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Robert Epstein
Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein (narrator)
Writing Credits:
Judith Coburn (and narration), Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson (and narration)

A true twentieth-century trailblazer, Harvey Milk was an outspoken human rights activist and one of the first openly gay U.S. politicians elected to public office; even after his assassination in 1978, he continues to inspire disenfranchised people around the world. The Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Robert Epstein and produced by Richard Schmiechen, was as groundbreaking as its subject. One of the first feature documentaries to address gay life in America, it’s a work of advocacy itself, bringing Milk’s message of hope and equality to a wider audience. This exhilarating trove of original documentary material and archival footage is as much a vivid portrait of a time and place (San Francisco’s historic Castro District in the seventies) as a testament to the legacy of a political visionary.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 88 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/22/2011

• Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Editor Robert Epstein, Co-Editor Deborah Hoffman and Photographer Daniel Nicoletta
• “Postscript” Featurette
• “Jon Else” Featurette
• “Two Films, One Legacy” Featurette
• “Harvey Milk Recordings”
• “Director’s Research Tapes”
• “From the Castro to the Oscars” Clips
• “The Dan White Case” Clips
• “Harry Britt, Milk’s Successor” Speech Excerpt
• Candlelight Memorial Clip
• Trailer

• 36-Page Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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The Times Of Harvey Milk (Criterion Collection) [Blu-Ray] (1984)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 2011)

Back when Milk hit screens a few years ago, I disliked the film but felt curious to learn more about its subject. I learned of a documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk but couldn’t locate a copy through various rental outlets.

Happily, Criterion has created this Blu-ray of the 1984 documentary, so I can finally give it a look. The film follows a standard format, which means a mix of archival shots and then-new interviews. In the latter domain, we hear from Milk’s city hall aide Anne Kronenberg, political consultant Tory Hartmann, school teacher Tom Ammiano, auto machinist Jim Elliot, Chinese for Affirmative Action executive director Henry Der, TV reporter Jeannine Yeomans, gay activist Bill Kraus, and speech professor Sally M. Gearhart. We also hear from Milk, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, California Senator John Briggs, and San Francisco Supervisor Dan White among others via 1970s clips.

Times covers aspects of Milk’s life and how he ended up in San Francisco. It devotes most of its time to his move into politics and his actions while in office as well as what led to his murder and the aftermath of that crime.

If you want a full exploration of Milk’s life, Times won’t give it to you. It runs through his pre-San Francisco life with alacrity and lets us know almost nothing about his personal side. We have no idea what kind of relationships he had, and we barely know anything about his life before he came to San Francisco.

Perhaps the filmmakers telegraph this with the title, as you’ll notice it’s not called The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. The absence of “The Life” seems telling, as the movie really focuses more on the era and politics than it anything else. That means it doesn’t provide the biography one might expect.

I admit I’d like to know a bit more about “Milk the Man” instead of just “Milk the Public Figure”, but otherwise, I can’t find much fault in the compelling Times. It provides a clear, reasonably dispassionate look at the subject matter, something that’s hard to do with such emotional material.

Not that one should interpret Times as a completely objective film, for it’s definitely not. The movie’s sympathies clearly lie with Milk and his cause, and that’s fine. Frankly, this is a topic that’d be hard to argue the “con” point of view; I’m sure some think that gays don’t deserve rights and that Milk deserved to be killed, but I wouldn’t expect a documentary to lend those bigoted viewpoints any credence.

In any case, within its scope, Times does manage to feel reasonably objective, and it certainly offers a good look at Milk’s career and the important political issues. While not the most three-dimensional look at the man, we do see more than enough of him to get a good feel for his personality. I like the direct manner in which the film depicts its tale. Times avoids silly embellishments, as it uses a standard format to explore its topics.

To my mild surprise, Milk’s murder and the ensuring trial cover a lot more of the movie than expected. I anticipated a film in which we spent about 80 minutes on Milk’s life and politics before five or so minutes about his death.

Instead, Times develops the murder and aftermath as the film’s most important topics. That works surprisingly well, especially as we understand what a miscarriage of justice occurred. Again, the movie doesn’t pour on the histrionics, but it does make its point of view clear.

All of this adds up to a crisp, compelling documentary. I would like a longer version of Times that embraces a broader scope, but I can’t complain about the film we get. It develops a good portrait of an important time in American civil rights.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C/ Audio C/ Bonus A

The Times of Harvey Milk appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. A mix of archival footage and 27-year-old 16mm shots, the movie showed its roots, but it looked fine given its limitations.

Definition varied quite a bit. Like all documentaries of this sort, the archival footage displayed the most inconsistency and problems. Much of that material came from videotape in the form of news clips, and those tended to be fairly mushy. They offered mediocre clarity and muddy colors, and they also came with a smattering of source defects.

While the 16mm footage shot explicitly for Times looked better, it still came with footage-related restrictions. Still, those clips tended to offer decent reproduction. Sharpness was adequate to good, without notable softness; the “talking head” bits demonstrated acceptable clarity but not much better.

The same went for other aspects of the transfer. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and edge haloes were absent. Print flaws failed to appear; the flick tended to be quite grainy, but no specks, marks or debris marred the presentation.

Colors were ordinary. Given the interview format, they didn’t get a lot of room to shine, and the hues remained fine but unexceptional. Blacks were also decent to good, while low-light shots weren’t an issue. Overall, I thought the image wasn’t especially attractive but it represented the source well.

As for the film’s DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack, it didn’t push any envelopes. Actually, I was surprised the movie boasted a surround mix at all; I expected a low-budget documentary from 1984 would opt for mono.

But Times did go with surround – or at least a general sorta kinda surround track. Documentaries don’t usually provide lots of room for exciting audio, and that held true here. Dialogue dominated the film and concentrated on the center channel. Music showed decent stereo presence as well and may have spread lightly to the back speakers, but that was a minor development at best. Effects were a non-factor.

Audio quality was decent. Speech seemed a bit brittle, but the lines were always intelligible and clear. Hiss could be a bit intrusive during interviews, though. Music showed acceptable definition; the score didn’t show lots of punch, but it came across with reasonable pep. Again, effects had little to nothing to do in this flick, so they didn’t matter. This track was nothing special, but it seemed fine for a low-budget documentary from 1984.

We find a pretty good complement of supplements here. We open with an audio commentary from director/co-editor Robert Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman and photographer Daniel Nicoletta. All three sit together for this running, screen-specific discussion of the movie’s goals and themes, how the participants associated with Harvey Milk and his tale, narrative and editing, additional facts about the movie’s characters, financing and development, shooting the interviews and assembling archival footage, and thoughts about personal connections to the era and events.

The commentary becomes a smidgen dry at times, but it usually provides an interesting examination of the film. While the aspects related to the movie’s creation and assembly are good, the track works the best when it gets into the participants’ views on Milk and the era in which he worked. Those personal moments give the commentary an emotional tone that allows it to become more compelling than many.

Three featurettes follow. Postscript runs two minutes, 42 seconds and includes notes from political consultant Tory Hartmann, gay rights activist Bill Kraus, Milk aide Anne Kronenberg and auto machinist Jim Elliot. I probably should’ve called these “deleted scenes”, as they offer bits left out of the final documentary. The participants offer perspective on Milk’s legacy. The remarks are more interesting than the expected praise, especially in Elliot’s case. In the film, he talks about how getting to know Milk completely changed his perspective on gays, and the story he tells here proves that even more.

In the next piece, filmmaker Jon Else provides a 19-minute, 48-second take on Times. He discusses the film’s structure and offers an appreciation of it. Else digs into the movie in a satisfying manner.

During the 22-minute, 57-second Two Films, One Legacy, we go into Times and 2008’s Milk. This one offers notes from Kronenberg, Epstein, Nicoletta, director Gus Van Sant, actor James Franco, and Milk’s friends Cleve Jones. We get a few notes about the creation of the first movie, its legacy and the eventual development of the 2008 flick. The program has its moments but seems a little general and not especially memorable, though I admit my dislike of Milk might’ve influenced my feelings.

Historical material comes next via Harvey Milk Recordings. This offers a 13-minute, 51-second compilation of audio and video pieces that feature the real Milk. These include “Out of the Bars and Into the Streets” (audio, 13:51), “Texas Gay Conference Five” (audio, 47:34), “Harvey Milk Speaks Out” (video, 2:45), “Anti-Proposition 6 Election Night Party” (audio, 10:04) and “Harvey Milk’s Political Will” (audio, 13:18). All of these offer a good snapshot of the real Milk, though “Will” is the most chilling, as it’s one example of the recordings Milk made to be played if he was assassinated.

More archival work shows up under Director’s Research Tapes. Like “Postscript’, this section could be viewed as deleted scenes; the area presents six segments with subjects left out of the final film. We hear from Milk’s long-term partner Scott Smith (26:56), Bay Area Reporter publisher Bob Ross (8:37), political organizer Amber Hollibaugh (14:25), political organizer/former City Hall intern Cleve Jones (14:31), San Francisco Superior Court judge Lillian Sing (5:34) and Gay Teachers Coalition co-founder Hank Wilson (9:50). With a running time of nearly 80 minutes, the “Tapes” almost become their own feature-length film. You’ll find tons of great material here; it’s too bad the disc doesn’t let us know why the filmmakers opted not to feature any of these participants.

Under From the Castro to the Oscars, we find two pieces. “Premiere at the Castro Theatre” (7:36) shows footage from the movie’s November 1, 1984 debut, while “A Night at the Oscars” (3:06) lets us see the 1985 victory for Times. The first is somewhat dull, but the second is enjoyable, as it’s fun to see Kathleen Turner give out the prize and we also get to check out the acceptance speech from Epstein and producer Robert Schmiechen.

Two more components show up within The Dan White Case. “News Clips” (4:05) offers segments with or about White, while a November 2003 “Panel Discussion” (29:29) features Deputy District Attorney Jim Hammer and White’s attorneys Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr. The two defense attorneys do most of the talking, and they make this a fascinating look at their side of the legal process. “Clips” are also fine, though we don’t get enough of them to add up to much.

Harry Britt, Milk’s Successor offers a nine-minute, 49-second excerpt from a speech. Britt offers an appreciation for Milk and his legacy. It’s not the disc’s most memorable piece, but it’s a decent examination of Milk’s personality and work.

In addition to the film’s trailer, the disc ends with Candlelight Memorial. From the 25th anniversary of the murders, the seven-minute, 20-second piece offers comments from Mayor George Moscone’s daughter Rebecca and longtime San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano. Like some other components found here, this one’s best for archival purposes, but it’s not particularly illuminating.

Like all Criterion releases, Times comes with a booklet. In this 30-page text, we get essays from professor/critic B. Ruby Rich, Milk’s nephew Stuart, and UCLA Senior Film Restorationist Ross Lipman. As always, we get good information and thoughts in these interesting articles.

2008’s Milk created renewed interest in its subject, but it was a sappy one-dimensional film. 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk provides a much stronger view of its lead character and develops a clearer, more informative take on the material at hand. The Blu-ray comes with acceptable picture and audio as well as an excellent array of supplements. Skip the drippy Gus Van Zant biopic and go with the much superior Times instead.

Viewer Film Ratings: 5 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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