Film: Gus Van Sant: Milk (2008)

It’s obvious – now; finally – that Gus Van Sant is utterly adrift.  He has plain ears, terrible casting judgment, no discernible visual style, and an untenable idealistic streak which he’s been gracious enough to hide in the closet in near-masterpieces like Elephant and Psycho. For the last decade, scattered among the worthy tearfests he’s made for cash, he’s been squandering his personal dignity on projects that should excite college students and Upper West Siders only, although he’s managed to wile his way into (the pants, probably, of) stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s little brother in order to make the bloated, guileless, malignantly self-indulgent Gerry, the most inspired deployment of celluloid and dolly track since whatever NYU student film crew last descended on Union Square.

At least in Last Days, Van Sant showed the tact to include an enlightening non-sequitur of a gay sex scene; another extended take of Michael Pitt wailing like a lovelorn hipster and even the Billyburgers might have walked out.  Van Sant would self-improve to take a master class from Christopher Nolan or Spielberg: nothing but walls and the paint that dries upon them is static, and locking down your point of view for really, really long minutes on end does nothing to illuminate the wondrous miracle of life.  Curiously, he even seems to have ignored or forgotten the moral of his own tales: wasn’t the lesson of Good Will Hunting to follow your heart, live your dream, aspire to your potential as a complete person?  Or just to climb (heterosexually) into bed with Minnie Driver?  Does not the Last Days non-sequitur start to look like a cry for help?

However confused he may be both as a sexual being and a cinematic craftsman, with Milk he’s retreated into the comfort of his own lazy whimsy.  The film is regressive in all ways: it’s visually muddy, as though the film has been sitting in a vault for thirty years (first order of business: jettison the glaucomatic Harris Savides once and for all), the minimalist soundtrack begs for a Ben Burtt or a Leslie Shatz, or frankly anyone with a modicum of ProTools experience (those NYU kids will work for college credits), and Van Sant has finally given up on casting altogether, snagging anyone with a recent Oscar and that actor’s troupe.  The consummate achievement of Sean Penn’s prissy, precious performance as Harvey Milk is that it makes you yearn for his Shakespearean days of yore, loftying it up for Eastwood and Iñárritu.  Weighed down under the heavy, muting blanket of Van Sant’s deadening thumb, spending much of the film whispering into a microphone and the rest bucking and heaving to self-express, Penn embodies the tone-deaf solemnity that Van Sant employs whenever he’s dramatically lost – in a pinch, Van Sant seems to feel that grandeur, ladies and gentlemen, has no business on the big screen, unless you can embezzle it directly from Hitchcock.

But all these problems are insubstantial next to the crowning dilemma of a film like Milk: that it is by nature regressive, a homily for a failed 40-year-old grassroots agenda for social change, invalidated as recently as this past November by the great state of California.  That self-destructive idealism that Van Sant so gallantly represses, when he can, is on full fantastic display here, crooning off-key for a time when sexual deviants could infiltrate and upend the civic status quo and get away with it.  Idealism is perhaps the wrong word; something closer to hopeless self-delusionism would be a better fit, a subconscious need to imprison oneself in one’s own fantasy universe where the laws of social gravity don’t apply, a happy place where cold, hard naturalism trounces submission to the awe of life’s real beauties.

Looking back over this review, it’s clear that Gus Van Sant is essentially a victim of self.  He is trapped in a closed world where the sharp edges and slippery surfaces of culture and drama can’t touch him, and he is enamored of this place.  He refuses to strive or stretch, to commit to bolder expressive tactics that might better serve him both commercially and artistically.  So long as Van Sant treats art as a monocular output of idiosyncrasy, he will be alone in the wilderness of human connectivity, unable to function as a contributor to the inspirational wellbeing of the masses, as a cog of the grand social mechanism.  In the meantime, we await his Finding Van Sant.

For suspicions of bad taste, homophobia, and sincerity, please see this post.

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