The Times of Harvey Milk
This winter, I saw and enjoyed Gus Van Sant’s film, Milk. It sparked my interested learning more about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in America (serving on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in the late 1970’s,). So, I decided to check out The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein’s 1984 Oscar-wining documentary.
While watching Times it soon becomes clear that Van Sant has also seen it. The documentary, roughly speaking, follows the same narrative as the feature– taking the viewer along the path of Milk’s evolution from a camera store owner in the Castro, San Fran’s gay neighborhood, to a political activist, and finally to an elected official who is tragically assassinated. Despite this likeness, Times does not feel like a mere imitation of Van Sant’s film. Instead, the interviews Epstein includes provide detailed explanations of ideas relating to the supervisor’s career that Milk can only allude to, including his campaign methods, relationship with labor unions, and his thoughts on how Gays could reach out to mainstream America.
From a stylistic standpoint, Times’ best moments come during the archival footage Epstein chooses to include. The recycled reels prick many different points along viewer’s emotional spectrum as the frames shift from the wonderfully colorful, vibrant images of cross dressers marching in the Castro’s gay pride parade to shots of fearful and sullen mega-churchgoers as they are instructed on homosexuality’s evils. Unfortunately, Epstein decided to skimp on the total amount of archival footage used for the film; his camera spends far too much time focused on the rather dull faces of the people he interviews, and this causes Times to drag in places. This sense of lethargy is intensified by the narrator, Harvey Feinstein, who, with his fatigued lisp, often sounds as if he is reading from a mediocre history text-book. Still, these flaws are worth the viewer’s perseverance; The Times of Harvey Milk remains a solid piece of film making and its subject is a fascinating character-often overlooked by people interested in American History.