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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT



Director: Gus Van Sant
Producers: Michael London, Bruna Papandrea, William Horberg
Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black
Cast:Sean Penn, Allison Pill, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1981


Milk opens with archival footage of police raiding gay bars and arresting patrons during the 1950s and 1960s. The film then shows Harvey Milk speaking into a tape recorder nine days before his murder, dictating a letter to be read only in the event of his assassination.

The movie flashes back to New York City in 1970, the eve of Harvey's 40th birthday and his first meeting with Scott Smith, his much younger lover. Harvey had grown unsatisfied with his life because he had done nothing to be proud of. Overcoming hesitation and fear, the couple moves to San Francisco to focus on something meaningful. They also hope to find larger acceptance of their relationship. When they open a camera store in the shadow of the Castro Theater , they learn that even America's most vocal gay community is being systematically persecuted by homophobic police. When Harvey and Scott kiss openly, excited to be in business, a neighbor makes it clear that gay men are not welcome in the once solid Irish-Catholic Castro .

Frustrated by the opposition they encounter, Harvey Milk utilizes his background as a businessman, and his store becomes a location for gay activism. Distributing a list of gay-friendly businesses has its desired impact as gay-hating shops fail. This activism becomes instrumental for the eventual transformation of his working class environment into a predominantly gay neighborhood.

Despite death threats, Milk becomes a fiery orator to stop and prevent violence against gays, as well as forging an alliance with liberals, unions, longshoremen, teachers, Latinos, blacks and others with common cause. He makes powerful appeals to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends and co-workers, so the straight world might stop demonizing them.

Initially Scott serves as Harvey's campaign manager. But his frustration grows with Milk's devotion to politics despite death threats, and he leaves him. Soon Harvey meets Jack Lira, a sweet-natured but unbalanced young man. Because Jack cannot tolerate Milk's devotion to political activism either, he hangs himself.

Harvey Milk loses three elections to a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors but refuses to quit. Each election cycle offers a new glimmer of hope -- an increase in the number of votes received, or a possible rezoning of districts that would open up favorable neighborhoods for more successful election outcomes. He finally wins the election in 1977. His victory makes him the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in the United States.

Milk's success gives hope to many, like Paul, a wheelchair-bound boy in Minnesota who wanted to kill himself because his parents planed to ship him off to a hospital to cure him of homosexuality. Instead, Paul becomes an activist.

At City Hall, Harvey meets the conservative fellow supervisor Dan White, a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, and firefighter. White believes that homosexuality is a sin. He campaigns with his wife, kids and the American flag. Although Milk attends the christening of White's new baby, the conservative supervisor has a growing resentment for Harvey, largely due to the attention paid to Milk by the press and his colleagues.

As they are building a n awkward alliance, White asks for Milk's assistance in preventing a psychiatric hospital from opening in his district in exchange for his support of Milk's citywide gay rights ordinance. When Milk fails to support White, he feels betrayed and casts the sole vote against the ordinance.

Harvey Milk gets national attention for his effort to defeat Proposition 6, which seeks to ban gays and lesbians from working in California's public schools. After working tirelessly against this proposition, Milk and his supporters achieve its defeat.

In the meantime, White promotes a supervisor pay raise. When he does not get much support, he resigns. Under the pressure of the police union, the increasingly unstable White changes his mind and asks the city to recant his resignation . But mayor Moscone denies his request, after having been lobbied by Milk to not reinstate White.

At the next morning, White breaks into City Hall through an office under renovation, to avoid the metal detectors. Moscone rebuffs his request for re-appointment. Enraged, White shoots Moscone and then Milk. 30,000 people come out in a long march from the Castro to City Hall to honor Harvey Milk that night with candles.

The movie suggests that Harvey believed that White might be a closeted gay man. At the end of the film, text on screen tells us that Dan White's lawyers used the infamous "Twinkie Defense" in his trial, claiming chemicals in junk food made him unbalanced and caused him to kill . Therefore his conviction was reduced to voluntary manslaughter, and he served only five years in prison. Less than two years after his release, White committed suicide.

Cinema Alchemy

I had treated 62-year old Amy for cyclothymic disorder for over a year. She had lived in a domestic partnership with her girlfriend Karen for almost a decade when the California Supreme Court issued on May 15, 2008 that marriage must be made available to same-sex couples in California. Amy was very excited about this new opportunity.

The couple planned their wedding for August of the same year and invited about 200 guests. Because of their conservative viewpoint, many of Amy's relatives did not show up. Some did not even acknowledge the wedding. But my client's excitement about their big day was greater than her disappointment about the rejecting attitude of these family members. She was looking forward to the fact that her relationship with Karen would be officially recognized and celebrated by a part of her family and numerous friends.

On their wedding photos, Amy appeared happier than I had ever seen her before. She remarked that her bond with Karen deepened as a result of their celebration at a supportive church in San Francisco. After they enjoyed some special time together on their subsequent honeymoon, my client felt "on top of the world".

Amy's mood changed dramatically with the passing of Proposition 8, the 2008 California voter referendum on gay marriage at the November elections . An article was added to the California Constitution stating that "...only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized...". Her tendency to have mood swings was exaggerated by the sequence of these events. Amy was concerned that her marriage would lose its legal significance. The passing of Proposition 8 also reactivated her grief and pain about the lack of acceptance that she and Karen had experienced from most members of her big Catholic family for many years. "Our relationship is still the same", she said, "why do I feel so bad?"

Feeling helpless and defeated, Amy's mood bordered on a depressive episode. I guided her through processing her pain associated with her family's rejection of her sexual preference, as well as her fear that the legal status of her marriage might be questioned.

The release of Milk had been tied to Proposition 8, when it made its premiere at the Castro Theatre two weeks before Election Day. During one of our sessions a couple of weeks after the election, Amy mentioned that she had just watched this movie. She thought that Harvey Milk's platform was one of hope for a better world tomorrow. Therefore she found his political work very inspiring and wished that she could be as hopeful and determined in his activism as he was.

I explained that the fact that she looks up to Harvey Milk, perhaps even idealizes him, might indicate that there is a not yet discovered part in her that can be hopeful and determined to take action in the face of adversity.

Something sparked in Amy's eyes when she heard this. I asked what she would do if she were Harvey Milk. What does her "Inner Harvey Milk" want to think? This dialog inspired my client to join an activist group that focuses on challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8. Since then her sense of empowerment has grown and her mood has become more balanced.

Theoretical Contemplations

Despite showing Harvey Milk's untimely death, Milk portrays a hero's legacy that resonates in the here and now. Movie characters' stories are often similar to the Hero's Journey in mythology. On their quest the hero goes through phases of hesitation, fear, becoming aware that she cannot go back, facing tests, obstacles, and crises, confronting fear, and gaining new perspective. This applies also to biographically inspired movies. Biopics can have an even more powerful impact on the viewer than those that are based on a fantasy screenplay, because clients empathize strongly with the historical figure who is behind the film character. Harvey Milk started his Hero's Journey at age 40 and faced many challenges before he succeeded.

Using film heroes in Cinema Alchemy supports a client's process because we can make the following assumptions:
Striving toward growth and transformation by working with and taking on life's challenges is part of human nature.
Sometimes this impulse, and our capacity to respond to it in a healthy way, is compromised.
Myths, as products of the collective unconscious, can help us re-access this capacity through modeling.
Movies express our evolving mythology.
Many typical screenplays which mirror real-life transitions are structured in a way that is similar to myths.
Using certain movies in Cinema Alchemy can support our psyche's growth and transformation.

Guidelines ane Questions for Clients

Keep the following questions and suggestions in mind while you watch:

•  Focus on the metaphorical meaning of this movie for you.

•  Notice how Harvey Milk goes through the stages of the Hero's Journey (explain these stages to client).

•  What parts of his journey touches you most?

Questions after the movie :

•  What positive qualities did you recognize in Harvey Milk?

•  How does his journey compare with yours?

•  Did he develop certain capacities that you may have already developed or would like to develop as well?


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy