Why Gus Van Sant isn’t (completely) turning his back on experimental cinema with MILK.

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[MILK trailer here]

Gus Van Sant’s latest film might on its surface appear to be the work of an experimental genius who has thrown in their indie towel to make a crowd-pleasing feature but it really isn’t that at all. Van Sant’s Milk is this year’s Pineapple Express – that is, a mainstream work that remains infused with its director’s unique experimental traits without alienating the wider audience. Look out for scenes shot in one take with a static camera and tracking shots of people walking through corridors filmed from behind their heads.

The main difference between Milk and Gus Van Sant’s most recent previous films – Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park – is that Milk has an actually plot: The movie follows the life and sudden death of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay elected to public office in America, starting with his move to San Francisco in 1970 with his partner Scott Smith (James Franco), charting his rise to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and climaxing at the battle against Proposition 6, an initiative to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools.

Although Sean Penn’s performance as Milk makes the biggest impression on the audience simply by appearing as a likeable human being, the entire acting ensemble is amazing, displaying warmth, looseness and empathy in their performances. The camera often feels like its just capturing human behaviour when so many of today’s films have actors who always act as if they are walking through Big Important Moments.* James Franco (Pineapple Express, Freaks and Geeks) as boyfriend Scott Smith is incredibly sensitive, proving yet again he’s not just a pretty face (although he is very very pretty). Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Cleve Jones is both extroverted and unaffected in his performance. There aren’t a lot of women in the film (one of the film’s main villains – the Palinesque Anita Bryant – is shown purely through stock footage) but Alison Pill makes a strong impression as Harvey Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and her platonic relationship with Cleve Jones is one of the surprising highlights of the film.

Where Van Sant’s directorial stamp is most visible is in the representation of Dan White (Josh Brolin), the man who would eventually assassinate Harvey Milk. Gus Van Sant’s previous experimental films have been very much interested in addressing the question: how to represent actions without reducing a character’s psychology which can’t really be explained? This is why in Elephant and Last Days Van Sant chose an elliptical approach to his subjects. Why try to explain the Columbine massacre when no one can really know the truth of the murderers’ motivations? Similarly, in Milk Gus Van Sant provides clues as to the character of Harvey Milk’s assassin but no answers. And I’m glad Gus Van Sant has stuck to his guns.

*This is why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button should not win any acting awards.

SEE THIS WITH:

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

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