Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Gus Van Sant and the politics of gentrification, Harvey Milk style

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | January 10, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Castro, Dan Jinks, gay gentrification, Gus Van Sant, Harvey Milk, Harvey Milk movie, Keanu Reeves, my own Private Idaho

Long ago I actually liked Gus Van Sant’s movies. In high school, I got all excited about Drugstore Cowboy -- Kelly Lynch's swagger and Matt Dillon's eyebrows, sure -- but mostly that counterculture allure that'll never again be so tantalizing. Pills, yes, pills -- I wanted to float above myself and dream my way into drugstore heists too. I got especially excited when William Burroughs threw down a cameo as a junkie priest -- that was before I knew he'd killed his wife.

By the time My Own Private Idaho came out, with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, I’d graduated high school so I had a bit more critical engagement -- I refused to see it until years later, after I’d already turned my share of tricks -- of course I recognized the trick’s worldview in the depiction of the wayward boys, but it was a relatively benevolent glamorization, mostly it was just kind of silly. Elephant, which reenacted a Columbine-style high school massacre, jaded art fag style, was the movie that made me promise never again to see a Gus Van Sant movie. Right after the movie, a woman came up to me and said, “Who do you think shot the second guy, was it his friend or a third gun? It looked like he was shot from behind. That’s really intriguing.” Intriguing.

Sure, the lighting varied from scene to scene, focus faded in and out while time ran in circles, and if this sounds like a distant assessment when the movie was about murder, well that's how it was made -- to make you think: who cares. And: teenagers are so stupid! What scintillating cultural analysis.

But now I hear that Gus Van Sant is filming a biopic on the life of Harvey Milk, the gay world's Martin Luther King figure. Filming will take place in the legendary gay Castro district in San Francisco, former home to Milk's camera shop, from where he mounted a campaign to become the first openly gay elected official, a few years before getting gunned down by another member of the San Francisco city council (Board Of Supervisors).

Oh, but wait -- you'll love this -- Sean Penn will be playing Harvey Milk. That should be convincing.

But this is the best part, I really love this quote from Dan Jinks, one of the producers: "Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination."

Who the fuck is this moron? Revitalize the Castro, where you're lucky if you can rent a flat for under $4000, or buy property for under a million? Make it a major tourist destination? Everyone who's ever set foot in the Castro knows that it's filled with tourists from around the world, who else do you think buys rainbow flag toilet paper and sock puppet briefs, or whatever trinkets they're selling at those cheerful underwear boutiques?

Oh, I know what Jinks means -- straight tourists. Prepare for the next wave of gentrification...


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"Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination."

I hadn't heard that quote yet! How infuriating! The Castro is a huge tourist destination. I guess something is "revitalized" unless straight people come in droves.

And Sean Penn as Harvey Milk? Ugh.

Great post!

Wow. I've never been near San Francisco but I'm well aware of the Castro as a tourist destination. Duh.

Great to read your thoughts on his other films, too. I went to see Elephant with high hopes - hoping I'd see something I could relate to, given a (non-fatal, but ...) flame-thrower incident that happened when I was at school. But I wanted to see how people deal with these events, the aftermath, not just people being shot. So, it really put me off his films, as well. I saw Mala Noche back in August, though, and really enjoyed it.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 10, 2008 11:13 AM

I just saw Paranoid Park. While it was powerful and unforgetable in parts, it was way too self-conscious and reliant on the soundtrack. Had it been cut by one-third, it might have been brilliant.

It's nice that one of ours is so matter-of-factly accepted by the mainstream though, isn't it?

I totally agree about the idiocy of that producer's comment; I haven't seen later GVS but I have to disagree about "My Own Private Idado" being "kind of silly." I thought it was a very insightful portrait of the devasting heartbreak so many of us feel as gay adolescents (and beyond), when you love someone -- and worse, when they seem to love you back -- but you have no real means of expressing it. I'll never forget the scene at the campfire when Keanu Reaves says "I'll never love a guy," or something along those lines, which is really the beginning of an entire series of compromises he makes.

I kind of like the idea of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. My understanding is that Harvey wasn't a spectacularly looking guy who tended to be a little forceful. That would fit with Sean...

Brynn, oh no -- I would never call that progress! Progress would be if he was tearing up the norms of the Hollywood machine, or even better if he was destroying the institutions, but playing by their rules is hardly progress.

Bil, my issue with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk isn't necessarily whether he'll be a good actor, but the fact that here we have another straight star trying to broaden his reach and do something edgy by playing gay.

Thanks to everyone for your insights!

Prepare for the next wave of gentrification...

Matt, are you aware that California real estate is in the midst of one of its most debilitating economic slumps? Have you ever heard of such a thing as the "sub-prime mortgage crisis"? Do you have any idea what life might be like in the Castro if living there became undesirable, every one of those million-dollar buildings gets foreclosed, and has a "R.E.O. For Sale" sign on it?

Instead of badmouthing urban gentrification forces, I think you might give a bit of thought to the possibility that the absence of such forces could also render the Castro into block after block of uninhabitable, burnt-out, dilapidated apartment buildings --- imagine the Castro being the target of the Dresden bombings. Or, it might deteriorate into the highest crime-rate area of the country, such as happened to Bedford-Stuyvesant (a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NYC) during the 60's and 70's.

I am sorry that you cannot afford to buy the home of your dreams in the middle of the Castro --- but I have a friend in L.A. who is a Senior Vice President and Corporate General Counsel of a Fortune 500 company, makes an annual salary well into six digits, and he can't afford to buy in SF either. Nor can I. My heart bleeds for you.

San Francisco is arguably the most beautiful and coveted city in the world. Regarding its real estate, you are competing against the wealthiest of the wealthy throughout the world --- including the wealthiest from nations experiencing a wealth explosion such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, U.A.E.

There are worse fates for any American urban neighborhood than gentrification --- much worse.

AJ, you are hilarious! First of all, I have NO INTEREST in living in the Castro -- such a central spot in the midst of the nightmare of gay assimilation would surely drive me to more suicidal thoughts than I could handle...

Second, I'm all for the spectre/spectacle of white flight that you're invoking, although what on earth do you mean by: "imagine the Castro being the target of the Dresden bombings"? That's one of the wackiest sentences I've seen in a while...