Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Organic ‘Milk’

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I love it when fictional feature filmmakers are heavily inspired by documentaries — especially such prominent ones as Gus Van Sant. His film Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the gay activist-turned politician who was killed in 1978, is a fantastic bit of fictional filmmaking with a heavy dose of nonfiction influences. First, there was Rob Epstein‘s The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 documentary that many of the people who worked on the film watched as an initial sounding board. (In an interview, Epstein told The Advocate that Van Sant’s film is “beautiful,” but he also admitted that he had been in discussions with Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and that it is “a bit of a sore point” for him. Hmmm…)
Milk by Gus Van SantBut there’s much more to it than that. Reading the Milk production notes, I noticed that Van Sant gives props to the work of Fredrick Wiseman and none other than the granddaddy of docs, Robert Flaherty. “The reason that we like [Wiseman] is that he is usually shooting something completely compelling and somewhat rough,” Van Sant says. “Because the situations he is filming in don’t allow elaborate equipment or lights. Yet he is completely relaxed in the face of very intense places and people.”
When you see the film, you’ll understand why. Van Sant goes for the same real-life, documentary vibe he did with his previous Elephant, and this time he uses archival footage seamlessly, jumping from both the real to the fictional world with ease. It is truly deft filmmaking and I can’t think of a fiction film that has more adeptly utilitzed nonfiction imagery to complement and carry a fictional tale. So while the film is fiction, it is both based on reality and uses reality to effectively tell the narrative.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Karen

    FOREIGNID: 17876
    Nice title, Tom. I haven’t seen Milk yet, but I can’t wait. One thing I would do is encourage people to make a point of renting The Times of Harvey Milk after seeing Van Sant’s biopic. It won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1984, and is a wonderful re-telling of this amazing man’s contribution during his tragically short life.

  • jerry pritikin

    FOREIGNID: 17877
    You may use HTML tags for style and links. I was aware of mistakes being made early in the filming of the “Milk” movie. Now that I have seen it… I noted several timeline mistakes, and location that the event took place. I knew almost everyone with the exception of Dan White,as well as photograph a good majority of them. Those mistakes does not take away from the Milk Message. The actors are almost exact clones of the real people depicted in the movie. Ironically, I will be putting together images I took 30 years ago, mine are not recreations… The show will take place at Chiocago’s Gerber Hart Librairy …. the largest gay book repository and collection of gay history in the mid-west…. It’s to be called ‘WHEN THEN WAS NOW” and will feature my never before publish image of Harvey, Bull Horn in one hand and Speaking to the Crowd at S. F.’s Union Sq. and a sign in the background ‘NOW!’ The movie location was changed to City Hall. The exhibit opens Jan.25. I’ll also be exhibiting my pin and T-shirt collection of that era, and letters and gay sport posters. The book”THE MAYOR of CASTRO ST” by Randy Shilts is being re-released , and one of my images of Harvey appeared in the “Orange Tuesday” chapter… that I named. Because of the movie, Harvey has been introduced a new generation of people. TheWHEN THEN WAS NOW! EXHIBIT will run throughout February.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 17878
    speaking of good titles: WHEN THEN WAS NOW is a great one. Of course, the weird/unfortunate parallel between the release of Milk and the Proposition 8 fiasco in California demonstrates the cycles of history and culture that we are constantly in, which is to say, when then was now, indeed.