Back when I was struggling with my first (never completed) novel, I first heard about the concept of the Great American Novel, something that “represents the spirit of life in the United States at the time of its writing.” The more I thought about the notion, the more I realized how elusive it was.
To be sure, some have claimed (and with good cause) that Melville’s Moby Dick and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn were each a great novel in the nineteenth century, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or perhaps East of Eden in the previous century.
Has there been one since?Â And has there been a great American movie?
Perhaps, in our more visual culture, with movies one of the primary media, a film would represent the spirit of a gay individual at a given age. We do seem to long for such a flick. It’s why, I believe, some gay activists got so upset (accusing the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences of “homophobia” when Brokeback Mountain) did not receive the accolades they believed it was due.
Seeing such a well-made movie draw significant attention and substantial audiences outside our community seemed a sign that we had such a film. Similarly, I think this search for a movie defining the spirit of era through an individual is why Milk was as hyped as much as it was. And to be sure, Milk, in many ways, portrays an era in the life of gay America.Â Does it define that era?
But, good as the movie was, it doesn’t reach the elusive heights of an all-encompassing gay movie. From what I heard about the flick before going to see it, it does seem that some of my peers saw it as such.Â But, it seems they were reading their hopes into as much as anything.Â (To be sure, it may well have been that film for them.Â So, maybe, in one sense, it is such a movie to those individuals at least.)
Once again, if people didn’t expect such great things from certain works of art, we might better appreciate them for what they are. Milk was a good movie, with excellent editing, set design and, above all, acting.
I doubt, however, we’ll continually return to it in years to come as people in years past have returned to Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath.