Monday, October 10, 2011

And That's the Way It Is

What a day! Nothing very exciting happened, some frustrating things happened, but it was busier than I expected, so I wasn't able to get certain things done. For now, then: I recently bought the new Criterion DVD release of The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's brilliant 1984 documentary about the martyred San Francisco politician. On the supplemental disc there's an analysis of the film by Jon Else, another documentary filmmaker and a teacher of documentary filmmaking at UC Berkeley. "Analysis" might seem too dry a word, because Else talks about the film in a very accessible way, explaining how elegantly the film boils a very complex mass of material into a seemingly simple three-act structure -- but an analysis is what it is. I'd love to take a class with the guy.

While discussing the film's narration, read by Harvey Fierstein, Else says at one point:
And the assassination scene is really, really interesting, in that it begins with two minutes of chaos. And then, very calmly, Harvey Fierstein comes on, sorta like Walter Cronkite. He's the Walter Cronkite of this film. And he says exactly what happened.
I'll trust Harvey Fierstein over Walter Cronkite any day.

The aftermath of the double assassination -- Milk and Mayor Moscone -- is very important, and should be borne in mind by anyone looking at the exemplary Occupy Wall Street protests and their offshoots. Immediately after the killings, there was an immense candlelight march in San Francisco, in near silence, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the film. Tom Ammiano (a gay schoolteacher) recounts how an African-American bystander yelled at the crowd, "Where is your anger?" and reflects that he wasn't sure himself where his anger was.

The film answers the question itself, by showing what happened after the assassin, disgruntled ex-fireman and ex-City Supervisor Dan White, was convicted by the jury of voluntary manslaughter -- a contemptuous gesture. The Castro blew up in what came to be known as the "White Night" riots, with the iconic image of a long row of police cars on fire. A t-shirt, and I think also a poster, later put that image under the defiant legend "NO APOLOGIES." As Ammiano says with contempt, Oh, we destroyed property, how dare we. (Not quite accurate: numerous people, civilians and cops, were injured by the rioters, beginning with a City Hall employee hurt by a projectile thrown through a window of the doors.) The important thing to remember is that the first response to Milk's murders was silent, dignified grief; the anger came to the blatant injustice of the verdict, the official endorsement of bigoted violence.

In New York, the only violence connected with Occupy Wall Street has been police violence. In the past few days we've learned that an assistant editor of the right-wing American Spectator decided to provoke a violent police reaction at the Smithsonian Institution, which could then be blamed on the Occupation movement -- but he boasted about it online, discrediting himself very effectively. Given what we know about police interference in past left movements in the US, I think that anyone who tries to direct a nonviolent movement in a violent direction should be assumed to be an agent provocateur.

P.S. I'm watching Epstein's research interview with Judge Lillian Sing on the Supplement disc, and she has some wonderful things to say about coalitions and the acceptability of conflict within communities. If you have the chance to look at this material, look for this interview particularly. ... But now Sing's interview has given place to gay teacher Hank Wilson, who's also very good. These people don't appear in the film itself. I'm so glad I bought this DVD. If you can't, nag your library to get it, and check it out.

P.P.S. Another must-see supplement: Vito Russo speaking to the audience at the San Francisco premiere of The Times of Harvey Milk on November 1, 1984. He's funny and mean, just as I remember him:
We're in serious trouble in this country right now, with respect to both gay rights and the larger area of human rights we're facing a situation that's a little weird, where many gay people, especially gay men, are about to vote Republican for Ronald Reagan because they think that it will protect some of their financial interests. And then after they finish voting for him, his Supreme Court is gonna take away their rights.* I think what we have on our hands is a film which can reach people and can change that sort of sentiment and can let those people know they have to make a commitment that goes beyond investment. They have to realize that there used to be a time in this country when people fought and died for what they believed in, and that Rolex watches and pasta machines won't save them in the end.
*Which it did.