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DISPATCH FROM SF | Timely and Provocative, Van Sant’s “Milk” Stirs Californians at the Castro

DISPATCH FROM SF | Timely and Provocative, Van Sant's "Milk" Stirs Californians at the Castro

In a scene reminiscient of numerous moments from Gus Van Sant‘s new film, “Milk,” guests arrived at the Castro Theater last night in San Francisco to the sights and sounds of a boisterous demonstration in front of the landmark venue. “Unfair! And wrong! No on 8!” a sizable crowd continually chanted, pausing occasionally to cheer an arriving celeb. The specter of activism, hope and change hung heavy over the event last night in SF, coming just a week before the U.S. presidential election. The film itself, about iconic activist Harvey Milk, is directly political, depicting the birth of a gay rights movement more than thirty years ago in an around the San Francisco neighborhood that houses the Castro Theater.

While numerous attendees wore Barack Obama campaign buttons last night here in San Francisco, many also wore ones decrying Proposition 8, next week’s California ballot initiative aimed at denying marriage rights to same sex couples statewide. Fueled by millions of dollars in donations, organizers have been mobilizing to defeat the initiative, just as Harvey Milk, the nation’s first elected openly gay politician, once led a move to fight the discrimatory Proposition 6 before he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated by a fellow city official in 1978.

Outside the Castro Theater last night. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

In “Milk,” scenes featuring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk are continuously interwoven with archival footage and 1970s news reports. Sequences of the film play like segments of a hybrid documentary. James Franco stars as Milk’s longtime partner Scott Smith, while Diego Luna portrays his lover Jack Lira, and Emile Hirsch plays activist Cleve Jones and Josh Brolin appears as assassin Dan White. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks and Michael London, the film was written by filmmaker Dustin Lance Black.

In a private comment, a young gay writer appropriately labeled the film “our ‘Malcolm X'” following a recent screening of the film. Indeed, at times “Milk” evokes early Spike Lee more than the recent work of Gus Van Sant. The emotional tug of the movie is impossible to resist, especially for queer viewers challenged to openly embrace their history. By the end of the film, when a staged candelight vigil seamlessly blends into footage of the actual silent march in memory of Milk, many in the theater were crying. Extended applause followed as the credits rolled and the lights came up at the Castro.

“It’s very fitting that ‘Milk’ is opening here in San Francisco 30 years after the murders and a week before an incredibly important presidential election and the Proposition 8 battle,” documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein told indieWIRE yesterday. Director of the acclaimed documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which will be released online ahead of the November 26th theatrical debut of “Milk,” Epstein reinforced the significance of the moment. “It’s a totally different world from thirty years ago and Harvey helped set us on a path to make it so, yet here we are fighting another anti-gay ballot initiative just as we were in 1978.” Historical footage in Van Sant’s film includes clips from Epstein’s doc and his research outtakes.

“It’s a movie about politics,” Focus Features CEO James Schamus told indieWIRE yesterday. “It’s a movie about the spirit and soul of what transformative politics can mean to people.” The film certainly plays as both a provocative call to arms and a look back at the history of a movement. Overt and sometimes sentimental, historical and hopeful, activist and provocative, “Milk” prods LGBT viewers to remain out and open about their lives, while demanding not just tolerance — but wholesale acceptance — from straight viewers.

“This is the biggest night of all of our professional lives,” Schamus proudly emphasized more than once on Tuesday. However, he and his Focus colleagues felt under fire yesterday, clearly stung by a Hollywood Reporter article earlier in the day that critcized their handling of the film and the decision to hold it back from film festivals. The piece, and a subsequent HR blog post, charged that Focus was shying away from the film’s overtly gay, political agenda. Schamus complained that the piece didn’t include comments from his company and insiders reiterated yesterday the movie simply wasn’t finished in time for fests and that they were committed to launching it in the Bay Area one week before Election Day.

Focus Feature president Andrew Karpen, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom with wife Jennifer Newsom, and Focus CEO James Schamus last night. Photo by Eric Charbonneau/WireImage.com

Yesterday’s trade report hit the Reuters wire service with the headline, “Sean Penn’s new gay drama avoiding publicity,” stirring considerable speculative and negative buzz about the movie all day. Snarky blog, Gawker, wondered, “Is Milk Too Gay Or Just Bad?” while Queerty offered “Milk Marketing Walks Political Tightrope” and The Edge asked, “Is Film Distributor Pouring ‘Milk’ Down the Drain?”

Schamus defended his release strategy yesterday in a letter to the editor of the Hollywood Reporter, touting the film’s provocative trailer and detailing the distribution plan. During the conversation with indieWIRE in which he sharply criticized the speculation about “Milk,” he promised “the biggest grassroots campain in the history of the company. At the City Hall after-party, a Focus colleague held up a glossy magazine that features Penn, as Milk, on the cover and quipped wryly, “Can you believe we aren’t doing anything to support this movie?!”

Tuesday’s benefit premiere drew 1500 people to the Castro, and filled City Hall for the dinner and dancing after party, raising more than $200,000 for LGBT youth groups. The event drew an array of national and local politicians, from SF Mayor Gavin Newsom and California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer to Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski, much of the film’s cast and many of Milk’s surviving friends and colleagues, among them Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, Danny Nicoletta, and Frank Robinson.

“In a weird way, the celebration is not just about looking back,” Schamus told iW, “It is a forward looking evening, raising hundreds of thousasnds of dollars for the next generation. It’s also a reminder of what you have to fight for.”

“I am proud of my city,” Newsom said during a rousing speech prior to the screening. A local politician who gained wide national attention when he authorized same sex marriages at San Francisco City Hall a few years ago, he continued, “I am proud to live in a city that every single day doesnt just tolerate its diversity, it celebrates its diversity.”

“This is a city where you can live your life out loud, you can be fully expressive,” Newsom continued. “This is a city of more than just dreamers, but do-ers – a city that’s always been out on the forefornt of social justice and change.” Praising the leadership and legacy of Harvey Milk, Newsom concluded, “I mean this, I think the world looks to us to see that it’s possible to live together and advance together across those differences.” But, he added, “So much has changed yet the struggles remain.”

Thanking many people by name, Gus Van Sant saved a last bit of gratitude for the film’s subject. “A special thanks to Harvey,” he said on stage last night, “because I know you’re here somewhere.”

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