Monday, February 16, 2009

Down with Anita Bryant!

I saw Milk with some friends yesterday, and enjoyed it. A good film, with some interesting stylistic touches -- the grainy documentary-style scenes spliced in, which have been much discussed, for example, but also the occasional freeze-framing as photographs when Harvey is taking pictures, or the extreme closeups. It certainly falls in the same Oscar classification as Frost/Nixon, a political history-based film with a brilliant central performance and an equally brilliant supporting cast. I think I'd personally rank Frank Langella's performance above Sean Penn's, but the characters are like apples and oranges. Milk's earnest conviction and Nixon's explosiveness have little in common except for a very weird sense of playfulness.

One plot thread I found quite interesting as an opera buff was the use of opera throughout the film, in the soundtrack and also when Harvey goes to the opera (in company with famed Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao, no less!). Though there's some other opera, the main one used is Puccini's Tosca, a highly political, melodramatic opera in which the Italian artist and political radical Cavaradossi is tortured and executed, while his opera-singer lover Floria Tosca tries to save him from the evil Scarpia. It's not an exact parallel by any means, though the film is just gritty enough that I suppose the melodrama of the opera might stand as a counterpoint. The symbolism that I think Gus Van Sant was trying to leverage, with minimal success, was the idea that Harvey vocalizes of opera as the expression of larger than life emotions, something that one of his young political operatives mocks. If Milk was supposed to evoke that feeling, it came closest not in the scenes of political wheeling and dealing, or even the frenzy of activism, but in the touching candlelight march after Milk's death in which the blurred lights went on for miles. Maybe I ought to have felt it in some of the scenes of Harvey telling his life story to a tape recorder, but I'm afraid I didn't.

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