[in response to the film, Vito]
By Peter Dickinson
“I’ve always been an activist.”
Like many, my knowledge of Vito Russo has largely come from reading his pioneering study of homosexual representations in the movies, The Celluloid Closet. And, I’ll be honest: at first I didn’t always like what I was reading. As a young gay cinephile coming of age during the heady years of the New Queer Cinema, when edgy works by Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, and others deliberately trafficked in dark, disturbing, and altogether abject images of queer desire, his bitching about the negative portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen seemed, well, a tad antediluvian. But then I was reading the book in the early 1990s, more than a decade after it had first been published. And I was reading it solely as a work of film criticism, rather than as what it now—and especially after watching Jeffrey Schwarz’s amazing documentary—seems more accurate to call a work of activist cultural history. The positive images debate in gay film criticism, which Vito’s book in many ways helped to inaugurate, was necessary at that particular historical juncture precisely so that today we can go to the movies, or turn on our TVs, and watch a gay superhero or a lesbian vampire and not blink an eye because of their sexuality. Indeed, the critical reception of a recent film like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, embraced as a brilliant love story pure and simple, rather than as a specifically gay love story, arguably wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Vito Russo. He got us to pay attention and to care about our representation in popular media—so that we’d then have the luxury, as we do now, of not caring. As Vito is quoted as saying early on in Schwarz’s film, he saw himself working for future generations, so that younger LGBTQ people wouldn’t have to grow up the same way, and in the same world, as he did.
But I wonder—to adapt a line from Larry Kramer referenced late in the film—if Vito’s grandchildren are fully aware of the debt we owe to him and his generation of queer activists? For, as Schwarz makes abundantly clear in frame after frame and interview after interview, Vito was first and foremost an activist. He was either a founding member or on the front lines of three incredibly important LGBTQ social justice organizations in his lifetime: GAA; GLAAD; and ACT UP. How many of us can say the same? Vito joined, and was often the guiding spirit, of these movements because he was angry. What are we angry about? Or, perhaps more to the point, what will it take to get us angry again? In this age of anti-retroviral cocktails and same-sex marriage has smug complacency become our default queer emotion? I hope not. The AIDS crisis may seem like a distant memory to some of us here in the West, but the fact of the matter is that homophobia is alive and well. And, as Vito reminds us, homophobia is what kills.
Peter Dickinson, Professor of English, SFU and film curator