Getting Milked

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, April 2008

Long ago I actually liked Gus Van Sant’s movies. In high school, I got all excited about Drugstore Cowboy -- Kelly Lynch's swagger and Matt Dillon's eyebrows, sure -- but mostly that counterculture allure that'll never again be so tantalizing. Pills, yes, pills -- I wanted to float above myself and dream my way into drugstore heists too. I was in hysterics when William Burroughs threw down a cameo as a junkie priest -- that was before I knew he'd killed his wife.

By the time My Own Private Idaho came out, with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, I’d escaped high school so I had a bit more critical engagement -- I refused to see it until years later, after I’d already turned my share of tricks -- of course I immediately recognized the trick’s worldview in the glamorization of the wayward boys living it up in a decadent squat. But it was a relatively benevolent depiction, mostly it was just kind of silly compared to the reality of dealing with tricks like Gus Van Sant. Elephant, which reenacted a Columbine-style high school massacre, jaded art fag style, was the movie that made me promise never again to see a Van Sant movie. Right after the movie, a woman came up to me and said, “Who do you think shot the second guy, was it his friend or a third gun? It looked like he was shot from behind. That’s really intriguing.” Intriguing.

Sure, the lighting varied from scene to scene, focus faded in and out while time ran in circles, and if this sounds like a distant assessment when the movie was about murder, well that's how it was made -- to make you think: who cares. And: teenagers are so stupid! What scintillating cultural analysis.

But now Gus Van Sant is ready to exploit the life of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay elected official in a large US city. Filming is now taking place “on location” in San Francisco's legendary gay Castro district, former home to Milk's camera shop, from where he mounted his successful political campaign for a seat on the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco's city council). A few years later, Milk was assassinated (along with San Francisco John Moscone) by Dan White, a more conservative member of the Board of Supervisors. In the highly-publicized trial, White’s lawyers argued that, in spite of the fact that he'd entered City Hall through a window, with a loaded gun in one pocket and an extra round of ammunition in the other, he could not be guilty of premeditated murder because he'd become deranged by eating too many Twinkies (the famous "Twinkie defense").

Oh, but wait -- you'll love this -- Sean Penn is playing Harvey Milk. Gay-for-pay is so hot these days, he'll probably win an Oscar. And I love this quote from Dan Jinks, one of the producers of the movie (he’s an "independent" producer who sometimes sells his movies to Warner Bros. and sometimes to DreamWorks): "Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination."

Revitalize the Castro, where you're lucky if you can rent a flat for under $4000, or buy property for under a million? Make it a major tourist destination? Everyone who's ever set foot in the Castro knows that it's filled with tourists from around the world -- who else would buy rainbow flag toilet paper and sock puppet briefs, or whatever trinkets they're selling at those cheerful underwear boutiques?

Oh, I know what Jinks means -- straight tourists: make way for the next wave of gentrification! It seems that everyone from current politicians to friends and lovers of Harvey Milk is clambering to serve as a spokesperson for the new Milk movie. State Assemblyman Mark Leno (who represents San Francisco) claims he was so inspired by the filming of the movie that he's proposing an official state holiday in honor of Harvey Milk, to coincide with the premiere of the movie. Maybe it can be called Milking It Day.

Cleve Jones, who worked as a student intern in Milk's City Hall office (and later started the AIDS Memorial Quilt), now serves as a consultant for the Van Sant film. Presumably he is one of the few Milk movie boosters on the Van Sant payroll, which allows him to churn out such preposterous quotes as, "Just moments before the cameras went on, the clouds parted, the sun shone through and an enormous rainbow peered through above us." Or, even better, encouraging a crowd of extras before the re-creation of the candlelight march that took place after Milk's murder, "We made history on these streets and we're gonna do it again tonight."

Visitors to San Francisco can perhaps be excused for seeing throngs of people marching down Market Street in the middle of the night as an upsurge in local activism. But remaking historical moments from pain-and-glory days of the past is hardly the same thing as making history in the present.

San Francisco in 2008 is no longer the city it was in the 1970s, when queers fled abusive and horrifying and stifling families and places of origin to move to San Francisco in the thousands and join dissident subcultures of splendor and defiance. Of course, queers still flee those abusive and horrifying and stifling families and places of origin, it's just that the hyper-gentrified San Francisco of 2008 barely offers the space to breathe, let alone dream.

But there is more violence in the excitement around reenactment over critical engagement. After all, it's the smiling gay men who came to San Francisco in the 1970s who have consistently fought misogynist, racist, classist, ageist battles -- from carding policies to policing practices to zoning battles -- to ensure that their neighborhood (Harvey Milk's Castro) remain a home only for the rich, white, and male (or at least those who assimilate to white, middle-class norms). This is the tragedy that will surely not be explored in the Gus Van Sant "biopic." In fact, with all of the rhetoric around "revitalizing the neighborhood" and bringing more straight tourists and real estate speculators to get all googly-eyed over cutesy Victorians and tastefully-decorated condoplexes, it's quite possible that these smiling gays are active participants in their own cultural erasure.

Even more disturbing is the sight of queer, non-mainstream and counterculture-affiliated San Franciscans, some of them even present in the 1970s, rushing to don ‘70s realness drag and carry candles while guarded by a police escort. The rhetoric goes that this time in history will finally be memorialized for the general public. Kind of like Gus Van Sant’s scene-by-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, I guess.

But wait -- The Times of Harvey Milk, a 1984 documentary, already won an Oscar. But no one can revitalize history like a gay "indie" director with a death fetish. “NO Garish bright colors such as BRIGHT white or red, or ‘Wacky’ disco-themed ‘70s ‘Halloween Costumes,’" ends the list of wardrobe selections for the new movie. That's right -- no one in the 1970s wore garish bright colors or "wacky" outfits.

After Dan White’s 1979 trial, when he was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder and given a sentence of four to twelve years, rioting queers torched police cars, battled cops, and smashed the windows and doors of City Hall. Later that night, vengeful cops went to the Castro and smashed the windows of a local bar, The Elephant Walk (now Harvey's), entered the bar to beat up patrons and destroy fixtures, and swung their batons into anyone in the Castro unlucky enough to be outside of the time. The 1984 documentary shows great footage of police cars in flames, but includes no mention of the resulting police violence. I'm wondering, actually, if the new Van Sant film will end at the candlelight march, thus avoiding talk about such market-unfriendly issues as property destruction as a political act or systemic police violence against queers. After all, straight tourists don't like to hear about gay people fighting back!

Unfortunately, San Francisco in 2008 is more of a playground for the wealthy than a space for the delirious potential of dissidence. But there are still plenty of reasons to protest (and tons of police cars around, just waiting for the flames to emerge). Got housing? Got health care? Got citizenship? Nope, we're just getting milked.