i fled city college, and headed to the castro theater to catch the late showing of 'Milk' with randal. it was important for me to see this movie here, as 1) it's the castro theater, and 2) harvey milk helped to shape the way that san francisco culture thrives today.
sometimes i get glimpses of this city through film and photograph that make my heart feel open. the movie was amazing and powerful. i was thinking about writing this missive about how magnificent this movie was, and how much i love this city, but randal beat me to it. and his words are more meaningful than the ones i could have written, so i'll let him say it. thanks randal.
I'll confess: I really enjoy being affected by movies. I don't see films very often, and that makes them more potent. But this was over the top. I had just disappeared from a holiday party for a couple of AIDS groups, and I had run into some local friends in the Castro district and had burritos. But I was on my way to meet Sandwich in time for the 9:45 showing of Milk at the Castro Theater. I'm rarely the one to catch the first wave of anything popular. But I neither was I the last to see this very pertinent major motion picture. The house was about half-full on the main floor for this late evening showing on a Thursday.
I call the film pertinent because it's a local story with national and international implications. I say pertinent because I got the opportunity last winter to participate as an extra in the filming of the protests and other crowd scenes. I say pertinent because the telling of this historical moment is long overdue. I say pertinent because many of the struggles portrayed in the film seem to remind us vividly of the day before yesterday.
The film opens with a montage of black and white stock footage of police raids on Gay bars from the late 50's and 60's. The men, very stylishly dressed, were well groomed. The didn't wear conspicuously long hair or especially effeminate accessories. There were no Drag Queens, no Leathermen, no Freedom Faggots in blouses and purses. These were businessmen at leisure, most of them shading their eyes from the bright lights, ducking from the news cameras, and bowing their heads. The stigma of being identified in these documents would far outweigh the night in jail they were facing as they were rounded up in handcuffs, and loaded into paddy wagons. But it really wasn't necessary for this film to put the Gay movement of 70's San Francisco into perspective by showing the raids which preceded it. Yes, in the 70's itself, this would have given the audience a chill. But maybe the real-time drama portrayed in the movie doesn't say enough about the how Gays were treated in Milk's time, and how the police force had not yet been cleaned up.
Maybe like me, you were too young to remember Proposition 6 in 1978. This was the Briggs initiative to fire all school teachers who were openly Gay, suspected of being Gay, or even straight allies of Gays. In the 70's, when it was rare to see the tops of a man's ears, we once laughed at those TV preachers and uptight born-again hate mongers. I remember my now-Republican brother telling jokes about Anita Bryant. But Sandwich and I watched this drama play out on the screen, wild with fear-fuled arguments that seemed way too familiar like, "They'll teach homosexuality in our schools."
I was aware of Milk's prophetic tape recording, "In case of my death by assassination." But I was not aware of Milk's three lost elections, and his history of suicidal lovers. It was amazing that his lover's death was overshadowed by the election the next day and it didn't spawn evil stories in the press.
But the historic double-murder took place. And then the epilogues rolled, to remind you that these were real people. And the lights came up as I re-laced my boots. Sandwich reached over to hug me. I looked up at the inspirational logo "Milk" projected on the curtain above the screen. Then I completely lost my shit. I sobbed like a baby as all the realism saturated my little human brain.
All at once, I had to process facts: We've been treated as light entertainment for cops ready to raid bars. Dan White got off with 5 years, for manslaughter, and didn't even serve the full term. The mistakes we made in the campaign against Prop 8 in 2008 were outlined in the story of Prop 6 in 1978; namely that we forgot to mention Gay people in the posters and television spots. The film was very real because 90 percent of it takes place within yards of the Castro Theater. It was very real to me because I was there for the crowd shots and a few other outdoor scenes. We extras came down to the set in support of the film as if it were an actual political protest. I was working alongside bald men with gray beards and caved-in cheeks; many of whom were there in the 70's. And yet they all would have been anachronisms with their casual clothes and artifacts of HIV meds, if only the crowd scenes weren't so dark. I remembered my two 70's costumes. I remembered that I had grown a beard to cover the last signs of Kaposi's sarcoma.
Sandwich dragged me out of the theater, as I was blinded by tears, my teeth humming with passion as I tried to breath. Our view opened out onto Castro Street and I continued my flashbacks and hysteria. "It happened here, and here, and here." "I was there and it happened here!" "I watched it happen."
I stumbled and cried like a maudlin drunk. "Let's get out of here!" I cried a total of 45 minutes. I don't get the opportunity to feel that way very often.
The first of two 70's costumes I threw together as an extra in Milk. I can't find documentation of the beige polyester Levi's suit. -randal smith