'Vito': An Ideal Activist

Again and again, the movie shows Vito Russo's remarkable gift for moving people, individuals and crowds. "I've always been an activist," he says in an archived interview.


Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Cast: Phyllis Antonellis, Richard Barrios, Rob Epstein, Karla Jay, Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Jenni Olson, Marcia Pally, Charles Russo, Michelangelo Signorile, Lily Tomlin
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-07-23 (HBO)

"Gay sensibility is not something we have or share or use. It isn’t even something that only gay people express. It's a blindness to sexual divisions, an inability to perceive that people are different simply because of sexuality, a natural conviction that difference exists but doesn’t matter; that there's no such thing as normal even when a majority of people think so."

There's no such thing as "normal". Vito Russo's description of "gay sensibility", written in an afterward the second edition of his groundbreaking study, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, underscores an enduring, vital, and too often forgotten idea. It is forgotten, he notes, when "a majority of people" work to enforce their beliefs -- whether under the name of religion or politics. This enforcement takes many forms. Russo focused his attention on movies.

Russo's primary insight, made clear again in Vito, had to do with how movies reflect and shape the world. Premiering on HBO on 23 July, Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary is part biography, part celebration, and part broader history, as Russo's story is inextricable from the social movements he helped to shape and the battles he fought so fiercely against homophobia and AIDS-phobia. The film is also a welcome reminder that Russo's work was not only revelatory, but also smart and funny and empowering. That work was, says Richard Barrios here, "Sort of like a person in the desert without water, stumbling onto an oasis." Russo began this process of revelation with "movie nights" in New York, where, remembers Arthur Evans, cofounder of the Gay Activists Alliance, "We discovered that we all laughed at the same places."

Russo's research -- initiated while he was working at the Museum of Modern Art's film distribution office -- evolved. As he saw more films, he saw how representations had evolved. And as he was working out his book's structure, Russo took his show on the road, so to speak, with a lecture called "The Celluloid Closet" that included clips from 100 years of movies. He showed early images like the two men dancing for Thomas Edison's camera in 1895 and the "harmless sissies," as Armistead Maupin calls them, the "fluttery flibbertygibbets" like Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn.

He also showed the monsters who emerged under the Production Code (1933-1961), the murderers in Hitchcock movies and other "deeply evil" types who had to be "punished." And he showed those ambiguously gay characters played by Cary Grant or Rock Hudson and Tony Randall, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis, the characters who helped audience members to laugh at the same places.

During the 1970s and early '80s, such building of community took place alongside protests and organizations, and Russo was early on involved with all of it. The film parallels the evolution of gay pride and his coming to consciousness, and showcases -- in some extraordinary footage from a rally where factions of the movement -- gay white men, lesbians, gay people of color, and transvestites -- are arguing, not a little viciously. He brings out Bette Midler, who does, briefly, wow everyone.

Again and again, the movie shows Russo's remarkable gift for moving people, individuals and crowds. "I've always been an activist," he says in an archived interview. "A gay activist and an AIDS activist. It was gonna be something because there are too many things wrong." Indeed, Russo's AIDS activism was of a piece with his cultural and political sensibility. Early during the crisis, when the Reagan administration so infamously did so little, Russo spoke out -- repeatedly. "People are dying of homophobia, they're dying of Jesse Helms, they're dying of Ronald Reagan," he says in another interview. "They're not dying because we can't find a treatment or a cure for this disease. We're not trying. And we're not trying because the right people are not dying. We're not trying because it's only fags and junkies and nobody gives a shit."

By the time this interview appears in Vito, you're well aware of the costs of ignorance and fear. Russo became a founding member of GLAAD in 1985, in an effort to combat media representations, specifically, in his neighborhood, homophobic New York Post headlines ("I would like to put them out of business," he tells one audience). By the time his lover Jeff Sevcik died in 1986, Russo was diagnosed as positive as well, but he determined to continue battling.

He and Larry Kramer founded ACT-UP in 1987: the film provides footage of marches that resonate still ("Health care is a right!"). Kramer remembers that even as Russo became increasingly frail, he made himself visible: "He was sick and his role was to let us see him suffering," to display the devastation of the disease and the humanity of the victims. If there is no such thing as "normal," there is, in Vito Russo's extraordinary story, an ideal to which we might all aspire.






Memoir 'Rust' Wrestles with the Myth of the American Dream

Eliese Colette Goldbach's memoir, Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, is the story of one descending into the depths of The American Dream and emerging with flecks of graphite dust on her cheeks, a master's degree in her hands, and a few new friends.


'Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar' (excerpt)

Ravi Shankar was bemused by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and other bands using the sitar in rock music. Enjoy this excerpt of Indian Sun, by Oliver Craske (who worked with Shankar on his 1997 autobiography), courtesy of Hachette Books.

Oliver Craske

The Strokes Phone It In (Again) on 'The New Abnormal'

The Strokes' The New Abnormal is an unabashedly uninspired promotional item for their upcoming world tour.


"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.


Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.


Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.


"I'll See You Later": Repetition and Time in Almodóvar's 'All About My Mother'

There are mythical moments in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. We are meant to register repetition in the story as something wonderfully strange, a connection across the chasm of impossibility.


Electropop's CMON Feel the Noise on 'Confusing Mix of Nations'

Pop duo CMON mix and match contemporary and retro influences to craft the dark dance-pop on Confusing Mix of Nations.


'Harmony' Is About As Bill Frisell As a Bill Frisell Recording Can Be

Bill Frisell's debut on Blue Note Records is a gentle recording featuring a few oddball gems, particularly when he digs into the standard repertoire with Petra Haden's voice out front.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.


Raye Zaragoza's "Fight Like a Girl" Shatters the Idea of What Women Can and Can't Do (premiere)

Singer-songwriter and activist Raye Zaragoza's new single, "Fight Like a Girl", is an empowering anthem for intersectional feminism, encouraging resilience amongst all women.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.