If you are a straight male of a certain age, Vito Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet, may well have been your first introduction to … not gay people, exactly, but gayness. I was fifteen in 1981, and although I knew gay people, I didn’t know that I knew them. I didn’t even know then that I loved movies.
By the time the documentary based on Russo’s book was produced in 1995, I had become aware that certain individuals I knew previously were out, but they were all people I knew as individuals before I knew of their sexual orientation, people I knew as people and not as “gay people.” The notion that there were other gay people, ones I didn’t know, who lived lives different from mine and alien to me was easy enough to posit intellectually but impossible to really imagine.
The Celluloid Closet was many things to many people. For me, first it was information. It reminded me that even though I had graduated from high school (by the time I read it), there were things as well as people that I didn’t know. Also, it was one of the first demonstrations that one could interact with film academically. That writing about film could be something other than an emotive reader-response diary of how the movie made you feel or how many stars you rated it.
The success of Russo’s book is a large part of Vito‘s (the documentary) reason for being, but it oddly provides a long shadow that the documentary struggles to escape from. The Celluloid Closet is a book about movies, and it spawned a movie which was quite good. Vito intuits, quite rightly, that a movie about a book about movies would be in danger of being superfluous, and it tries fitfully to expand its scope beyond Russo’s most notable accomplishment. It succeeds, but only in part. The background of Vito’s life isn’t all that theatrical, and the first third of the film uses familiar footage and historical touchstones (Mike Wallace’s television special on homosexuality to show the now dated attitudes that gays grew up with; interviews about the Stonewall uprising and its how it catalyzed the gay pride parades; newspaper headlines heralding the ominous outset of GRID [later AIDS] and the conservative backlash against homosexuality during the Reagan years) to tell a condensed history of gay life in America at the close of the 20th century. Biographical literary criticism is a difficult balance; one is tempted either to draw a straight line between particular events and the literary output or to simply present the life as though everything is relevant and leave to the audience to provide for itself the explanation of how and why one man wrote and created something great rather than another.
And The Celluloid Closet was–is–something great. It is great because it is about something important, not just the movies but how they shape us. Vito’s best moment is when Armistead Maupin talks about how Russo’s project explained himself to himself, made him understand where so many of his feelings, particularly those of self-loathing, came from. Being straight, I didn’t share Maupin’s self-recognition, but I did share a part of his reaction. Great works of criticism are the ones that prompt you as a reader to ask, “How did I never see these connections before?” Russo’s examples acquire force as they accumulate and eventually muster a persuasive force that is hard to deny. Cultural criticism looks easy, but it is sometimes hard to get those around us to see that which is so ubiquitous it hardly registers with us even when we take note of it.
The other important point made within Vito is that before there was a documentary, before there was a book, before there was a lecture series, there were shared movie experiences. Russo was able to be so expansive in his treatment of gays in cinema (in an age before widespread Internet communication or DVDs) in part because it was a labor of love. But it was still labor. Visiting three national archives and at times watching up to three movies a day, Russo apparently never lost his love for movies even as he saw and communicated the ways in which movies treated him and those like him so problematically. That’s one more reason why I am grateful for The Celluloid Closet; it made my first intellectual/academic interaction with gay culture one about an experience (movies) that I shared with that culture, about our commonalities (passion for an art form) rather than our differences.
Russo’s life was more than his book, but I wish his documentary would have been more focused on it. The stuff about his cable television show, his political activism, and his family life, while interesting in spurts tends to dilute the the documentary’s focus rather than enhance its scope. Perhaps this is because interviewees for those sections tend to be non-professionals, lacking the same eloquence or practiced self-reflection of someone like Maupin. Perhaps it is because director Jeffrey Schwarz does better at finding footage (Bette Midler singing in the bath houses!) than knowing not to integrate it. Perhaps it is just because I wanted more of the stuff that interested me.