Epic Moments: ‘Milk,’ ‘Australia,’ ‘Wendy and Lucy’

Epic Moments: ‘Milk,’ ‘Australia,’ ‘Wendy and Lucy’

Epic Moments: ‘Milk,’ ‘Australia,’ ‘Wendy and Lucy’

Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy.


Phil Bray/Focus FeaturesSean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk

Although it comes into theaters as “a Gus Van Sant film,” Milk might be seen as the work not of one person but of tens of thousands. The director, however prominent, would count only among the most recent, along with Sean Penn, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and the rest of the present team. Standing behind that group would be Rob Epstein and his crew, who unknowingly contributed to this project by making the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, while farther back in the crowd you’d find the throngs in San Francisco who gave their moral and material support to the title character (and so to the present movie) by flooding into the voting booths and the streets. If you wanted to compile an accurate production history, I suppose you’d have to look still deeper into the past, before Harvey Milk had thought about political office or even moved to California. Start with the gays of his generation who endured routine harassment, humiliation and arrest, and with the Stonewall Inn rioters who rose in revolt.

In fact, Van Sant begins Milk with that very generation. He evokes their lives in a documentary montage of police raids on bygone bars: archival footage full of sudden harsh light, averted faces, tightly packed police wagons and the very occasional defiant glare. This sequence, playing under the opening credits, is the first of the film’s many declarations that Milk is about a movement, not a man–despite the one-character title, the auteurist credit line and the Oscar-friendly star performance.

Narrated in voiceover by its lightly fictionalized protagonist, who in a frame sequence records his political testament on the eve of his assassination, Milk seems less like a biopic than a fast-moving course in community organizing. You learn little about Harvey Milk’s life before age 40 (as if he’d sprung into being fully formed in 1970, in the wake of Stonewall); but there’s plenty of information about consumer boycotts, citizen patrols, leafleting, redistricting, choosing strategic issues and negotiating quid pro quos. These topics play out in scenes that usually bustle with multiple characters–five or six in Milk’s camera shop/political headquarters, hundreds at debates and meetings, thousands at demonstrations–but that are also models of narrative efficiency, since the screenplay never introduces a plot point without following it immediately with another. Has Harvey just been told that his speeches are grim and off-putting? Then at once he’s walking along a darkened street, feeling endangered, only to reach home and find an important new ally waiting for him. Has Harvey just received the first newspaper endorsement of his career? Then at once a sweet, lost young man stumbles by–just his type!–and becomes the new love of his life.

Milk does have its moments of domestic intimacy between Harvey and his poor, doomed lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna), just as there are two-character scenes featuring Harvey’s earlier and much stronger partner Scott Smith (James Franco, who is smashing in 1970s Brillo hair and skintight jeans). But it’s remarkable how the film mutes even the most terrible personal crises in Harvey’s life–this, for a man who adored opera and is repeatedly linked in the film with Tosca–or else registers them and then quickly passes on to the next ballot initiative. The intention, perhaps, is to suggest how Harvey, like Tosca herself, would coolly and consistently master his feelings in the necessary service of projecting an image, whether by getting a haircut and putting on a cheap suit (so as not to alarm the straights) or by ignoring a death threat that had just been placed in his hands (so as to get up before an audience and rally their spirits). “Politics is theater,” Harvey advises Scott early in the film; later he demonstrates the same principle to his aide Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) by dancing up the grand staircase at City Hall. In most good stories about the theater, though, the private life contradicts the public role; whereas in Milk, the backstage Harvey is never less than the character he plays before the world–brave, witty, dedicated, genial and honest. Is the result hagiographic? No. Monochromatic? A little.

While admiring the sweep, the heart and the humility of Milk, I strain to think of moments I can recommend to you for their color and intensity–the exceptions being the scenes between Harvey and his assassin, fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White. Here the self-assurance, thoughtfulness and nuance of Sean Penn’s beautiful performance come into alarming conflict with Josh Brolin’s conception of White as a case history in Reichian body-armoring, whose increasingly febrile eyes stare out at the world from atop a muscled fortress that is starting to crack. It may seem perverse, but the most compelling exchanges in Milk take place in these scenes with the future killer–which stand apart in their actorly bravura–while the most thrilling moviemaking takes place in the assassination sequence, the one section that looks and feels like “a Gus Van Sant film.”

Am I saying that Van Sant should have cut away the politics and made a tone poem about Milk, the way he did about Kurt Cobain in Last Days? God forbid. But moviegoers who are thinking about buying a ticket for Milk–I hope there will be many–ought to know that the film (like the man) depends for its effect not just on inner resources but on the external strength of a movement.

Or perhaps two movements. By an unhappy coincidence, a film that has much to say about California’s antigay Proposition 6 of 1978 (which was defeated, thanks in large measure to Harvey Milk’s labors) has been released just after the passage of California’s antigay Proposition 8. Milk draws urgency from this unwanted demonstration that gay politics, after all this time, still has its work cut out for it. But the film draws urgency as well from a happier electoral coincidence. Here is the story of a successful community organizer–the first member of his social group to rise to a certain office–who continually tells his supporters that they are the true source of change, and whose final words in the film are, “You gotta give ’em hope. You gotta give ’em hope. You gotta give ’em hope.”

Think of the audacity.

Having long been fascinated by films that imitate the eclectic, historicizing grandeur of World’s Fairs, or that at least aspire to be national pavilions in celluloid form, I am almost honor-bound to love Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. After an absence of almost seven years, the master of Moulin Rouge! has returned to the screen with a movie that wants to be the pride of its continent and is big enough to give it a good shot. The filming was done all over the country: from a sound stage in Sydney to spectacular locations in the east, north and west. The cast is a roster of Australian film icons, present and past: Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in the leads, supported by David Wenham (The Boys), Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant), Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant) and David Gulpilil (Walkabout). As for the story, it’s a romantic adventure about cattle ranching in the outback, combined with a World War II drama, combined with a social issues picture about the treatment of aboriginal people, combined with a musical (of course–this is a Baz Luhrmann film). There are kangaroos and crocodiles, dream songs and Mars-colored rock formations, deserts, oceans, boom towns, trail camps and aching desire under a night sky sparkling with stars.

Or, to make a different accounting, there are stock characters, clichéd situations, standard-issue plot elements and much sentimental ballyhoo. About the only thing you don’t get in Australia is irony. Luhrmann may have patched together a national epic out of his memories of old mediocre movies, but they’re memories he cherishes, and he wants to make them glorious for you.

So here is a bright-blond Kidman, striding about like a well-tailored race-walker and emitting alarmed hoots as she takes on the role of Lady Sarah Ashley, an Englishwoman come to 1930s Australia to take charge of her long-absent husband’s cattle ranch. No sooner has she disembarked at Darwin than she is thrown with leaden jocularity into the hands of Jackman, an outback Hercules so plain-spoken, independent, brawling and sweaty that he is known simply as The Drover. With much ill will and many double entendres, The Drover conveys Lady Sarah to her remote and desolate ranch house, where she finds nothing that would make her want to stay in Australia–nothing, that is, except Nullah (Brandon Walters), the mixed-race boy who narrates this tale with mystical and poetic flourishes, serves as the genius loci and quickly becomes Lady Sarah’s surrogate son.

Between its forced humor and equally forced splendor–the popping eyeballs and the pixilated flyover shots–this exposition is not a very promising start for Australia, and not a brief one, either. What ensues, however, is another matter. Luhrmann delivers the best cattle drive I’ve seen in ages, with the most thrilling stampede; the hungriest initial kiss, in the most joyfully drenching downpour; the scariest aerial bombardment; the most shamelessly touching harmonica rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” The script doesn’t do much to hold these moments together, given that the writers (Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan) are so ill matched that they could be candidates for a walked-into-a-bar joke. But then, Australia doesn’t pretend to offer depth or coherence, intellectual or otherwise. It trades in the stuff of the movies, with close-up after close-up of Kidman glowing in the lamps of cinematographer Mandy Walker; sweeping shots of Jackman galloping across the screen at the head of a thundering herd, to the accompaniment of a triumphant brass chorus; even a fox trot through the blazing colors of an outdoor ball held under paper lanterns, with chinoiserie dresses to match.

The score, by David Hirschfelder, makes liberal use of “Sheep May Safely Graze” to evoke the joys of a cattle ranch, so I guess the film isn’t entirely without irony. But did I love it? Almost.

Toward the end of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, a security guard at a Walgreens presses $6 worth of kindness into the hand of the main character, a young woman stranded in a small city in Oregon. By this point in the film, you know how much money is left in the woman’s pocket (a couple hundred), how much it would cost to fix her broken-down Honda (thousands), how far she needs to travel to get that cannery job she wants in Alaska (too far) and how much help she can expect from her family back in Fort Wayne (none). The six bucks aren’t going to be much help, either. But the elderly guard is the closest thing to a friend that the woman has in this town, and the shot of the money, lying in her hand in the crisp early morning light, is so vivid that you can almost feel the moisture of the crumpled bills.

As in her previous feature, Old Joy, Reichardt advances a subtle, observational style of realism in Wendy and Lucy, keeping the lead performance by Michelle Williams restrained and inward, lingering on immaculately composed views of side streets or railyards, concentrating the action on a single problem. (Will Wendy find her missing dog?) Given the slight sentimentality of the screenplay (co-written with Jon Raymond), which underscores the hapless victimhood of Wendy and the callous piety of the people around her, I might describe the film as a contemporary American Bicycle Thief, if it had a bicycle or a thief. What it does have, in ample measure, is a clear eye, a patient heart and a much-needed respect for material facts. Wendy and Lucy will open on December 10 in New York at Film Forum, where it will shine in quiet valor among the season’s bigger, dimmer pictures.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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