The filmography of Gus Van Sant documents a definite transition from independent into mainstream production, particularly with the examples of My Own Private Idaho and Milk. This essay will argue that inherent stylistic, narrative and thematic devices conclusively distinguish Van Sant’s shift into mainstream cinema, including the use of narrative guidance, objectives and plot trajectory, character sympathy and resolution. His use of artistic techniques debatably give Milk an art-house aesthetic that appeals to a mass audience in search of the cultural capital associated with high-brow culture. However, I will be theorising that the fundamental narrative structure in Milk is specifically geared towards a mainstream audience, with any art-house techniques being used merely as a means of aiding mainstream cinema imperatives of enjoyment, easy comprehension of the story and creating maximum catharsis for the audience, rather than for the sake of art.
Milk depicts the story of the election of Harvey Milk to San Francisco Supervisor during the 1970s. Van Sant provides an emotive portrayal of his incredibly likeable protagonist, leaving a powerful message of perseverance and self-expression. Meanwhile, My Own Private Idaho, which Van Sant made earlier in his career, is the abstract tale of homosexual prostitutes, with a loose base on works of Shakespeare. It provides a theatrical, unnaturalistic snapshot of the lives of these young men, leaving an ambiguous impression for its audience.
Audience consumption of these films is primarily important in differentiating them. They can be characterised by their respective adherence to Brechtian and Stanislavskian practices, the fundamental reception strategies being verfremdungseffekt versus the forth wall and suspension of disbelief. Through the alienation technique of verfremdungseffekt, Brecht wanted his audience to think not feel emotions, and therefore wanted them to hold a critical detachment from the action and characters. This is not to say that all art film adheres to Brechtian practice (in fact, much independent cinema follows realism in a similar way to Stanislavski), but it is an example of the subverting of Hollywood conventions. On the other hand, Stanislavskian strategy asks its audience to emotionally invest and believe in the action by the building of a forth wall– an ideal taken up by the continuity style of mainstream Hollywood. The result is that mainstream representations such as Milk become more affecting than the thought-provoking, reflexive tone of many independents such as Idaho.
Additionally, passivity is key to mainstream cinema viewing. From what Adorno and Horkheimer have explored with their theories on the ‘passive dupes’ that indulge in the superficial novelties of popular culture, one can determine that popular cinema is for passive, indulgent enjoyment, while independent cinema is for artistic expression and challenging, which seems to closely follow this differentiation between Idaho and Milk. Van Sant seemingly made a conscious move to the mainstream in an effort to reach the masses: ‘[making mainstream films] was like me going back, or trying to, in sentimental movie fashion, going back to make popular art, art for the populace.’ This reach for the mainstream audience explains why Van Sant’s storytelling techniques become more apt for the passive mass audience. Peter Bradshaw writes: ‘I felt that Milk is a slightly staid film, closer to the middle-of-the-road side of Gus van Sant’s film-making persona, the bland side’. Considering this analysis, one can determine that Van Sant’s shift to the mainstream has lost the interest of his art film following, to whom the challenge of active viewing is what makes cinema so stimulating. Bordwell corroborates this point, stating that ‘the Hollywood spectator, it is claimed, is little more than a receptacle; few skills of attention, memory, discrimination, inference-drawing, or hypothesistesting are required’. With the continuity style exemplified in Milk, cinematic techniques are purposefully used to stimulate specific emotional responses from the audience at specific times, with the result of a seamless storytelling mechanism. While this lends itself to the forth wall practices of Stanislavski, Idaho sticks to the Brechtian audience engagement, which is related to what Edward Said theorises about the production of meaning: ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense.’ This imperative explicitly distinguishes Idaho from Milk, which demands nothing by receptivity.
Stylistic elements certainly contribute to the production of these varied audience interactions.
Blogger, Tempest in a Teacup, wrote: ‘Van Sant often tailored his use of camera angles and shots, among other cinematographic tools across his films, in a far more experimental manner than the Hollywood blockbuster to enhance his films’ effectiveness in conveying the mood and meaning within his settings’. This corroborates what was aforementioned regarding Milk’s art film aesthetic; however, though this blogger views these cinematographic tools as ‘experimental’, I would argue that this is merely a façade disguising mainstream continuity in order to appeal to a mass audience in search for high-brow capital. Certainly, the context of Van Sant’s previous art-centric filmography provides intertextual reference and prejudice to the reading of this film, though a deeper evaluation proves little outside of Hollywood convention. For instance, the colour and quality of the film gives it a dated look and differentiates it from the over-saturated visuals of most Hollywood blockbusters. Yet, this stylistic choice merely adds credibility by likening it to the real footage from that period; indeed, the use of media footage helps to establish this, creating increased suspension of disbelief rather than challenging experimentation. For example, the real footage announcing the deaths of the politicians provides true emotion that is tangible to the audience who has intertextual knowledge of the true story. Additionally, the use of a handheld camera during crowd scenes enhances realism and audience complicity. Photographic stills, newspaper articles and screen captions, although appearing to be experimentally artistic devices, merely serve to depict how these images would have appeared in the news, and guide the narrative to allow passive viewing.
Very differently, the truly experimental and confronting style of Idaho includes freeze-frames of the characters in sexual positions, which has the opposite effect, estranging the audience. This unrealistic representation draws attention to construct of representation, emphasising the point that nothing can be truly represented through art. It allows the audience to appreciate the sordidness without emotional investment, providing distanced judgment rather than emotional involvement, and active engagement rather than passive narrative guidance. Van Sant uses other distancing techniques such as repeated time-lapse images of flying fish and landscape during scene transitions. This abstract imagery keeps the audience detached and yet curious, demanding full analytical engagement in order to decode metaphorical visuals that represent the loneliness of the characters. Most notable, however, is the inclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and the use of a chorus ensemble; another Brechtian practice, which highlights the use of an ensemble to voice a range of narrative stimulants. These seemingly unfitting sequences challenge the audience to appropriate certain readings and significances to the main plot of Mike’s, the protagonist’s, search for his identity, as well as expecting a certain degree of literacy. The juxtaposition of the two plots creates further fragmentation, requiring invested intellectual engagement from the viewer.
What ultimately distinguished Milk as inherently mainstream in comparison to Idaho is the narrative style. Milk’s non-linear narrative helps to build this idea of an art-film aesthetic, however this essay will argue that the ultimate intention and effect of the narrative is that of a mainstream film. As Robert P. Kolker says of continuity style adopted by Hollywood mainstream cinema: ‘narrative flow is pieced together out of small fragments of action in such a way that the piecing together goes unnoticed and the action appears continuous.’ Notably, this does not specify a linear narrative, and, although the disjointed narrative in Milk jumps back and forth in time, providing almost an art film feel of experimentation with temporality, it serves to reveal layers of the story in a way that most emotionally affects the viewer. For instance, the dramatic irony, including the fact that Milk’s death is announced at the beginning of the film, increases audience sympathy as they watch the action unfold. Additionally, the flashes to Harvey voice recording in 1978 serves as a narrational voice-over rather than any fragmentation of narrative, bringing to audience’s attention to certain significances through reflective narration and guiding rather than distancing. Therefore, this is actually another example of narrative guidance that places the film so firmly in the mainstream category. Moreover, it retains a linear progression and overall structure, meaning it is not truly fragmented or alienating, as it may be art film. Indeed, narrative elements are carefully and strategically tied together by the end in order to dictate exactly how the audience should react.
This narrative flow is aided by the establishment of objectives and plot trajectory, which are progressed over the course of Milk’s campaign. The narrative voice-over is then used to guide the viewer through the progression, giving an unambiguous presentation. On the other hand, in Idaho the plot objective is unclear, apart from the quest for the protagonist’s mother, which comes in the middle and is left unresolved. Here Van Sant uses an episodic structure; although the plot seems to move forwards in time, there is often no clear link or definitive time frame between scenes. Mike Restaino remarks that ‘the structure of the picture was enough to scare anyone who disliked provocative cinematic storytelling right back into the mall where they belonged’. Indeed, the incomprehensive narrative estranges the viewer, making it unpalatable for a mainstream audience who expects to be fluently guided through the film. This lack of structure and trajectory portrays a snapshot of the characters’ lives and emphasises the protagonist’s confused, lonely and loveless existence, allowing the audience to make detached judgments without constant dictation of sympathy, which makes it all the more provocative. Moreover, while Milk’s narration provides seamless and comprehensive transitions, Idaho includes diegetic narration in which the characters provide exposition, monologues in verse, and the notably postmodern moment when the photos in the magazines speak directly to the audience to deliver background information to the prostitution industry. In these moments there is a lack of characterisation, which seems to adhere to Brecht’s technique of stepping out of character and breaking the forth wall in order to remind the viewer that they are watching a film, which further fragments the narrative with the modernist imperative of distancing the spectator.
This leads into the point of character sympathy. Kolker claims that ‘the classical Hollywood style asks…that the audience be embraced by that story, identify with it and its participants’.This definition is also qualified by contemporary Hollywood, and once again places Milk firmly in this category. The film encourages a strong identification with the hero figure, sympathetically portraying his private and public life, his good intentions and his undeniable charm. The exploration of his romantic relationships allows further emotional connection for the viewer. In addition, the antagonists are unambiguously established, being placed as an obstacle for Harvey’s objectives. The audience is able to recognise the offensive statements of the opposing parties as they have been presented with the perspective of the gay community. This hero/antagonist formula is typical of mainstream cinema, making it accessible to a mass audience that is used to passively following a standardised storyline.
This sympathetic investment makes Milk more affecting in comparison to the distanced thought-provoking style of Idaho. Much of the performance in the film is relatively uncharacterised and not complex, with little explicit insight into character motivation. Through detached delivery, the audience is invited to make unmediated judgments of the characters; indeed, we seem to learn more facts about the protagonists than their personalities, which allows an objective perspective. However, there are moments of powerful emotion between the two main characters that are made more powerful in comparison, seeming less contrived and predictable. The chorus characters speak their dreams and experiences but are not explored as characters, with overlapping conversations in chorus scenes providing less realism and more a sense of overwhelming pace of life. This creates little emotional investment as the information is presented unmediated. These choreographed chorus scenes contrast with intimate scenes in which deep feelings are shared, emphasising this fragmentation of two juxtaposing plots that keeps audience intellectually rather than emotionally engaged.
The narrative device that places the definitive nail in Milk’s mainstream categorisation is the inclusion of cathartic resolution. The end scene is made up of an emotive march led by Milk’s supporters. Memorial candles light up the night scene, with sombre faces and the final words of Milk’s voice-over on top of a lyrical piece of music. There is an overwhelming sense of tragedy and hope, almost demanding that the audience see the death as a martyrdom, and to feel despair as well as pride for the character. Such a cathartic ending is typical of Hollywood, which guides the audience to specifically feel a certain way. The musical score is very evident here and throughout the film, as it unambiguously guides narrative affectation, which typifies mainstream passivity.
In Idaho, no resolution is made, as indeed there was no objective established. This is highlighted by the closing caption of ‘have a nice day’, symbolising the mundaneness of the snapshot of life, and emphasising that this kind of life continues after the viewers have stopped watching. The difference between the two endings may be defined by what Colebrook distinguishes as ‘narrative-semantic and stimulant-affective’. In other words, the thought-provoking versus cathartic experience, or cognition versus affect. Mainstream cinema generally does not explicitly invite audience response, while Brechtian techniques in independents such as Idaho provoke a cognitive reaction beyond the cinema, into the social realities of our world.
Finally, one must consider the thematic variances of the two films. While Milk imparts themes of sexual liberation and social revolution, as well as broader concepts such as overcoming adversity, in Idaho there are no such clear-cut morals or impressions. As Bradshaw notes: ‘Van Sant tells a straightforward story of a guy the audience can all cheer for: a sympathetic, non-partisan, and essentially monogamous figure’. This denotes a transition into the mainstream as there is certainly no ambiguity regarding the film’s sympathies or intended morals. For instance, Van Sant’s reading of Dan White’s unresolved sexuality is presented rather than left up to the viewer to decide. The use of the star system is also significant here; David Denby remarks that ‘by casting a famously macho actor as Harvey Milk, Van Sant has made the central humanist desire for self-acceptance and pride newly powerful.’ Certainly, the intertextuality of Penn’s public persona is used to shape these themes.
Scott Tobias ‘found Van Sant drifting away from the personal core’ in his later films such as Milk. Indeed, this shift notes a move away from his auteur work in place of mass-market appeal that demands certain standardised techniques. Although the intertextual knowledge of Van Sant’s work as an art film director may lead to questions of Milk as a mainstream film, it is evident through this investigation of stylistic, narrative and thematic differences from his early work that Milk is inherently mainstream in all of these categories, with the most significant element being the film’s unequivocal narrative guidance.
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 Reni Ernst, The Spectator and not the Actor is the Central Focus of Brecht’s Stagecraft, (Dublin: GRIN Verlag, 2008) p. 3.
 Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, (New York: Routledge, 1989).
 Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 492.
 Gus Van Sant, quoted in ‘All the world’s an art school’ by Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, 24 January 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/jan/24/features.weekend1 [accessed 28.05.13].
 Peter Bradshaw, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].
 David Bordwell, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 7.
 Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983) p 41.
 Tempest in a Teacup Blog, ‘Gus Van Sant’s Milk: We Will Recruit You’, Blogspot, (2010), http://t3mpestinat3apot.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/gus-van-sants-milk-we-recruit-you.html, [accessed 30.05.13].
 Robert P. Kolker, ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000), p. 17.
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 Claire Colebrook, ‘Earth Felt the Wound: The Affective Divide’ in Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (Vol. 8 / No. 1 / Winter 2011), p, 49.
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Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].
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Said, Edward The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983).
Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares, (New York: Routledge, 1989).
Tempest in a Teacup Blog, ‘Gus Van Sant’s Milk: We Will Recruit You’, Blogspot, (2010), http://t3mpestinat3apot.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/gus-van-sants-milk-we-recruit-you.html, [accessed 30.05.13].
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