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  • The Naked Community Organizer:Politics and Reflexivity in Gus Van Sant's Milk

I am not a candidate, I am part of a movement. The movement is the candidate. There is a difference." Spoken by Harvey Milk's character in Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008), these words emblematize a critical tension in a film that both is and is not a conventional biopic. Appearing to advance a key theme in the movie, these words downplay the significance of the individual in favor of a collective movement and in so doing would appear to cancel out the movie's very "biopicness." At the same time, the fact that they are spoken by a blockbuster Hollywood star chosen to play an "exceptional" individual within a movie bearing a one-man title impedes the movie's generic capacity not to be a biopic. The tension between the individual "Harvey Milk" and the gay political community disturbs—in interesting ways—the movie's compliance with generic conventions. In what follows, I will explore how, because of its downplaying of the individual in favour of a focus on politics, the movie both is and is not a conventional biopic. Because it is not a mainstream film but a movie targeted at a presumably guaranteed, albeit niche, audience, Milk can elevate a different set of priorities than is normally seen. Yet, because of the film's fortuitous resonance with topical issues and the foregrounding of these issues by critics, Milk is able to exceed its non-mainstream boundaries and potentially reach a wider audience.

While there has been no shortage of critical scrutiny of single, isolated biographical films, there is surprisingly little on the biopic as a media genre. The foundational text remains George Custen's Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History on the biographical film of the studio-era.1 Although the book's overall methodology, historical claims, and genre descriptions are well regarded, the book is not without limitations. For example, Custen's study does not consider made-for-tv movies, movies made outside the US, or movies made [End Page 156] outside of the studio system or following its demise.2 Although these boundaries make some sense for the period Custen scrutinized, the media landscape in which the current-day biopic is located has grown vastly more complex. Biographical work, as several scholars have noted, became staple TV fare during the eighties and nineties (Custen "Mechanical"; Anderson and Lupo "Hollywood"; Rosenstone). Biographical and autobiographical material currently comprises an enormous amount of bandwidth on the social-networking sites and on the reality-TV-oriented world of television. And in cinemas, while Custen was uncertain of the biopic's survival past the 1960s, there is evidence his pronouncements were premature (Anderson and Lupo "Hollywood" and "Introduction"; Mann; Rosenstone; Welsh). What is clear is that the number of smaller-budget, independently-funded films is on the rise (Anderson and Lupo "Introduction") and the conventional subject of the biopic as outlined by Custen has changed. The studio-era preference for heroic white men has made way, in this post-civil-rights, post-feminist era of diversified marketing, for interest in a greater range of subjects. If, as Custen sensed, "we no longer [believe] in an old-fashioned idea of greatness" ("Mechanical" 131), our fascination with celebrity culture has opened up new representational opportunities. Heidi Fleiss, Harvey Pekar, Eugène Terreblanche, Ed Wood, the non-famous and the infamous, the ordinary and the unpopular, women and people of color, are all suitable biopic subjects.

Historical Fidelity and the Biopic: Audience Expectations

Most theorists looking for serious history have been disappointed by what the biopic has to offer. Reminding us that the biopic is first and foremost a "fictionalized or interpretative treatment" (v), Glenn Mann, for example, claims that "certain patterns of this genre dictate departure from historical accuracy" (vi). Putting the case more strongly, James Welsh cautions us that in the medium of film "even more than on the printed page, history and biography are likely to become imaginative exercises, perhaps not intentionally designed to confuse the viewer, but resulting in mass confusion none the less" (59). Custen's comments are the most...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2151-7290
Print ISSN
0898-9575
Pages
pp. 156-170
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-05
Open Access
No
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