Every night, before I go to bed, I drink a glass of Milk.
Due to my age, if not my build, some, perhaps many, find this weird. “Why?” they ask. Because I like it. Of course, my affinity to dairy in all its forms and consistencies is no secret. But ‘like’ refers more strongly to similitude than preference in this case. If I dare borrow a page from Foucault (admittedly, a worn out, tattered and crumpled page) milk is a technology of the self to me. We all choose, or have chosen for us, those things, acts, and codes that shape who we are; the devices we use, the mythology we believe, the morals we follow, the notions, concepts and clichés that give meaning to who we are, and what we want others to see us for. My Rite of Milk, besides being thoroughly very enjoyable, defines me to myself and to others, because of its history and symbolism.
Long ago, well before The Dude, from The Big Lebowski, made White Russian (a cocktail of vodka, coffee liqueur and cream or milk, in case you got confused with the Tzar’s Caucasian subjects) famous, I would ask for milk mixed with alcohol at the regular Paceville haunts. This choice was motivated by something akin to the sleazy reverse snobbism of the Dude. Much of the pleasure of such concoctions was derived from explaining to the balking bar hand that since they served cappuccino they ought to have milk at the bar, ergo, it ought to be easy for them to serve my whimsy. The humble arrogance of the Dude’s ignorance is all there in the mixture of milk—the food of infants with vodka—the food of drunks. Then I was but a silly teen.
The story that instigated me to ‘come out’ with my milk fetish as an adult is that of Leon: The Professional. The film is a masterpiece, but the story is an old meme. The tough and unbeatable assassin is but a simple child beneath the outer shell. And what device does Luc Besson use to expose Leon’s inner child? A daily glass of pure white milk! Indeed, it is his craving for milk, that is for innocence, that leads to his ultimate demise. When he opens the door for Mathilda, saving her from the villains and starting their relationship, she is bringing him his milk. Milk, pure white and innocent it is not! Take the milk bar scene from A Clockwork Orange. Not only is the allusion to drugs obvious, but the milk is served from the nipples of cold plastic female figures in erotic poses. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sLX8bcgwGs The Melkweg (Dutch for Milky Way) in Amsterdam is rumoured to have been the club that inspired Kubrick’s milk bar (or perhaps its the other way round: urban legends are hard to verify or deny). While today this club is very market conformant it still maintains its role as a totem for hedonists of all stripes, a place to meld together in the letting down of hair and taboo. Attachment to milk beyond childhood is not unlike drugs, a product of nature, that society deems unnatural to consume, for it gives you the illusion you need not act all grown up.
The sinister side of milk’s symbolism, and its octopedian intertwinement with our culture is perhaps nowhere more artfully deployed than in Inglorious Basterds. Perhaps I need to refer to another worn out tattered page for this anecdote, that of the ‘limits of interpretation’, but then again, this being a Tarantino film, even Umberto Eco might enjoy a wee bit of deconstruction in its regard. When Colonel Landa visits the La Pedite farm to intellectually blackmail the French farmer into betrayal, Landa refuses his host’s offer of a glass of wine (which alongside cognac is perhaps a major contributor of that French je ne sais quoi we so love to enviously deplore). No, he wants a glass of milk. The fruit of the very land he will shortly spill blood on. He wants to keep control, and familiarise himself with his territory. As he sips the milk he drains the farm of its vitality. And after rationalising the actions he is about pursue, he proceeds to order the massacre of another Jewish family. He leaves nothing behind but a milk stained glass. Landa’s choice of drink, and his eulogy to the people and cows who made it, is reflection of how conquerors use local knowledge against those they oppress, and how they rationalise the atrocities they commit, a practice the Nazis refined to its ultimate malevolence. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Xgj1Csnr_w
Only Shosanna, a teenage girl, manages to escape the massacre. We find her years later, in Paris, with a new identity, running a cinema. Through a twist of events I will not retell for the benefit of those who still have to watch the film, she ends up having dinner with Nazi top brass, amongst them Goebbels. Colonel Landa prances in to join them. Without being in any way explicit, he makes it very clear that he has recognised Shosanna, and is still very much in full control. He simply offers her a glass of milk. French milk to be sure, for they are in Paris, but while Tarantino does not reveal it, I would presume that in a restaurant where Goebbels has dinner it goes without saying that it’s pasteurised milk, cleansed by technology of any nasty Frenchness in it. By placing a glass of milk in front of her, Shosanna is rendered fragile and vulnerable. This simple white liquid is once more loaded with sinister meaning. But we never see Shosanna touch the milk with her lips. Has she refused the Nazi rationalisation? Is it a presage of things to come?
Well, you’ll have to watch the film (again I hope) to find out. I cannot reveal any more, or I would spoil the fun and as they say it is useless to cry over spilt milk. Unless its actual milk being spilt and you are a hungry refugee in the desert. I am referring to a scene from Three Kings, a film featuring George Clooney and Ice Cube. A film of much less artistic merit than the ones mentioned up to now, to be sure. This film is a relatively standard Hollywood action movie. After the US forces have won back Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, during the ‘mopping up’ operations, a band of rouge US solders go after some gold the Iraqis had taken from the Kuwaitis. It’s your run of the mill tough guys chasing loot have their hearts softened by human suffering and end up saving the day. Still it has its good moments. In this film I saw for the first time the use of special effects revealing the internal organs of the body as they are damaged by a bullet (something now overused by CSI and the crime genre). It also uses some decent photography to give a feel for the desert glare. Before I digress to far, let me describe the spilt milk scene. A tank-trailer truck is speeding towards a village held by Iraqi forces. It looks like its a fuel tanker that is going to ram the soldiers’ position. There is some shouting and confusion and a rocket is fired. And this being a Hollywood action flick you get ready for the inevitable fire ball. Instead the trunk jack-knifes, rolls over and splits open spilling its contents onto the ground. A river of milk spills onto the sand. It was a dairy truck, not a fuel tanker! Phew! Disaster averted. The disaster is of course the tired trope of fire-storm and bodies flying about. The human disaster is actually worst. The next scene shows the women of the village desperately trying to collect the milk off the ground into whatever containers they can find, with kids crying and a sense of despair at the loss of this critical resource. By juxtaposing our white liquid friend—milk with the absent fuel from oil, and replacing the explosion with the rush to collect milk from the ground, the director manages to show the desperation of this war so much more effectively. When we see milk literally spilt, in tanker quantities to boot, we know that there is all the reason to cry.
Dairy products come in as large a variety of forms as film genres (just consider that there are about 400 variants of cheese in the UK alone!). It is so much a part of our cultural heritage that it is no surprise that it also finds its way into peoples names. Harvey Milk was a gay activist and California’s first openly gay elected official. The film Milk, with Sean Penn, is the story of his struggle. Great story, brilliant film. In the series Prison Break (Season 3 to be precise, and please don’t ask how I got that far into it) the ruthless top dog in the prison is nicknamed Lecchero. He earned this nickname when, at 13, he disguised himself as a lechero (milkman) in order to kill his mother’s rapist. What could be more harmless than the milkman?
We go about our lives with milk being largely inconsequential. It is intertwined with so many stories, with myriad contrasting meanings, yet it goes mostly unnoticed. It only takes one milk moment to bring it all into focus. Such as it happens in Snatch. It takes the casual tossing out of an innocuous carton of milk, from the window of a van onto the windscreen of a car, to bring all the treads of the story together. Guy Ritchie could have chosen to make Turkish drink tomato juice, or organic plum juice, but somehow milk fits the part best. So next time you pick that box of Benna at the supper market, of pull it out of the fridge to spoil your coffee with, pause for a moment and think about it: you are partaking in bit of innocent pure white liquid decadence that threads its way through western culture and reveals itself in the best (and some of the worst) of its cinematic art. This is why I drink milk.
Philip Serracino Inglott read Philosphy and Information Technology at the University of Enschede, the Netherlands. He currently resides in Luxembourg.