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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English DTS-HD 2.0 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary featuring director Robert Epstein,coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta
  • New interview with documentary filmmaker and UC Berkeley professor Jon Else
  • New program about The Times of Harvey Milk and Gus Van Sant's Milk, featuring Epstein, Van Sant, actor James Franco, and Milk friends Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, and Nicoletta
  • Postscript containing interview clips not used in the film
  • Rare collection of audio and video recordings of Harvey Milk
  • Interview excerpts from Epstein's research tapes
  • Footage from the film's Castro Theatre premiere and the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony
  • Panel discussion on Supervisor Dan White's controversial trial
  • Excerpts from the twenty-fifth anniversary commemoration of Milk's and Mayor George Moscone's assassinations
  • Original theatrical trailer

The Times of Harvey Milk

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Robert Epstein
1984 | 88 Minutes | Licensor: Telling Pictures

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #557
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: March 22, 2011
Review Date: March 23, 2011

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SYNOPSIS

A true twentieth-century trailblazer, Harvey Milk was an outspoken human rights activist and the first openly gay U.S. politician 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, like its subject, groundbreaking. 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 archival footage and heartfelt interviews 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.

Forum members rate this film 8/10

 

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PICTURE

Robert Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz transfer.

Because the film is made up of 16mm footage along with television footage there are some limitations but in general this transfer is very strong. It presents surprisingly stunning colours, and strong definition and details when the source allows.

The source materials are in strong shape, with very little damage. The film is very grainy of course, but it looks natural and very film-like. Unfortunately details are limited and the picture can be fuzzy and/or out-of-focus because of the source materials. Overall I can’t say there’s anything really special about the presentation but I also can’t say there’s anything bad; it’s a perfectly fine transfer for a film primarily shot on 16mm with television clips thrown in.

7/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

I pretty much had the same reaction to the audio that I did with the video: in the end the linear PCM mono track sounds perfectly acceptable and doesn’t have anything severely wrong with it but at the same time there’s nothing particularly special about it. Interviews recorded for the documentary sound great, as does Harvey Fierstein’s unique voice as the narrator but footage pulled from television or other stock footage is weaker and sounds generally hollow. Mark Isham’s score has a few moments where I felt it was maybe a little harsh and edgy, but in general it’s probably the strongest aspect with a little more range to it. Still, it’s a decent if unspectacular mono presentation, but expected for the nature of the film.

6/10

SUPPLEMENTS

I figured there was a lot of material out there that could be loaded in the supplements on here but I have to confess I was still absolutely stunned as to how much is on here: this disc is packed full of material. (As a note this film was previously released by New Yorker Video. I have never actually seen that DVD edition, but it was also a fairly loaded special edition. Judging by the specifications for features on that disc it appears most of the material has made it over to this edition.)

The first feature is an audio commentary featuring director Robert Epstein, coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta. It was recorded originally for the 2004 New Yorker DVD but according to the notes for the track here, Criterion has reedited the track, adding in new material (unfortunately I cannot say what that is.) In all it’s a decent commentary but I felt it was maybe too by-the-numbers. Everyone goes over the production and covers the difficulties behind editing the film together, coming up with a narratively driven non-fiction film. This aspect is probably the most fascinating part to the commentary, especially when they reach the “third act” of the film, which follows Dan White’s trial, where they talk about how they were able to make the sudden shift in focus work. They also talk about the amount of research, how they chose the people to interview (and, amusingly to me, everyone is referred to as “characters”) and do reflect on the time period. For me, though, it was the latter aspect that was most disappointing to me; I was actually expecting them to talk maybe a little more about Milk, who Epstein had been around at the time, and more about the climate, though they do touch on this here and there. In all it’s fine, but, considering the subject of the film and how it all came together, I found it maybe just a little too technical.

Postscript is a 3-minute alternate ending to the film, sort of wrapping up the impact Milk had on the interviewees gathered here, with tough blue collar worker Jim Elliot offering a personal story in the final moments. I liked what Epstein was trying to do here but he was probably right in cutting it; it does slightly change the focus of the film but I’m glad it was included here for us to see.

A 3-minute theatrical trailer comes next, followed immediately by an interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else who spends 20-minutes talking about The Time of Harvey Milk, which he uses in his film courses. He admires how it actually makes its 3-act structure work and how it so cohesively tells its story almost entirely in news clips and archival footage, and how well Epstein and crew chose their interview subjects to keep the focus of the film in the right place, treating everyone the film is about with respect, even Dan White. He points out a lot of things I’ve never really noticed (how the narration is actually used very sparingly, only to fill in holes) and really pulls out a lot of the subtleties that make the film as amazing as it is.

Two Films, One Legacy is a new documentary made by Criterion offering an examination of this documentary and Gus van Sant’s 2008 film Milk starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. Running 23-minutes it gathers interviews with Rob Epstein, Daniel Nicoletta, activist Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, director Gus van Sant, and actor James Franco. Some of the same material covered in the commentary is unfortunately repeated here on The Times of Harvey Milk, but the doc picks itself up once it starts getting into the long struggle that went into getting a fictionalized film made on Milk (which is full of a lot of put downs aimed at Oliver Stone, who was apparently interested in directing the film.) Nice inclusion.

And this edition wouldn’t be complete without more footage or recordings of the real Harvey Milk. Included here are a collection of recordings of Harvey Milk. I admittedly only sampled these five audio clips, which total almost 90-minutes. The clips include political responses like the response to the Dade Country, Florida Gay ordinance appeal (“out of the bars and in to the streets”), his campaign against prop 6 and his response to its defeat. There’s also a 47-minute clip of Milk’s speech at the Texas Gay Conference, and then finally a 13-minute recording of his will to be played after his assassination (parts of which are played in the film.)

Next is 80-minutes worth of interview footage, or research tapes as it’s referred to, shot by Epstein while preparing for the film. This is rough footage, shot on video in black and white so I assume it wasn’t intended for the actual film. Of the six interviews the best and most personal one may be the one with Scott Smith, Milk’s partner. His interview takes up about 27-minutes and he talks about first meeting Harvey in New York, moving to San Francisco, their life there, and then Harvey getting into politics, and even shares a story about why he shaved his moustache. Also here is: Bob Ross, publisher of the Bay Area Reporter, who talks for 8-minutes on the impact Milk made, specifically to the youth; political organizer Amber Hollibaugh for 15-minutes on certain events; Milk’s city hall intern, Cleve Jones, talks for around 14-minutes about being taken under Harvey’s wing after being a little more radical in his politics; Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing just talks about her thoughts on the man for more than 5-minutes, followed by Hank Wilson, co-founder of the Gay Teachers Coalition for 9-minutes. Though one would think that these interviewees should have made it into the film (especially Smith) it’s mentioned elsewhere in the set Epstein and crew were not interested in making a personal film about Milk, and these subjects would have probably made it more of a personal bio. They’re great inclusions here.

From The Castro to the Oscars are two pieces of footage. The first is a 7-and-a-half minute video recording from the premiere of the film at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco in November of 1984, featuring Epstein and producer Schmiechen talking about the film. Following this is a 3-minute clip from the Oscars, where Kathleen Turner presents the Award for Best Documentary to Epstein and Schmiechen. The two then give their acceptance speech.

The Dan White Case is a section completely devoted to Dan White and his murder trial. First in this section is 4-minutes worth of news clips not used in the film, including footage of when White handed in his fire fighter badge when he took on the job as Supervisor along with footage of him as an amateur boxer.

We then get a 30-minute Panel Discussion recorded in 2003 about the trial, featuring defense attorneys Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr (who both defended White) and current (at the time of the recording at least) Deputy D.A. Jim Hammer. Hammer, who talks about being a closeted young man in the late 70’s only talks a little during the segment, mostly pointing out the mistakes he feel the prosecution made. The feature is more Schmidt and Scherr’s show, and despite the controversy around the case and the anger that still resonates around the verdict, they do hold themselves up rather well. They do remind everyone at this discussion that they were simply doing their job and that they just received quite a few lucky breaks during the trial, primarily that the prosecution wanted a more conservative jury which played more in favour for the defense, with the defense admitting that a more liberal jury would have been more of an issue for them. They address the “Twinkie defense” and how they feel they felt that aspect of the defense was overblown, and also talk about White on a more personal level, describing him as something of a zombie who never really seemed to be there. Though some in the audience do have some resentment towards them, Hammer does point out how the prosecution pretty much played right into the defenses’ hands. It’s an interesting discussion and another great inclusion on the set.

Next is some footage shot for the 25th anniversary of the assassination, starting with a 10-minute speech by Harry Britt, Milk’s Successor, who talks about the impact Milk had on politics and the gay community, and then we get 7-minutes of footage from a candlelight memorial for Milk and mayor George Moscone, featuring speeches by Moscone’s daughter Rebecca, and then human rights activist Tom Ammiano.

The booklet includes a couple of nice essays, including one on the film by B. Ruby Rich, a wonderful tribute to Harvey Milk by his nephew Stuart, and then finally Ross Lipman, from the UCLA Film and Archive, writes about the restoration of the film.

It took a while to get through everything on here, the disc filled with hours’ worth of supplements, all of it as a whole adding some great value to this edition, adding so much more to the film.

10/10

CLOSING

A fantastic edition, and one of Criterion’s best so far this year. It delivers a strong transfer of the film’s beautiful new restoration, and adds on an incredible amount of value with the supplements. A great Blu-ray edition for a fantastic documentary.


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