By Saundra Sorenson
It was fitting that the red carpet premiere of Gus Van Sant’s Milk opened with a riotous performance by March Fourth, a group of cabaret-inspired high school marching band refugees (and the requisite color guard hula girls and be-stilted cheerleaders), for, as visiting author John Hodgman put it at last week’s Wordstock, Portland’s chief exports appear to be “pot, cheddar, and neo-burlesque.”
And it’s just as apropos that, though the action of Milk is centered in 1970s San Francisco — specifically a then only grudgingly gay-friendly Castro - the film received a red carpet premiere at the stately Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in director Gus Van Sant’s own Portland. In what is an obvious novelty in the area, rolling out the red carpet for a bona fide Hollywood event attracted a smattering of the well-coiffed and the overdone — film enthusiasts all, guests rolled up in everything from opera-appropriate garb to lucite heels. And it being Portland, many of them took in the momentous event with cocktail in hand.
Portland’s beloved near-native son loved his city right back by once again merging his hometown premiere with a benefit for Outside In, a forty-year-old agency and resource center for disenfranchised homeless youth who, like so many of Van Sant’s protagonists, find themselves on the fringes of society. In introducing Van Sant, Outside In VP Kathy Oliver read a laundry list of the organization’s services — from transitional housing to syringe exchange to tattoo removal — services that one wishes might have been available to the likes of Mike Waters.
Mayor-elect Sam Adams took to the podium by identifying himself as the only openly gay mayor of a major American city and acknowledged his debt of gratitude to the tireless work of late San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay, publicly-elected city official in the Unites States.
On the eve of nationwide protest against California’s narrowly-passed Proposition 8 (which overturned freshly legalized gay marriage), the film’s central political battle against Proposition 6 (a.k.a the Briggs initiative) was given an unfortunate relevance, thirty long years later.
Prop 6 aimed to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools throughout the state of California, and, had it passed, would have opened the floodgates to sexual orientation-based discrimination by employers.
Van Sant’s biopic transcended political necessity or obligation and was a tight, suspenseful piece of filmmaking, paying tribute to the civil rights icon with a fully fleshed-out incarnation of Milk (deftly portrayed by Sean Penn). Milk would be invoked repeatedly on placards and in speeches at the next day’s Prop 8 protests throughout the nation, but in Van Sant’s steady, able hands, he was an endearing, thoughtful political mind, a more balanced Emperor Norton for his time - laying claim to small pieces of the city as he galvanized supporters, starting out as self-appointed Mayor of Castro and rising to respectable public ranks, respectfully ignoring death threats until his assassination in 1978.
And in the cavernous ‘Schntiz, as so many locals affectionately refer to it, the reaction to Milk was more akin to a fired-up political rally than to a quiet night at the movies.
First Pipeline post by Saundra!
Saundra Sorenson is a professional writer and freelance journalist whose work currently appears in Willamette Week. She was the 2008-2009 editor of Finder and blogs under the radar about life in Portland.