Past, present, future

Pub date November 18, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


REVIEW As a programming move, the Roxie Theater’s decision to screen Rob Epstein’s classic 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is both a no-brainer and a bit of casual brilliance. It’s a no-brainer because of Milk mania. It’s a little stroke of genius because this great documentary’s return, one week before the theatrical premiere of Gus Van Sant’s feature at the Castro, provides plentiful compare-and-contrast opportunities for all those wise enough to know that they need to see both. This isn’t the first time that the Roxie — which presented Tsai Ming-liang’s homage to movie theaters Goodbye, Dragon Inn during the Castro’s days of turmoil in 2004 — has chimed in like a smart kid brother.

Epstein’s movie is a classic partly because of its historical contents, but there’s a definite mastery to the way in which he assembles and presents that material — if today’s makers of stylized docs haven’t learned from his command, that command has at least influenced Van Sant. The Times of Harvey Milk doesn’t dig into day-to-day San Francisco politics with the same relish or perhaps even specificity of the Van Sant movie (which recalls Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 Reversal of Fortune in its affection for scenes of creative, energetic groupthink). But journeying through candlelight vigil and through riot, it remains the most dramatically powerful response to Harvey Milk. His life and death were the stuff of great drama as well as of history.

The time for The Times of Harvey Milk is now, once again: more than a number connects and separates Proposition 6 of Milk’s era with Proposition 8 today. Thanks to Epstein’s compassionate documentary eye, his talking heads are fully realized human characters, with a range of personalities: the fervor of Tom Ammiano, the gruff candor of union machinist Jim Elliot (who thought the police raids on gay bars were fine until he met Milk), the contemplative sadness and strength of Sally M. Gearhart. Other touches, such as Harvey Fierstein’s uncharacteristically stoic voice-over, are surprising. And Epstein doesn’t glorify or beatify Milk when presenting the relationship between Milk and Dan White — his look at their interactions shows the sharp, competitive edges of Milk’s humanism.

The 2004 anniversary edition of the Times of Harvey Milk DVD is a treasure trove of material providing greater insight into Dan White. But it’s important to revisit this movie outside of the isolated home box office. There are generations of people who, if they’ve seen it, have only seen The Times of Harvey Milk on video at home. Like the man at the core of its subject, Epstein’s documentary thrives in a public, theatrical setting. The events it collects and captures are still relevant to all the random people who will find themselves united by a decision to watch this movie in a cinema — people who will step outside of the Roxie into a city and a world not that different from the one where Harvey Milk died and lived, one that is demanding collective action, and his spirit, once again.


Opens Fri/21, $5–$10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 431-3611

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