Dir: Jeffrey Schwarz, 2011. Documentary.

I'll never forget seeing The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo's seminal overview of LGBT representation in American film. I was 19, a college student in Lawrence, Kansas watching it in a documentary film class. It was like oxygen - for the first time I was seeing a film that confirmed gay stories and a gay sensibility had always been a part of Hollywood Cinema. You just had to know where and how to look.

Vito Russo's work as a film scholar synthesized a whole history of gay images and themes in film. The Celluloid Closet is an ecstatic celebration of such iconic gay images as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo in Morocco and the gut-wrenching ensemble piece about life in New York for a group of gay male friends in The Boys in the Band. The movie also serves as a scathing indictment of Hollywood and its "morals" code, a system that perpetuated the false notion that homosexuals didn't exist and, if they did, they had to die by the film's end. It was sobering, educational, cathartic, and celebratory. And the man responsible was not alive to see it because he had died of AIDS years earlier.

Vito is the story of the man behind The Celluloid Closet. His friends and family remember him as a smart kid from New York who knew he was gay from a young age. He loved movies and his scholarship and activism worked in tandem. The film is filled with glorious images of New York in the '70s - crumbling into chaos but terribly exciting looking. The advent of the gay rights movement that began at Stonewall created activist networks such as the Gay Activists Alliance, of which Vito was a part. When they weren't organizing protests and holding meetings they were partying, cruising, and immersing themselves in gay culture and history. Vito held movie nights where he would project films such as The Women and old Mae West films for people from every part of the country who had come to New York to be themselves. The sense of community, of something new happening, is wonderfully apparent.

Vito's story is intertwined with the story of the AIDS crisis in America, the politicians who did nothing (Ed Koch, Ronald Reagan), and the creation of new activist networks such as ACT UP to both protest the hateful ignorance of the country's leaders and to organize a community response to all of these men dying. Vito was at the forefront of this and he never lived to see it end.

Much like The Times of Harvey Milk, Vito is a moving documentary on the life of an extraordinary individual. He was a film archivist who pioneered an entire strain of gay and lesbian studies and an activist pioneer who is remembered for his generosity, warmth, and willingness to speak truth to power.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 9, 2013 6:21pm
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