Monday, February 2, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Milk (2008): We know how this story is going to end right from the beginning. We know that Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to a public office in America, will be assassinated, gunned down by an unstable political rival. But knowing the ending to the story doesn't make it any less substantial. The power of this narrative--like all narratives--is not the simple facts of how the story ends; it is found in the process that leads to these ends.

Harvey Milk's story began in New York, where he met his lover, Scott (James Franco, in a performance that deserved an Oscar nomination). Together they moved out to San Francisco, opening a camera store in the Castro Street neighborhood, an area of refuge for many in the gay community. A charismatic leader, Milk began publicly fighting for gay rights, eventually leading him into the political arena. Dubbed the "mayor of Castro Street," Milk lost numerous elections before finally becoming a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors. It was in this office that he met politician Dan White (Josh Brolin, in a performance that did get him an Oscar nom), an Irish-Catholic family man with violence under the surface.

This is a great biography about a magnetic political leader fighting for gay rights. It's also a story about a conflicted man who gives up everything for a movement of hope, including some of his closest relationships. Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have created about a dozen complex characters in this narrative, each one with their own hopes and pains. They don't idealize Harvey or the gay lifestyle. These characters suffer a great deal from both outsiders who ostracize them and within their own community.

The timeliness of this film is remarkable. In the film, fundamentalist Christians are trying to pass legislation that would force openly gay and lesbian teachers to lose their jobs, basically making it possible to discriminate based on sexual orientation. In the past election, a number of states (including Arizona) had propositions on the ballot that addressed the issue of gay marriage. The comparison is obvious. There are also clear comparisons between Milk's movement and the civil rights movement in the 1960s led by Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK and Milk...coincidence?) Both are drawn into a movement bigger than themselves to gain rights and freedoms for an American minority, eventually assassinated by those who want to keep the status quo. However, there are key differences. Milk doesn't seem to resort only to non-violent protest; if it would take a violent riot to get things moving, the film makes it clear that he'd incite it. Milk's story also happens on a much smaller scale, isolated mostly to neighborhoods in San Francisco, while the civil rights movement eventually affected the entire nation.

I've been thinking a great deal about this, especially in regards to Christianity. Christians are portrayed as the antagonists in the film, mostly within reason. What is the most loving and Christ-like response to the gay community? How clear is the Bible about homosexuality being a sin? How would I engage Harvey Milk if I met him today? The films raises these kinds of questions and more. The thing is, these don't have easy answers. The subject of sexual orientation can cause some pretty volatile reactions in people, and most of them are unhealthy. People stop listening to one another; families are torn apart from judgmentalism and fear; Scripture can be distorted on both sides of the issue. The only thing I do know is this (to quote Eric Bryant): love is the new apologetic. Our defining characteristic as followers of Jesus must be love. This isn't a water-down love or a "I love you enough to chew you out" love, but one that embraces the values that Jesus embodied--grace and truth. There are two beautiful scenes where a gay teenager in the midwest calls up Milk to talk with him about his painful life. Milk takes the time to listen and understand and offers comfort and advice. Would that be my response if a junior high student came to me with similar struggles? I really hope so.

Anyway, Milk is a fantastic biography and another thought-provoking entry from Gus Van Sant.

(Caution: While there are no explicit sex scenes, this is a film for mature adults. Use discernment for any film you see)

The Business of Being Born (2008): One hundred years ago, 95 percent of births in America occurred in the home. Today the number is less than 1 percent. The main reason? Hospitals replaced midwives. Abby Epstein's documentary is meant to inform the viewer of the benefits of home birth while also revealing some of the skeletons in the hospitals' closets. Produced by Ricki Lake--yeah, the talk show lady--the film looks at a number of women's home birth stories while interspersing interviews with midwives, nurses, and other birth experts. Epstein and co. make a compelling case for having a home birth and avoiding a hospital at all cost (I mean that literally; hospitals seem to be trying to run a business instead of helping in healthy births).

As far as film-making goes, The Business of Being Born isn't anything remarkable. For me, a good documentary is both informative and has a compelling narrative. There honestly wasn't as much information or storyline as I would have expected. I'll be blunt: the film was totally one-sided. There weren't counter-points or anyone to defend the current medical system. It was an 87 minute long treatise for home birth and midwives. Now, that doesn't mean that Epstein and co. are wrong in their assessment. I was actually quite convinced, and the information in the film is worth discussing for any pregnant couple. In fact, if you're expecting or wondering about your options, I would highly recommend watching this film with your spouse and discussing it together. If nothing else the film is quite touching and personal, especially as Epstein finds out that she's pregnant while making the film, becoming a part of her own work of art.

(Note: there are numerous scenes of women giving birth. You see everything. I mean it: everything. Katie and I were surprised the women allowed themselves to be filmed like this. Be forewarned.)


  1. great review on the business of being born. your right- every pregnant woman (at least) should see it- and husband if he can stand it =). it is one-sided- yet right on task with the industry that labor and delivery has become. really sad. i first watched it with a girlfriend who actually needed a hospital and would have died, had she had a home birth. just wish their could be some neutral ground in the medical system period. so glad katie felt movement!! yeah!!

  2. i had a home birth, and it was the greatest experience of my life. does that mean it's for everyone? totally not...but, the benefits are definitely there. maybe the film is one-sided, because we all know the "other side." it's what we've all grown up believing the birth experience is supposed to be...i actually didn't know there was an alternative to a hospital birth until i read "ina may's guide to childbirth"

    for some, it makes philosophy with it is...with a hospital birth, the ob is the expert and you are in his/her domain. with a home birth, you are the expert and in your domain. that was the difference for me.

    and actually, i would've been shocked to see a bunch of women consenting to showing their entire births, but now that i've been through the process, i'm actually sad that i don't have documentation of that moment.

    glad you reviewed this!