Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Milk (2008)

WHO: Daniel Nicoletta was a historical consultant and still photographer for this film, performed in a cameo playing Harvey Milk's political aide Carl Carlson, and was portrayed as a young man by Lucas Grabeel (pictured above).

WHAT: You can nitpick its minor anachronisms or question some of the characterization and still find this Gus Van Sant-directed, multi-awarded biopic of San Francisco's first openly gay elected official to be a very moving film about a crucial moment in the city's, and ultimately the nation's and the world's,  movement toward freedom and equality. Sean Penn's performance as Harvey Milk is a career high, and one of the few recent Academy Award-winning impersonations of a historical figure that I think probably deserved all its accolades.

The decisions to shoot the film in San Francisco locations dressed to be as authentic as possible, and to fill the set with people who lived through the period depicted, available to help guide a younger generation of their own portrayers to verisimilitude, from the featured players down to the marching extras in mass protest scenes, may be foregone conclusions in retrospect, but they weren't the only approaches available to makers of films like Milk. And there's something very interesting about the kind of authenticity available and not available to filmmakers working this way. There's both a paradox and a beautiful expression of continuity that occurs when the audience sees a 25-year-old actor or extra in the same frame as the person he or she is portraying, who is now 55 years old and portraying an elder who may have inspired him or her at the time.

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre, with showtimes at 2:00, 4:30, 7:00 & 9:30.

WHY: Every year since Milk came out, the Castro has shown it on Harvey Milk Day, which commemorates the life of the activist who would have turned 83 today had he not been slain. Today the screening also comes just one day after the announcement of the 37th Frameline Festival, which will come to the Castro and other Frisco Bay venues June 20-30. 

As we see in MilkHarvey Milk's political career arose out of his experiences running a camera store just a block away from the Castro Theatre. This was one of the sets recreated in its original space for the film, and Jenni Olson's beautiful short 575 Castro St. documents that space in moments when it wasn't being utilized as a location for shooting, in a manner intended to remind us of the importance of this store as a hub not only of political activism but artistic expression. In fact the two activities were (and, I would argue, are) intertwined inseparably. Perhaps there's no better example of this than the historical fact that it was Milk's increasing involvement in politics that necessitated his hiring of Daniel Nicoletta at the store, to take on duties he was becoming too busy to handle himself. Nicoletta's presence at the store (depicted in the screenshot from Milk above), which was devoted to small-gauge motion picture processing as well as still photography, put him in the ideal place to help found the first-ever "Gay Film Festival of Super-8 Films" in 1977, an event that over the next few decades transformed into the Frameline festival we know today. As Olson writes, 
For its first few years the festival showcased the modest Super-8 imaginings of such prolific but obscure gay filmmakers as Jim Baker, Bern Boyle, Stephen Iadereste, Ric Mears, Allen McClain, Billy Miggins, T.K. Perkins, Wayne Smolen, David Waggoner, Ken Ward and Christine Wynne as well as festival founders Marc Huestis and Dan Nicoletta and Names Project founder Cleve Jones. Many of these films explored gay themes, but a good percentage of the work (like many other experimental films of the era) focused on simple light and motion studies.
If you haven't been keeping an eye on the Wikipedia page for the Frameline Film Festival, you might like to know that it has recently exploded with historical information, particularly from the festival's first ten years. The page also points out that Frameline has scanned and made available all of its past program guides in a handy archive. From this archive, I've learned more about Nicoletta's own filmmaking than anywhere else. Some of his films shown at the first few "Gay Film Festivals" include a film, which he described as "an autobiographic film about my destiny, my love of San Francisco and life here", or Theatrical Collage: "a collection of theatrical footage from over the years" and Dancing Is Illegal, which is described as "produced for the stage by the Angels of Light".

Reading about this early festival history is a good reminder of the seemingly-humble beginnings that can lay the groundwork for a cultural movement (and considering Frameline is the longest-running and highest-profile LGBT Film Festival in the country and perhaps anywhere, I don't think it's overreaching to use terms like "cultural movement"). In the late 1970s, Super-8 was the most inexpensive motion picture medium around, and thus ideal material for use by independent-minded artists, especially those whose work would likely be systematically be excluded from traditional structures of creation and exhibition. 

Today the equivalently inexpensive medium is digital. It's something to keep in mind after learning at the Frameline press conference this morning that this year is expected to be the first time the festival doesn't screen a single new film on a non-digital format. There will be two 35mm retrospective programs (a matinee of Jamie Babbit's 1999 But I'm a Cheerleader with her 1998 short Sleeping Beauties, and a Peaches Christ-hosted midnight showing of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddie's Revenge) but, it seems, no prints of new titles.  

This may be an end of an era of a sort, but it's not at all unexpected. The ratio of film-to-digital presentations has been steeply declining at practically every festival I know of in the past few years. Last year I believe Frameline screened no more than a dozen films on film, and a good third of those were retrospectives. The good news is that higher-quality digital presentations are becoming more and more affordable for independent makers, so while those of us who take special pleasure in the illusionary intermittence of film projection may mourn the increasing scarcity of opportunities to watch it, at least we may be able to enjoy digital screenings more than we have in the past. I hope so, as there are quite a few new works at Frameline 37 that seem quite promising, including a ten-program regional focus entitled Queer Asian Cinema, and a new documentary on the great Frisco Bay poet and filmmaker James Broughton, appropriately entitled Big Joy after the kinds of feelings most of his experimental films can instill in an attentive audience. Perhaps another local venue will use this new doc as an excuse to rent 16mm prints of some of his films from Canyon Cinema and showcase them during or shortly after the festival.

HOW: Milk will screen as a DCP.


  1. Brian: I love your phrase "illusionary intermittence."I am going to use it the next time someone bugs me about why I make such a big deal about the difference between film and digital.

  2. Please do! Maybe it'll catch on.