Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz
Being a part of a younger generation I did not know who the subject of the award-winning documentary Vito was, although I am familiar with his work, having seen glimpses of The Celluloid Closet when I still had TCM. The documentary is generous towards neophytes, regurgitating The Celluloid Closet’s major points and arcs in Hollywood’s depiction of homosexuality. My knee-jerk stance on the work is (counter?)reactionary, almost comparing it to ‘newly surfaced evidence’ that historical figures like Abraham Lincoln were gay. In a layman’s reductive terms, not everyone in the history of the world is gay. Sure, the existence of the Hays code, which prohibits ‘profane’ words and actions, especially homosexuality, meant that directors who have worked between 1934 to 1966, many of whom are gay, had to depict queerness on the down low. I might get in trouble for saying this or wording the rest of this paragraph incorrectly, but ‘looking at subliminal messages’ can also devolve into overreading. But he can also be seeing homosexuality as a fleeting act between one person to another as opposed to a declarative commitment. And there’s a valid argument for both perspectives of sexuality without attaching a stigma towards a character as forever being ‘un-straight’ just because he had one encounter. Again, The Celluloid Closet questions viewpoints and depictions of sexuality, making us wonder if there’s a difference between homosexual and homo-social (a fancy word for Scorsesean bromance). Besides, if characters like dowdy maids are conventionally accepted as gay, why can’t two masculine men taking to each other about their ‘special gifts’ be seen similarly? Vito, strategically, also looks at Russo’s gay activism in the cultural front, with his TV show, tours and Celluloid Closet lectures.
Vito also looks at his early life. He starts out with having four gay friends when he was still in New Jersey in the early 1960’s to his sexual awakening later that decade, as New York City expands the number of gay friends and lovers. The big city has also given him access to the movies, watching them as well as showing them to crowds of gay men who have a unique perspective of these movies separate from conventional audiences.
The documentary also shows his political struggle, starting from when he was witnessing the bathhouse raids and suicides of persons within a yet-unformed gay community. He was angry because no one inside the bars or the bathhouses was doing anything about their oppression.
The documentary, with brutal honesty, also shows the schisms and mutations fitting for each letter within the LGBTTQ2S acronym. It then portrays the differences within the community between 1969, when transvestites rioted during Stonewall, and the early 70’s and other short times when politics within the gay scene had become more lax. The documentary exudes Russo’s attitudes when confronting problems both outside and within the community. Russo tells his audiences to be more inclusive towards each other yet be vigilant during intermittent times when gay rights are being challenged, which is still occurring to this day.
The screening was followed with a Q&A with Jeffrey Schwarz, when he revealed that his next project involves a documentary about Divine, the voluptuous transvestite who has starred in John Waters’ movies. I’ve never been more excited for a documentary until now.