Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Milk vs. The Times of Harvey Milk

I saw Gus Van Sant's Milk Monday and then the '84 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk this evening. The works were both top quality, but differed substantially in their approach. The documentary was a straight journalistic take on the achievements of a grass roots and politically active public figure (who was also openly gay) while the "fictional" work revolved around the life of Harvey Milk, his struggles in gaining power in San Francisco and the gay movement in The Castro in the 70s.
These films both shared a lot of content, the fictional film even replicating the exact news footage used in the documentary (with Sean Penn in the place of Milk, of course). This gave Van Sant's "fictional" movie a realistic quality that almost superceded that of the documentary version for me. The concluding sequence of Milk, the candlelight vigil, brought tears to my eyes in the way the documenatary almost did, but failed. I think this is because the fictional version let audiences identify and root for the person of Harvey Milk, not just his issues.
The biggest differences between the two films were the treatments of Milk's early career and the fight against Prop. 6. The documentary glossed over Milk's first 3 political defeats and instead focused on the policies he pursued while in office. I think Van Sant's version was more effective because we got to go along for the ride with Harvey as he learned how to play the political game and took something from every loss - every setback. We got to see the effects each campaign had on his personal life (endearing the audience to the character) and on the Castro gay movement as well. The fight against Prop. 6 was also handled more effectively in the fictional version, creating Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs as evil enemies of human rights and even reason. Their defeat (and Milk's subsequent triumph) made me want to stand up and cheer.
Overall, I thought both works were powerful and well-executed, but I found myself uncharacteristicly enjoying a work of fiction over a non-fictional journalistic ouvre. The sense of identification Van Sant created between the audience and Harvey Milk's movement coupled with the deeper look at Milk's personal life left me feeling as if the "fictional" film was more real than the REAL documentary.


  1. I will agree that the documentary did seem to garner less empathy with Milk than did the fictional film; however, we need to remember that the documentary may had had an agenda. To be overly critical the title of the documentary was The Times of Harvey Milk not The Life and Death of Harvey Milk. I think the documentary's goal was inform the viewer of the movement so to speak and maybe to so far as to say: to act with Harvey Milk.
    But, nevertheless, you bring up an excellent point. Why exactly does the fictional film seem have more impact than the documentary for this particular case? (I will have to admit, I teared up also while watching MILK).
    There are several possible answers to this seemingly surprising thought:
    First, fictional films are geared towards the audience appeal, their emotion. Even Walter Murch lists emotion as the highest tenant in deciding where,which, what to cut. If there's something Van Sant can use in service to that goal, he's on it. Secondly, fictional film "cheats," it shows things that couldn't be found in the spirit of actuality within a documentary. For example, the scene of White shooting Milk. But then again, if the documentary had the chance to show actual footage of that, would they? A third reason, the film personalizes Harvey Milk so that we identify with him. We feel so empathetic towards his character, so much so that it kills us when we see his death even though we already know its coming. The fictional film I feel makes more of a character out of Harvey Milk than the documentary. Additionally, I propose a question: In which film (the documentary or fictional film) did we see the main character the most, the one who brought it all together? But, again, I do think the documentary was trying to widen its scope of the movement and changes of which Harvey Milk helped along, not necessarily dwelling on the personal and tragic aspects of his life.
    I would like to note that I thought it was a good device to start each film with the announcement of Harvey Milk's death. This way the viewer is less concerned with "what's next" and more concerned with "how did it all play out?" I felt it served its purpose very well at allowing the viewer to step back a little and think more actively about what he did rather than sulking on the last "out-of-the-blue" moments of the film.

  2. Darn, third place!

    I agree with the points above.
    The efficacy of the narrative film is all due to the fact that we get to experience Harvey's life and struggles on a personal level in a way that truthfully it would be hard for any documentary to do.

    That said, the documentary provides information and context about Harvey's political career and life in San Francisco at the time. I also found it interesting that the documentary discussed Harvey's early life growing up, being educated, and spending time in the Navy. These parts of his lie were totally ignored in the fiction film. I also liked hearing about Dan White's trial and its aftermath, which had to be left out of Van Sant's film lest they overshadow Milk's death.

    I would recommend these films be watched as a double feature with the narrative first. I think that if people watch the fiction film first they will get to know and love Harvey, going on his journey and wondering how it will come to the inevitable tragedy. Watching the doc afterwards will then provide the larger context and also show the aftermath, which I was very curious about at the end of Van Sant's film. Viewed the other way around, I think it would be harder to be caught up in the narrative because you already know the details of his successes, making the all feel anticlimactic.

    That's just me though.

  3. I definitely agree with you Jonathan about seeing the fictional film before the documentary, which seems like it should always be the other way around. However, Sean Penn just did such an amazing job in Milk that it made me so connected to the character. At the end of The Times of Harvey Milk I couldn't stop crying. I already felt like I knew him so much as a friend.

    I do wish there was more information about his NAVY experience in the documentary. I was curious how he decided to go that route and how did he deal with his homosexuality in a don't ask don't tell situation. I would have also liked to know more about his parents and extended family (which I think there's an extra feature on his nephew). After seeing MILK, I was excited to see the actual people physically involved with Harvey Milk. Not only to see if the actors looked like the real people, but it seemed like Harvey's "James Franco" was a big part of his life and experienced much of Harvey's life to tell about it. A little disappointing on that end, but overall a great movie, with some amazing found footage.

  4. A part of this story that could deserve its own documentary is the story of Dan White. I feel like his story is even more of an American tragedy. Was he just a product of his enviroment? The feature film exposed him a little more than the documentary but that was mostly thanks to the gripping performance by Josh Brolin. These two films made me interested in 4 things about Mr. White.

    1. How much did his wife know about his depression? These interviews we see with her are retrospective and asking about the murder itself. She does talk about the stress, but what would lead him to this. Did he talk about Milk a lot in the house? Was he obsessed with Harvey and his story? I wonder what was happening inside the house. This could help all of us have a better grip around why he would go the City Hall with a gun.

    2. We all know his about his resignation. But two days later he decides to come back? This needs to be fully explained. Was be bribed? Was he put at gunpoint, figuratively speaking? It just seems like it would have been an easier decision for him to go back to being a firefighter and living the life of a courageous American. What pushed him professionally to this outcome?

    3. The one question that no one wants to ask is, would Harvey Milk's story be known as well if Dan hadn't assasinated him in the way he did? I think Harvey's story is a good example of someone or something that has been forever etched in American history because of the killing. He would have been known as a great man, but the story would not be as compelling. For this reason it makes me believe that sooner or later Harvey would have been in someones gunsight.

    4. I need to know more about his hair. Half joking, half serious.

  5. i really like that you brought up Dan White. Harvey Milk was obviously a dynamic and charismatic man, but how Dan White went from home-grown fireman to murderer is a story that seriously deserves it's own documentary, if only so that we are able to understand him a little more.

    Showing the movies as a double feature would kick ass. The documentary is invaluable as far as the interviews with people who knew and loved Harvey and the pictures and footage of him. But Van Sant's film was just incredible. The documentary caused me to respect Milk, the film made me love him. While the documentary gives a great overview of Milk as a politician, the film demands that the viewer sees him much more in-depth and gives more importance to the people with which he surrounds himself. This allows us to "get to know" the fictional Milk better by letting us see with whom he interacts and how.

    Also, i really like the man at the discussion part of the evening who brought up the differences in the times that each film was made. He made a point that at the time that the documentary was made, it would have been less socially acceptable to include substantial information about Milk's personal relationships, a hurdle with which the newer film didn't have to deal. That, to me, put the documentary into a better perspective and I think the creators did a bang-up job of documenting (and propagating) Milk's legacy.

    note: "bang-up" job may be insensitive terminology. but they did.

  6. I was thoroughly moved and impressed by both Milk and The Times of Harvey Milk. I believe one reason I found Milk to be so effective is that it did draw on the documentary, as well as documentary characteristics. As was said above, the recreating of stock footage of Harvey and his many defeats/triumphs was flawless from the body language down to the shoelaces. I believe, especially after seeing the documentary, that this tactic kept reminding the audience that the film they are watching is based on a true story, more so than just stating it in a title card at the beginning of the film. By recreating news footage, the audience may get lost in the story, but the filmmakers never let them forget that what they are seeing actually happened, which also makes the characters more personal and accessible.

    What I felt made it feel even more real, however, aside from the recreated footage, was the fact that a main driving point of the narrative was Harvey Milk's words. The film is presented around Harvey's recorded documentation of what he, personally, went through. This takes the interview approach of a documentary, employing it as a way to talk to Harvey and get his take on everything that happened to him, The Castro, San Francisco, and Gay people across the nation. By basing the narrative film on his last testament, the audience gets to know Milk on a more personal lesson, accompanied with the scenes of his personal life, and learns to admire, respect, and love him as a real person, not just a fictional character.

    I saw the documentary after I saw Milk and had already learned to love this person that I had never met or even heard of before, which I believe is a testament to the narrative film's achievement. While watching The Times of Harvey Milk after watching Milk, it was moving to see how closely the actors represented the real people, which cemented these characters as real human beings and, I found, was even more moving to me. I think people should see both films, not just because they are exquisitely made, but because once the characters in the films become real to them, the issues that for which they lived, fought, and even died will become real and pressing as well.