. Maybe it's because my expectations were too high, or maybe it's because I don't need any convincing on the gay rights front anymore.

I haven't seen Romancing the Bone. I'll IMDB it.