One thing I think is very interesting about non-queer people reviewing queer movies is that non-queer people seem to believe that the movie itself will explain all the context in overt ways and that where it doesn’t it’s identical to non-queer media. But that’s not true.
Since queer media was not just rejected but violently censored by bigoted allocishet normative culture, it developed artistically to NOT explain itself. Either you know the language, symbolism, nonverbal cues, tropes (or subverted tropes), and context or you don’t. It was dangerous to hold the viewers’ hands, so we held each other’s gaze instead.
The true meaning in queer media (especially 20th century queer media) is between the lines. It’s said sideways through comparisons and things that sound like they’re saying mundane things if you’re not paying attention. It developed in response to needing to hide, but (as queer people often do) it became a game and high art. A different and more complex way of really seeing the world full of beautiful nuance and subtlety. It assumes the audience is perceptive and intelligent.
It is very interesting to me how often even highly intelligent non-queer reviewers simply act like entitled tourists believing all the context and complexity will simply be explained to them or is identical to the context of non-queer movies. We are outsiders on display to them because they’ve never been neglected as valued viewers. But queer people often make media for ourselves in our happy little niche.
Roger Ebert’s review panning Big Eden is a perfect example. Ebert was a great critic, but he was simply too ignorant to understand what he was seeing. That this movie was revolutionarily defiant BY being soft, cheesy, and totally accepting.
It dared to imagine a backwoods Montana town with virtually no queermisiac, racist, or sexist bigotry where the conflict came from queer people (baselessly) fearing they wouldn’t be accepted because of negative outside cultural pressure. Where Widow Thayer assumes Henry is straight in the absence of information (which she corrects as soon as she realizes he’s gay), and Dean not being able to internally accept his own queer feelings was literally the only whiff of bigotry existing in the whole film.
Ebert couldn’t understand why Henry would be so angry at Dean for leading him on with affection after 18 years apart when Dean couldn’t follow through. He completely misses the stated context that Henry spent years trying to work out his yearning for this guy. Hemissed that internalized homophobia is a powerful force in every LGB person’s life and that ultimately Henry is just tired of waiting for something that’s never really going to happen. This can also be understood in contrast to Torch Song Trilogy.
In Torch Song Trilogy, Arnold is biphobic & Ed can’t accept himself, and they both hurt each other over this for years. Until eventually, they come to the place where Arnold accepts bisexuality, Ed fights for his own wholeness & his courage to be out, & they find happiness.
In Big Eden by contrast, Henry isn’t particularly biphobic, though to some degree the film equates bi people not being self-accepting with them being straight (Torch Song Trilogy starts with Arnold saying trying to date “terminally straight” men will only lead to sorrow). Henry can accept Dean is bisexual but Dead can’t, & that ultimately leads to anger & sorrow. The unstated context is that Henry fought for years to be out as gay in New York & he’s irritated Dean wants him to fight Dean’s battle, too. He’s tired of being queer being a struggle.
Especially when he realizes Pike’s been yearning for him the same amount of time and is surrounded by people who support him fully and just want to see him happy. Pike represents the antithesis of queerness as struggle. He’s literally a bringer of good gay food.
Pike’s retelling of the Onondagan Seven Sisters myth (about the stars also known as the Pleides) is 100% about Henry being closeted (the secret dance), feeling unsatisfied with his prospects in the town (pining for Dean unrequited), and leaving for New York to be a star of the art world and forgetting where he came from. Only to fall back from the heavens to the town. Pike wants to feed him (literally and gayly figuratively) so he’ll stay this time. In many ways, it’s one of the most passionate things Pike says in the whole film. A vulnerable moment of really sharing himself in a way he often reserves. And yet it’s entirely between the lines. Not because the movie is hiding its queerness, but because this is our language, our way of thinking, and our art.
What Big Eden never says directly but every queer viewer knows is that imagining a world of queer joy and positivity is a very radical act. Rest is revolutionary to those denied it. home and safety and family are a revolutionary bubble. But non-queer reviewers who always get that rest couldn’t understand why it was a big deal.
More recently we see that in the 2011 French film “The Intouchables” about a quadriplegic man & his care helper. While it is a non-queer film, there are parallels to how it actively resists the idea that life ends at disability or a prison record. It was also panned as too fluffy and unrealistic (despite being based on a true story).
Even good reviewers so often can’t see past their own privileged comfort to how powerful these films are simply in being comforting when that comfort is repeatedly often violently denied. They assume everyone shares their experience. This is why the context of the artist matters. If Big Eden was a straight movie it would be very pedestrian. As a gay film, it flung open doors by doing something we’d never gotten on that level. It subverted all the tropes by claiming them as natural and obvious to itself. Its normalness was profoundly abnormal. It’s held up remarkably well over time, too, as it really does become the normal some places have.