Tuesday, November 25, 2008


The very best thing about being at tonight's commercial premiere of Gus Van Sant's Milk was the crowd and the place. There's nowhere better than the Castro Theatre to see cinematic depictions of angry gay mobs teeming outside the Castro Theatre, and nowhere better to see the premiere of a hometown film. Shouts and ovations went up for friends and acquaintances and people well known to us; a chorus of whispers when the actual Cleve Jones was spotted onscreen, a shout-out for Dennis Peron, cheers for Tom Ammiano. And no matter what the film, there is nothing like seeing a show at that theater when it is sold out. James and I miraculously got two seats together in the second row of the balcony and that, along with David Hegarty's organ playing before curtain, was worth the price of admission.

As for the mobs that teemed in front of the theater after the film (pictured above), one can only imagine the impact they might have had, multiplied around the state, had the distributors not seen fit to sit on the film until after the voters of California passed judgment on Proposition 8.

As for the film itself: Sean Penn's performance is a marvel and a force of nature. The film surrounding it is very good, and far exceeded expectations, but did not get under my skin the way it ought to have. The crowd scenes and some of the supporting actors seemed artificial, as though they belonged to a lesser production. The film gave White a fair amount of screen time, and did due diligence with respect to his multiplying stresses external and internal (mercifully leaving out the Twinkies). Still, I never believed in the character the way I believed in Penn as Milk, and that had serious consequences for the denouement and the time invested in White. I understood the editorial decision that forced a choice between the early footage of Feinstein as she announced the assassinations and including her as a character (beyond a gavel-wielding ghost at a board meeting), but I felt the sacrifice. Here was the woman who mentored White and found Milk's body - an episode whose gruesome details are well known. Perhaps it was a necessary sacrifice - I hesitate to second-guess a writer and a director who told a coherent story and brilliantly incorporated contemporary footage and elicited at least one dazzling performance in 128 swift minutes.

The soundtrack had a reasonably light touch but was otherwise foul. The sex was lighthearted, which I liked, but it was too spare - Milk may have stopped going to the baths after he won office, but still I suspect he would have hated how sexless the film was especially considering it was set on Castro Street in nineteen-seventy-fucking-eight. James brought up one important point, which was how convincingly gay Penn's portrayal was. And this is something to be really grateful for, and it's more important than the sex - that we didn't wind up with a Brokeback Harvey Milk.

I loathed the 1995 Harvey Milk opera and, as much as I enjoyed and admired this film, I wasn't swept away by it. Both suffer by comparison with the two accounts to which they are indebted - Randy Shilts's 1982 book "The Mayor of Castro Street" and Rob Epstein's 1983 Oscar-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk." Someone let much of the emotional air out of the film's tires by announcing to us, before curtain, that it was a "ten-hankie" movie. I don't want to jinx Rob Epstein's documentary in the same way for those who have not seen it, but in fact it is vastly more powerful and heartbreaking than the biopic. Fortunately for us in San Francisco, it's playing at the Roxie this week. The rest of you can and should rent it.

And that reminds me of a Harvey Milk experience I wanted to blog about when it happened this summer but it got away from me - at Suppervision 2, my friend iii put together a video piece set to a remix of Milk's political will. I hadn't looked at the transcript or listened to it (in Epstein's film) for fifteen years and it took me a moment to realize what I was hearing. Already it had commanded my attention, but when I recognized it I came apart. The message is so simple, so powerful, so right: come out. It's the message that created the world around me and gave me the life that I have. And for all the utility Gus Van Sant found in that political will to tell this story, not once did it carry the emotional impact of recognizing Harvey Milk's own voice and hearing his message set to a techno beat (!) at a nightclub and seeing his words projected on a screen. Perhaps this is the root problem for the film - even wizardry like Penn's and everything else the film has to recommend it can't live up to the power of the source material that's so readily available to us.

So, yes, definitely go the Castro and see this film. But make it an equally high priority to experience the Epstein doc and the Shilts biography. As good an imitation as Milk is, it can't compete with the original. I leave you with the original:
The other aspect of the tapes is the obvious of what would happen should there be an assassination. I cannot prevent some people from feeling angry and frustrated and mad, but I hope they will take that frustration and that madness instead of demonstrating or anything of that type, I would hope that they would take the power and I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Nancy Pelosi should watch her back

Me, St. John Coltrane and the "Betts" chillin in the Flute Vault

On Saturday, the day after Apparition of the Eternal Church had its Washington DC premiere at the Library of Congress's Pickford Theater, I gave my DC recital debut, with pianist Jerome Lowenthal, in the LOC's Coolidge Auditorium playing the 1704 "Betts" Stradivarius. Not just performing on this instrument but practicing on it the three days prior was a peak experience of my life.

The day I showed up in Washington on the $20 Chinatown bus from New York, LOC instrument curator Carol Lynn Bamford met me on the steps of the library, across the street from the Capitol, and brought me into the room where the Betts lives, behind glass, with the "Brookings" Amati, the "Kreisler" Guarnerius del Gesu, and the "Castelbarco" Stradivarius cello and violin. Some kind of meeting taking place in the room was on a break as we took the two Strads and the del Gesu out of captivity and put them in cases - it's unclear to me that the assembled suits understood what they were clearing their briefcases and coffee cups for as we laid out the cases and put the instruments away. I was reminded, with a shiver, of the time my Juilliard teacher Robert Mann spilled a cup of coffee on his Strad - an event I was grateful not to have witnessed.

Carol Lynn and I took the violins to the Coolidge Auditorium, a uniquely resonant jewelbox chamber music hall, and she listened to me play passages from my all-Messiaen program on each of the three for most of an hour. By the end of our time in the Coolidge, my gut feeling was to go with the Betts, a feeling Carol Lynn seconded from out in the hall. I didn't make up my mind until the next day, at our next meeting, in the LOC flute vault, when I played the Betts against the del Gesu and the Amati, but not the Library's Stroviols:

The Amati was a gorgeous instrument, with the famed dark Amati sound, but with enormous power not usually associated with those violins. But it was turning down Fritz Kreisler's Guarnerius that was truly surreal. Setting aside its legendary provenance and its gutsy, throaty sound, the violin spoke in the lower positions as though plucked on an amplified harpsichord - the lowest notes on the D string, often hazy and hard to articulate on even excellent violins, popped on this del Gesu with the consonant clarity of an Italian heroine scorned. I might have spent another hour considering the Kreisler but both Carol Lynn and the visiting luthier, John Montgomery of Raleigh, NC, warned me that my sound was distinctly uneven between the lower and higher registers - a problem that had escaped me under my ear.

So, with the feeling of someone who'd just been forced to choose between going to bed with Prince, Beck and the young Frank Sinatra, I put two national treasures back in their cases and commenced a torrid three-day affair with the third.

John the Luthier adjusting the "Betts" soundpost. B-flat above middle C on the G string - an important note in Messiaen's Louange a l'Immortalite de Jesus - was wolfing and he nailed it on the second try. The Kreisler del Gesu is in the foreground.

There's no way for me to convey, without libeling my own beloved violin, what it was like to play the Betts Stradivarius. The closest analogy - apart from that liaison with the 20-year-old Rudolf Valentino - is to having played the electric guitar your whole life and suddenly having it plugged it into an amp for the first time. Look - I've played a number of old Italian violins in my life, among them a few Strads and del Gesus, including another that belonged to Kreisler (in the Colburn Collection, in Beverly Hills). But the Betts bests them all. It's in a class by itself. I am spoiled for life.

This is why I have decided to run for Congress.

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