Friday, May 22, 2009

Double Bill: Milk and Different From the Others

Appreciating old films requires tolerance--the ability (and eventually, desire) to watch movies that look and sound different from those we're most used to. Watch enough of them, and you'll even begin to appreciate the relative values of the culture the film represents. Movies are a populist medium, and there is no better measure for the values of a particular age than the films it produced. To define those values --and their various advocates--as sharply as possible, we rely on the Message Movie.

Some of cinema's most celebrated achievements are Message Movies--films filmed to shock you, change you, change your actions and by force of multiplication, change society for the better. The Best Years of Our Lives, 12 Angry Men, Days of Wine and Roses, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Platoon... all big movies with big aspirations. And where can you find the greatest of all minefields of movie meaningfulness? Silent film! Virtually anything un-comic had a point to make (and in Chaplin's case, there was no distinction at all). The messages seem conservative by today's standards, and may have been conservative, in the literal sense, even in their own time. But most took a stand about something, that's for sure.

There's an ironic consequence to this. The tolerance that allows one to appreciate films made in olden times can also make one intolerant (or at least, impervious) to message movies. I support the message of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in an objective sense--who wouldn't? But much has changed for the better in the last 40 years, and while the movie's message remains admirable, it no longer feels, well, urgent.
While we try our best to evaluate films on their own terms, it is still a compliment to say that a film has 'aged well.' If a film is meant to shock, or enrage, or even guilt its audience, what happens when its potency fades? Or worse, what if the message becomes unpalatable? Birth of a Nation was a message movie, too.

My 'double bill' entries are meant to be short, and this one doesn't seem to be. To sum: Milk has inspired many to tears of sympathy, and rightfully so. Like all good message movies, it puts the characters first and deifies no one. Plus, I think Milk will age well. It's aesthetic merits, particularly Sean Penn's performance, will keep it worth watching long after gays and lesbians have won the last of their battles for equality. However, when that day comes, Milk will feel like an artifact.

Different from the Others, as old as it is, still does not. The film addresses a similar problem: the criminalization of sodomy in late-19th century Germany, and the devastating effect this had on the gay community in that country. The film is uncompromising in its acceptance of homosexuality as natural behaviour, and holds not the slightest sympathy for the other side.

Maybe I'm wrong about Milk. Maybe it will move hearts and minds 90 years from now just as it does today. But I'm sure of this much: Different from the Others still feels cutting edge after almost a century, and because it presents such modern material in such an antique format, it still shocks. The more cynical you are about message movies, the more inspirational this one seems.
My long-form article on Different from the Others can be accessed here:

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