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Times of Harvey Milk, The (Blu-ray Review)

28 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.

There’s never been any doubt in my day-by-day, everyday mind that Rob Epstein’s documentary is one of the great films of the ‘80s — as opposed to some floating-around thought that pops its head up every third year or so. So it comes as something of a surprise on Criterion’s extras-jammed release to hear it asserted that the timing turned out to be just right in 2008 for the release of director Gus Van Sant’s Milk (Oscar-winning screenplay by Dustin Lance Black) because so many had forgotten about Epstein’s earlier achievement. If this is actually true, there must be far less of a disconnect between gay and straight than to between those who live and breathe supreme screen achievements daily and those who don’t.

Or, to put it another way, if you were good enough to beat (and even justifiably) Martin Bell’s Streetwise for the ’84 documentary Oscar, you really had to be something.

Harvey Milk, of course, was the openly gay member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors — assassinated in late 1978 just 11 months into office, along with Mayor George Moscone. Their assailant was apparently demon-plagued (regarding gays) fellow Supervisor Dan White, who’d been more quietly elected in the same contest that elevated Milk. Thanks to what was termed a “Twinkie Defense” (i.e., an unbridled diet can lead to impaired judgment and loss of control), White received an almost despicably light sentence. Compounding the tragedy was the eventual suicide of family man White after his release, an event that occurred almost exactly a year after Times played in theaters (and thus obviously isn’t covered in the film).

Close to the top of many typically fine Criterion bonuses here is an interview with Jon Else — who directed the 1980 Oscar nominee The Day After Trinity, one of my favorite movies of any kind ever (about the Los Alamos-atomic bomb-J. Robert Oppenheimer epoch). A teacher of documentary filmmaking at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Else is very forceful and direct in opining why Times is such a stellar achievement, starting with how immediately its maker gets us into the story.

Epstein opens with effectively jittery news footage of Supervisors president (and now U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein divulging the murders to audibly shocked onlookers and then adding an exclamation point: that the suspect is White. He then cuts to an audio recording Milk had made to be played only in the event of his assassination. Two minutes, maybe, and the viewer is hooked.

What else? This is, Else notes, a case where a three-act storytelling structure (the political rise; the killings; the trial) really works — whereas, in many documentaries, the approach can seem contrived. It is also storytelling unafraid to deal heavily with local politics in a film designed for a national audience. Interview subjects are shrewdly picked to reflect different dimensions of Milk’s personality (including one gruff, sexually straight union-guy supporter — his voice sounds a little like Yogi Berra’s — who came to admire the activist’s political savvy).

What else? The soundtrack, in addition to Mark Isham’s couldn’t-be-better score, utilizes a painstaking narration that only tells us what can’t be easily told visually. And it’s read with force by Harvey Fierstein, who sounds (Else again) like a “tribal elder.” Throughout, the picture must channel and crystallize an enormous amount of background information that wasn’t widely known at the time — a challenge Else notes was akin to making the first film on Elvis or Martin Luther King (where historical “boxes have to be checked”). To quote editor Deborah Hoffmann, who’s part of this release’s audio commentary: “We were given an operatic story to tell, and all we could do was wreck it.”

Essays by critic B. Ruby Rich and nephew Stuart Milk add even more context, and there’s nifty techno-info about the restoration and transfer of a film shot in 16mm that further depended upon other people’s news footage (well, think about the variance of stock quality). Among the most vivid material is seeing the late film historian/gay activist Vito Russo (Times’ publicist as well) giving a politically charged speech at the San Francisco premiere during the height of Reagan (let’s pretend that AIDS doesn’t exist) Mania. Roughly equal to this is the inclusion of a local radio station’s person-on-the-street interviews the night after Anita Bryant helped spearhead a successful attempt to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance (regarding sexual orientation) in Dade County, Florida. At which point her national career went kaput about as fast as JFK impressionist Vaughn Meader’s did in late November 1963.

Coming full circle, one of the other Criterion extras talks some about the filming of Milk, an endeavor with which Epstein elected to cooperate. For his part, Van Sant (who appears on camera here, as does featured performer James Franco) gave acting roles to some of the surviving interviewees from the documentary. Nice touch, though one fully in keeping with a grass roots, up-from-the-streets American story.

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