Gus Van Sant

Milk (2008)

Milk (2008)

  • Born: 1952
  • Rank: 93
  • Score: 488.35
  • Awards: BSFC / NSFC
  • Nominations: 2 Oscars / 2 DGA
  • Feature Films: 12
  • Best: Milk
  • Worst: Last Days

Top 5 Films

  1. Milk – 2008
  2. Good Will Hunting – 1997
  3. To Die For – 1995
  4. Drugstore Cowboy – 1989
  5. Paranoid Park – 2007

Top 10 Director finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1989 – 1oth – Drugstore Cowboy
  • 1995 – 9th – To Die For
  • 1997 – 9th – Good Will Hunting
  • 2008 – 3rd – Milk

I have an affinity for Gus because I lived in Portland for 13 years. On the other hand, Gus also drives me nuts. He had finally started doing great films (To Die For / Good Will Hunting), even if they were more mainstream Hollywood, but then he did another even more mainstream film (Finding Forrester), which wasn’t very good, then went into his experimental phase.

This phase, which many people widely admire involved films with very low budgets, often shot on video and shot with a lot of non-professional actors. I can’t stand any of them. I understand that many people have very good things to say about Gerry, Last Days and especially Elephant, but I felt they were all films that were lacking in depth. I didn’t mind the amateur actors. I minded the story (or lack there of). I minded the meandering. It’s not a coincidence that his next film, while still displaying a lot of traits of the previous three, had a much better story, and I liked it a lot more.

In some ways, Milk is a return to his roots. He started out directing small films that were often about characters who were gay and he got maximum performances out of his actors. It would be 16 years before Matt Dillon would give another performance like he did in Drugstore Cowboy, he got the best performance River Phoenix ever gave and he even got a respectable performance from Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho.

side-note: It was weird to go back years later and see My Own Private Idaho and realize that the scene where Keanu rejects his mentor was actually filmed in my favorite restaurant in Portland: Jake’s.

Milk – #2 film of 2008

I read The Mayor of Castro Street when I was a freshman in college. I had read And the Band Played On the year before and it had an incredible impact on me. The shadow of Harvey Milk lies over the early parts of Band and Randy Shilts had written both books, so it seemed natural to move to the other book. I knew that Gus was the right person to direct this film and he didn’t disappoint me.

When I first watched the film in the theater, at the end, most of the theater started applauding. I was actually incapable of applauding at the time as I was too busy crying. It wasn’t the actual death scene. It was the shot after he has died. Scott Smith and Anne Kronenberg go to the memorial service at City Hall and see it almost completely deserted and walk out. As they come out, their faces are illuminated and they look up and they realize that the service was deserted because tens of thousands of people are marching to City Hall from the Castro, with only candles to light their way. Dustin Lance Black wrote a magnificent script with a great framing device, Sean Penn gave the performance of a lifetime (which is saying a lot for someone of his extraordinary talent) and everyone in the film was amazing, but that moment, the look on the actors faces, combined with the parade (interspersed with archival shots of the actual parade), then going back to the looks on the faces, well that was pure Gus. And that was the moment where I couldn’t take it anymore.

History moves forward. It always moves forward. Racism and slavery are deeply imbeded in our country’s history, but in reviews of Rachel Getting Married, you’ll hardly see a mention of the interracial marriage. Comic books were burned and banned in the fifties as immoral filth that corrupting our youth, and Heath Ledger wins an Oscar for being the villain in a comic book film. History can not be undone. It can not be halted by those who would seek to keep others down. This too will pass. I live in the first state to grant gays the right to legally marry. My state is on the correct side of history. And we will all move forward. And Harvey Milk knew that. He knew that day would come.

How can I say that? Harvey died when I was four years old. But I’ve read what he wrote, heard what he said. “Life, without hope, is not worth living. You’ve got to give them hope. You’ve got to give them hope.” The film ends with those words. And we must all have hope as we move forward. Because history has shown that it will move forward.