It seems that everyone from current politicians to friends and lovers of Harvey Milk is clambering to serve as a spokesperson for the new Milk movie.
Cleve Jones, one of the founders of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the founder of the NAMES Project (which oversees the AIDS Memorial Quilt), now serves as a consultant for the Van Sant film. Presumably he is one of the few Milk movie boosters on the Van Sant payroll, which allows him to create such preposterous quotes as "Just moments before the cameras went on, the clouds parted, the sun shone through and an enormous rainbow peered through above us." Or, even better, describing a re-creation of the candlelight march after Milk's murder, "We made history on the streets and we're gonna do it again tonight."
Visitors to San Francisco can perhaps be excused for seeing throngs of people marching down Market Street in the middle of the night as an upsurge in local activism. But remaking historical moments from pain-and-glory days of the past is hardly the same thing as making history in the present.
San Francisco in 2008 is no longer the city it was in the 1970s, when queers fled abusive and horrifying and stifling families and places of origin to move to San Francisco in the thousands and join dissident subcultures of splendor and defiance. Of course, queers still flee those abusive and horrifying and stifling families and places of origin, it's just that the hyper-gentrified San Francisco of 2008 barely offers the space to breathe, let alone dream.
But there is even more violence in the excitement around reenactment over critical engagement. After all, it's the smiling gay men who came to San Francisco in the 1970s who have consistently fought misogynist, racist, classist, ageist battles -- from carding policies to policing practices to zoning battles -- to ensure that their neighborhood (Harvey Milk's Castro) remain a home only for the rich, white, and male (or at least those who assimilate to white, middle-class norms). This is the tragedy that will surely not be explored in the Gus Van Sant "biopic." In fact, with all of the rhetoric around "revitalizing the neighborhood" and bringing more tourists -- throngs of straight people with cameras and real estate speculators -- it's quite possible that these smiling gays will become active participants in their own cultural erasure.
After Dan White, who'd confessed to the murder of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, rioting queers torched police cars, battled cops, and smashed the windows of City Hall. One wonders how this will be covered in the movie, but, more importantly, there's plenty to protest about today. Got housing? Got health care? Got citizenship? Nope, we're just getting milked.
Even more disturbing than the pro-gentrification/pro-development hoopla around the Gus Van Sant Harvey Milk "biopic" is the sight of queer, non-mainstream and counterculture-affiliated San Franciscans, some of them even present in the 1970s, rushing to don '70s realness drag and carry candles while guarded by a police escort. The rhetoric goes that this time in history will finally be memorialized for the general public. Kind of like Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, I guess.
But wait -- The Times of Harvey Milk, a 1984 documentary, already won an Oscar. But no one can revitalize history like a gay "indie" director with a death fetish. "NO Garish bright colors such as BRIGHT white or red, or 'Wacky' disco-themed '70s 'Halloween Costumes,'" ends the list of wardrobe selections for the new movie. That's right -- no one in the 1970s wore garish bright colors or "wacky" outfits.
Another thing to remember is that, after the White Night Riots, vengeful cops went to the Castro and smashed the windows of a local bar, The Elephant Walk (now Harvey's), entered the bar to beat up patrons and destroy fixtures, and swung their batons into anyone in the Castro unlucky enough to be outside. The 1984 documentary shows great footage of police cars in flames, but includes no mention of the resulting police violence. I'm wondering, actually, if the new Van Sant film will end at the candlelight march, thus avoiding talk about such market-unfriendly issues as property destruction as a political act or systemic police violence against queers. After all, straight tourists don't like to hear about gay people fighting back!
Unfortunately, San Francisco in 2008 is more of a playground for the wealthy than a space for the delirious potential of dissidence. But there are still tons of police cars around, just waiting to be illuminated...
Mattilda blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com.