July 30, 2015

Rob Epstein's 'The Times of Harvey Milk'

Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Recently, a student in my production class at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism wielded the term "talking heads" to dismiss an interview-driven documentary. My initial response was physiological: a tightening of the muscles in my jaw and chest area, a certain twitching of the eye, and a notable increase in respiration, not unlike heavy sighing—in fact, exactly like heavy sighing.

My next response was to screen for my class a scene from Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk.

The first time I saw The Times of Harvey Milk—it must have been in a high school class—I was swept away by its sheer drama, emotion and propulsive energy. It was as engrossing a cinematic experience as any movie I'd ever seen. And yet, there they were—those heads and their damn talking.

The thing is, the movie was not just great in spite of the formal interviews. It was great because of them. The people interviewed in The Times of Harvey Milk were integrally part of the story, the trajectories of their lives forever intertwined with Milk's. Their testimonies were delivered in the first-person, rippling with palpable immediacy. They spoke with such naked openness that at times I wanted to yell at the screen, "Do you realize you are being filmed??"

To say The Times of Harvey Milk influenced me is a monumental understatement—it was, in fact, the film that inspired me to do this work. I've spent a great deal of my career attempting to emulate its form. As it turns out, this is exceedingly difficult, not only because of the striking content and character of the interviews, but also because of the way in which the interviews are constructed in the film (with credit due to editor Deborah Hoffmann).

The interview subjects in The Times of Harvey Milk live independently in their distinct 16mm boxes, but are devoted neighbors in the structure of the film. Often, the remembrances of the interviewees flow together in a continuous stream, as if they are responding not to the filmmakers, but to each other. Each piece of testimony holds hands with the next, like links in a chain; a tapestry of testimony.

There is an alternate universe in which The Times of Harvey Milk parades forth an endless procession of experts, force-feeding us predigested analysis and regurgitated context. Epstein chose not to make that film. He chose to take us into the homes of the gruff union worker, the loquacious school teacher, the fresh-faced campaign manager and the other unforgettable characters in The Times of Harvey Milk.

And that is why, when a well-intentioned graduate student casually invokes the phrase "talking heads," I tend not to envision a bland commentator blah-blahing me to sleep. Instead, I think of the expressiveness of the human face that a camera uniquely captures. I think of the subtle cadence of language, playing like music on the soundtrack. I think of the intense gravitational pull of a person's eyes when they are truly in the moment, sharing something deep and private inside of them.

Not all talking heads are created equal.

 

Dan Krauss’ most recent film, The Kill Team, earned the Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award.

Tags: