'Milk' maestro continues to shake it up

Gus Van Sant keeps on proving his versatility. The helmer made alternative arthouse viewing a must-see with “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho.” He helped launch the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting,” proving himself equally adept at studio filmmaking. He even remade Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

With the Gotham Tribute honoree’s latest, Harvey Milk biopic “Milk,” the Portland, Ore.-based helmer again demonstrates his ability to balance experimental and mainstream filmmaking. He has also nurtured a memorable central performance in Sean Penn’s stirring portrayal of the murdered gay activist.

But despite its subject matter, “Milk’s” a long way off from the New Queer Cinema movement of the late ’80s/early ’90s — a wave that Van Sant says he never really embodied. “I’m not in there with the agitprop political films that Derek Jarman, John Greyson and Todd Haynes were doing,” he says. “I wasn’t the political filmmaker; I was the sentimental filmmaker.”

After an ambitious quartet of avant-garde groundbreakers (“Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days,” “Paranoid Park”), “Milk” marks a return to a more traditional — and perhaps sentimental — style for Van Sant. As he says, “If you have a traditional script, you can jazz it up with experiments, but then it just looks like a jazzed-up traditional script.” Rather, Van Sant says he approached “Milk” the same way he tackles all his films. “I always feel like I’m trying to figure out what the film is trying to make itself,” he says. “Films have a life of their own, and you try to recognize that.”

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