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Is Film Distributor Pouring ’Milk’ Down the Drain?

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Oct 28, 2008
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Focus Features, the film company that released Ang Lee’s 2005 gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain, has another major gay-themed film set to open next month... but it’s holding back on publicity.

Reuters posted an Oct. 28 article on the seemingly odd choice to keep the new Gus Van Sant movie, a biopic starring Sean Penn as an openly gay San Francisco politician murdered in his office at City Hall, quiet in the weeks leading up to its release.

The name of the film: Milk, titled after San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, whose slaying evoked outrage and made a gay martyr out of the man.

The movie had been kept out of film festivals and the studio hasn’t had many media screenings. Both are a means to publicity that the studio would just as soon avoid at this stage Reuters reported.

The question is why. As it turns out, the studio may have learned a thing or two about the intense buzz, both positive and negative, that the gay romance of Brokeback Mountain generated, and the Oscar snub that followed.

Brokeback Mountain was drubbed by social conservatives as a queering of The Marlboro Man; indeed, the outrage was that one of the last icons of American manhood, the romantic, macho myth of the cowboy, was somehow being despoiled by showing two itinerant sheep herders and ranch hands falling in love during a summer spent in a remote mountain location in Wyoming, and then living with the pain and complications of separation and heterosexual marriages for two decades.

The movie went on to win over audiences nationwide, but it was hard going: some theater owners were reluctant to show the film at all.

The soft and silent approach in the case of Milk may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to the cultural criticisms received by Brokeback, but it might also be a wiser movie than trumpeting the film based on the sexuality of its main character, or the folk hero status that Harvey Milk has attained among the GLBT community in the decades since his murder in 1978.

The Reuters story quoted an unnamed source, who said, "The best way to help this film win over a mainstream audience is to avoid partisanship, and the best way to avoid partisanship is to let people find out about the film from the film itself."

In an election year, it’s hard to avoid partisanship: everything seems tinted with tinges of red or blue when the race is on for the White House, and indeed, given the political volatility of any subject having to do with gays and lesbians, it might not be a bad idea for the studio to keep the buzz surrounding Milk to an absolute minimum.

Perhaps in part because of its impossible-to-avoid political overtones, Milk will not be put into wide release until Election Day has safely passed. The Reuters article observed that the film is in large part about the struggle against a California ballot initiative called Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative.

The measure was sponsored by conservative Orange County politician John Briggs, and targeted gay and lesbian schoolteachers. If Proposition 6 had passed, it would have outlawed openly gay teachers in public schools, and provided for the firing of any teacher expressing sympathy for gays and gay equality.

The Reuters article pointed out that thirty years later, an even more bruising and intrusive ballot initiative is set to appear before California voters: Proposition 8, if approved by voters, will write rewrite the California constitution and revoke the existing right of gay and lesbian families to marry.

California may be enduring the most expensive and heated battle over gay marriage equality to unfold so far, but it is not the only state in this election year to put such a constitutional amendment targeting gays to the popular vote: anti-marriage measures in Arizona and Florida are also set to appear on the ballots.

But when it comes to cultural matters such as movies, not all partisanship is a matter of Democrat versus Republican: as the presence of anti-gay ballot initiatives in three states shows, it’s hard to get the mainstream to care much about gays and lesbians as individuals, families, or citizens, and the Reuters article noted that it’s similarly hard to convince most ticket buyers to head to the Cineplex to see a film about a gay icon on the vanguard of GLBT equality.

Though there are plenty of small-time, high quality films of interest to GLBT viewers, those movies tend not to be big-budget productions or turn huge profits: for every prestigious, if controversial Brokeback Mountain, there are half a dozen more modest films along the lines of Longtime Companion, a moderately budgeted 1990 film that was regarded, in its day, as a major breakthrough because of its sympathetic storyline: the film dealt with AIDS and a group of gay friends.

One aspect of Milk that may work in its favor is the fact that Harvey Milk was murdered by a former colleague from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, shot to death in his office by Dan White, a Republican, just after White had murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected in the state of California, has since come to be regarded as a martyr to the cause of GLBT equality.

The Reuters article quoted the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Neil Giuliano, who said that, "this movie is about a beloved politician who was killed, [so] it won’t be easy for our adversaries to fight us on it."

White’s defense--that he was temporarily deranged in part due to a diet of junk food--led to what is still disparagingly called "the Twinkie defense," but it did succeed in seeing White’s conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter rather than murder.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

This article is part of our "Milk :: The Movie" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

Comments

  • AJ Victoria, 2008-11-17 11:20:13

    When is Milk opening in Boston?Anyone know? THANKS!


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