The Light at the End of the Closet

The Light at the End of the Closet

Schwartz shines light on LGBT in documentary “Vito”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

In 1996, before the Wachowski Brothers unleashed The Matrix phenomenon, the filmmakers stealthily unspooled a twisted little neo-noir Bound. It was the story of the relationship between Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the trophy wife of a mobster (Joe Pantoliano) and an ex-con named Corky (Gina Gershon) who teams up with the wife to steal some of the mobster’s ill-gotten gain from him, while, of course, slipping and potentially falling head over heels. Yet, as with any noir, there are questions of trust.

But that’s not what caught my attention during a recent cable replay of the film just days, in fact, before the deadline for this piece. No, I happened upon a particularly steamy scene, the tryst between Violet and Corky, which certainly plays like a sensual fever-dream for most audiences. The two women writhing around in the throes of passion is a sight to behold, but it is what occurs next that matters. Corky, in full afterglow, turns her head and says, “I can see again.” The union – the image and the surrendering to her true self – opens her eyes and sets the film on its explosive path.

Gaining sight inspired Vito Russo, the LGBT activist, film historian and author to write The Celluloid Closet, a groundbreaking examination into the images of gay and lesbian life onscreen, both the obvious and the much more codified hidden traces. Russo, an eager film enthusiast went all the way back to the beginning of the cinema and documented instances captured on camera of same-sex interactions overlooked and/or unacknowledged as such. He saw them for what they were and presented these reflections, allowing the gays and lesbians as well as the much-larger film community and society at-large to see again, much as Corky did, thanks to Violet.

Of course, it takes more than merely seeing; one must act and action is sometimes more difficult. Documentarian Jeffrey Schwartz (People Like Us: Making Philadelphia) set his sights on humanizing Russo, offering us a glimpse of the activist and author in the making. In Vito, we see a young man who knew early on that he was gay and who, through the sheer force of his personality, engaged others on an individual level. He made fast friends, enjoyed the support of a loving Italian family that seemed to have no significant issues with his sexual orientation, and found himself naturally stepping into the gay and lesbian movement, although it was not until after Stonewall that Russo saw and embraced a more significant role as a leader.

After his awakening or his response to the call of the movement, Russo used the written word and filmed images as key tools to incite and inspire. Between 1972 and 1982, The Celluloid Closet was a traveling roadshow gig for Russo. He lectured on the history of the movement; this was his story, as a film lover and that of audiences both gay and straight. Later, he took to the airwaves, co-hosting Our Times, a television series for New York public television that served as the next evolutionary step in spreading his message and eventually he co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

We also see the toll it takes on Russo. The rise of the AIDS epidemic claims the life of his lover Jeffrey Sevcik, which he shares in the Academy Award-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. In the end, Russo succumbs to AIDS as well but each and every step of his journey is about granting sight to all of us, allowing audiences to see and recognize the presence of gays and lesbians in the fabric of American life.

VITO will screen at The Neon for one-night only (June 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm) as part of PRIDE Month activities thanks to a collaboration between the Miami Valley Pride Partnership and The Greater Dayton LGBT Center. Tickets ($8) are available at The Neon’s box office.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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