575 Castro St.

Dir. by Jenni Olson

Rather than write about the “Voices Carry” shorts program, which was a jarring and poorly curated combination of Roy Andersson/Terry Gilliam wannabes and thoughtful documentaries, I want to focus, instead, on 575 Castro St., Jenni Olson’s cleverly conceived piece about Harvey Milk. The film is seven minutes long and consists of only four static shots, along with an opening title that contextualizes what we’re seeing:

In February 1977, the San Francisco Gay Film Festival was born when a self-described “ragtag bunch of hippie fag” filmmakers got together and projected their Super 8 short films on a bed sheet. Many of these films explored gay themes, but (like many other experimental films of the era) many were simple light and motion studies. Most of these films passed through Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera Store at 575 Castro St. for processing.

In 2008, the Castro Camera Store was recreated at that address for Gus Van Sant’s film MILK. This film was shot on that set.

I’ve quoted the text in full because it’s as essential to Olson’s project as any of the shots are. It’s as essential as the soundtrack, which is an edited recording of the “In Case I’m Assassinated” tape that Milk made while seated alone at the desk in his store. The film works wonderfully on the most basic level — that is, as a haunted image. When I spoke to Olson after the screening, she told me how overwhelming it was to visit the set, to listen to Milk’s voice, and to know that it was here — right here — that he contemplated his imminent murder. She’s translated that experience well to her film, which is ghostly and deeply moving. But, of course, it wasn’t right here that Milk made his tape. This is a meticulously dressed set. That’s Sean Penn in the top-left corner (see the image above). It’s artifice. Make-believe. Harvey’s been gone for more than thirty years now.

A few ways of looking at 575 Castro St.:

As a history of film technology — I’d forgotten that Milk owned a camera shop, and didn’t realize he processed Super 8 there and played a role in the making (literally) of gay cinema. That made the experience of watching 575 Castro St. interesting in two ways: first, Olson’s film was projected not onto a bedsheet but onto a large screen in a stadium-seated multiplex; second, shot digitally, projected digitally, this “film” required no physical processing whatsoever. Olson didn’t need a shop like Harvey’s. Her medium is ones and zeroes rather than celluloid. You can even watch 575 Castro St. online.

As a “simple light and motion” study — I wish I were familiar with the specific films Olson is alluding to in the text of the film’s opening title. A longtime collector, archivist, and critic of LGBT cinema, she is presumably offering her film as an homage to those who came before her and claiming her place in their line. Each of the four shots lasts a bit longer than the one that precedes it, and the final shot lasts for nearly three minutes, or just under half of the film’s total run time. It’s a beautiful image. Sunlight reflecting off of passing cars illuminates the wall and gives a curious movement to the static shot. I would have happily watched it for several minutes more.

As tragedy tourism — One consequence of the extended shot lengths is that viewers are allowed the time to thoroughly and freely explore each image. As a result, we become consciously aware of the artificiality of it all. The opening shot could be from 1977, until we spot two late-model cars pass outside the storefront windows. The last shot could be vintage as well, until we recognize Mr. Penn. I have a theory that, because 21st-century Americans’ lives are marked by such comfort and politeness (generally speaking), we have a strange desire to associate ourselves, personally, with other people’s tragedy, as if doing so will grant us access to some hidden, distant experience and wisdom. Hence the Martin Luther King, Jr. museum at the Memphis hotel where he was gunned down and, more recently, our commitments to “never forget” the victims of 9/11, the Virigina Tech shootings, the Minnesota bridge collapse (remember that one?), and on and on. When the Harvey Milk museum is eventually built, somewhere in the Castro, Olson’s film will likely play on a constant loop there. Which isn’t to say it’s not genuinely moving. It is. But it’s also one step removed from the genuine. It’s a tourist destination.

As a comment on the Hollywood biopic — I’ve bumped Milk to the top of my Netflix queue, although, truthfully, even as a great fan of Gus Van Sant, I don’t have high expectations for it. Traditional biopics — and especially Hollywood productions about recent historical figures — are hamstrung, I think, by a wealth of extratextual pressures. Large budgets demand large returns, and that economic pressure necessitates the transformation of a complex, messy life into a coherent and familiar narrative. (Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a recent and remarkable exception that proves the rule.) Hollywood biopics also tend to be marketed as acting showcases and “prestige” pictures, which forces audiences to view the film through a thin veil of celebrity. Plus, there’s always that nagging problem of verisimilitude. (I’ve always liked E. L. Doctorow’s response to critics of his “inaccurate” depiction of real historical figures in Ragtime: “I don’t know if these events actually happened, but I’m absolutely confident they’re true.”) Again, that photo of Sean Penn is key here. 575 Castro St. challenges every formal tendency of the Hollywood biopic — it’s short, slow, contemplative — but, in a way, it is a Hollywood biopic. On a practical level, an independent filmmaker like Olson would rarely have the resources to access and dress a location like this. And, presumably, those of us who are interested in a film like 575 Castro St. approach it with those same preconceptions about Penn’s performance and celebrity, even if we haven’t seen Milk. (Such is the nature of contemporary media saturation.) It’s a clever interrogation of the form, I think.

As a document of progress — Finally, as uncanny and heartbreaking as it is to hear Harvey Milk confess his fears, there’s something celebratory (not quite the right word) about 575 Castro St., too. This is not a nostalgia piece or maudlin reveille. Even down to its digital form, it is very much a document of the present moment. When Milk mentions that, rather than rioting on news of his death, he would rather see “five, ten, a hundred, a thousand rise” and come out, we know that his dream is slowly but steadily becoming realized.