Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Waiting for the flames to emerge

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | March 10, 2008 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Media
Tags: 1970s, Alfred Hitchcock, assimilation, Castro, Cleve Jones, Gay Liberation, gentrification, Gus Van Sant, Harvey Milk, Harvey Milk movie, lgbt film, psycho, queer liberation, san francisco, sean penn

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

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Interesting. After all your posts on the subject, I kinda want to see the film. I mean, when it's done.

Why are you so bitter about this film? Because nobody's made a biopic about ACT UP yet?

If you actually knew something about the project itself, you'd know scenes of rioting queers -- and queers getting their heads bashed by the SFPD -- have already been filmed. I can tell you firsthand (I was there) about a scene filmed in the Castro that had angry queers jumping on top of a city bus to rip down the connections to the overheard power lines.

How Van Sant plans the final cut isn't up to me -- but for you to rip the entire project before it's even in the can tells me that your preconceived criticism emanates from a place other than fairness and openmindedness.

My SO and I worked as unpaid extras for three days. I have written about the first two on my blog and will be adding the third sometime today.

I agree that we've achieved little over the past 30 years and that is something I address in my blog posts. The fights we were fighting then are the same ones we're fighting now. Take a few steps forward, then several back due to RRRW backlash. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I disagree that Gus Van Sant is doing a sanitized version of Harvey Milk's life and the history around it. Between takes we did a great deal of standing around and got to talk to other extras, both paid and unpaid. Some of them had been working on riot scenes that included tipping police cars and the like. We ourselves participated in one which had angry gay men attacking a street car full of frightened passengers. We did plenty of screaming, storming through the streets and fist shaking.

Many of the extras were men and even some women who had been there for the original riots and/or candlelight vigil. They thought things were being handled very well and were excited to be participating in the event.

Ah, but I wonder if they'll cover the backlash Mattilda mentions or if the bloodied gays were just on the night of the riots?

Alex, I'll admit I'm getting curious myself...

Lavender Liberal, personally I'm grateful that no one has made a "biopic" (a ridiculous genre if there ever was one) about ACT UP... While it's interesting to know that there is footage of rioting queers in the movie (thanks for letting me know!), I still am horrified by the prospect of any Hollywood representation of queer resistance -- all it means is sell, sell, sell, and those resisting are the ones getting sold. Personally, I have no interest in "fairness and open-mindedness," which are part of the same liberal mythology that allows so many people to rally around this corporate product like it was an activist statement.

Buffy, thanks for the affirmation about all the progress over the last 30 years :) And for the interesting inside information about the scenes -- I'll check out your blog posts, for sure. Nonetheless, I actually find it quite depressing
that people who were around during the original riots/protests/vigil are supportive of this gesture of reenactment over critical engagement (and yes, I do think reenactment comes at the cost of critical engagement, not as part of the same path). Of course, Gus Van Sant has a long history of appropriating and manipulating the imagery of resistance without any challenge to the status quo.

Bil, good question.