Western students explore queer representation in film with “Vito”
By Drew Stuart
Students flocked to Pickford Film Center to catch “Vito,” a documentary about the influential gay rights activist and film critic.
The showing attracted more than 40 attendees on Tuesday, May 15, many of which were Western students. The film was a part of The Queen’s Vernacular, a monthly queer film series at Pickford Film Center.
Greg Youmans and Chris Vargas, both assistant professors at Western, hosted The Queens Vernacular to display work by independent queer filmmakers.
“Vito” was directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, and covers not only Vito Russo’s extensive history of activism for gay rights but also his work concerning critique of queer representation in the media and in film.
A large portion of “Vito” takes a close look at “The Celluloid Closet,” Russo’s book on the history and evolution of gay representation in film across the decades.
Several of the attending students were from Youmans’ film criticism class and viewed the film as a part of their curriculum. Annie Becker, one of Youmans’ students, went into the film knowing little about Russo himself.
“I know that it’s about Vito Russo and that he was a very prominent LGBTQ activist starting with the Stonewall riots,” Becker said.
Becker said she wanted to know more about Russo’s involvement early on in the emergent LGBTQ community.
“Vito” starts off discussing Russo’s early life. Russo’s brother Charles described him as different from the other boys even at a young age. Russo was constantly at the movies, opting to see films rather than take part in sports.
After the Stonewall riots, in which members of the gay community spontaneously protested their mistreatment at the hands of local police, Russo became more politically active. He joined the newly formed Gay Activists Alliance months after Stonewall and became a vocal proponent of the gay liberation movement.
His book “The Celluloid Closet” was also covered in the film. What was supposed to take only a year to write ended up taking a decade. Russo visited film repositories all over the world for his research of gay representation in film.
Russo’s work uncovered that prior to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, gay people were frequent in films from the time period. After the code was instituted, however, people were not allowed to be explicitly gay in film. His book was met with praise upon its publication in 1981.
Russo transitioned back into activism right around the outbreak of HIV in the 80s. Russo was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, yet continued to protest, lecture and teach until his death in 1990.
After the screening, students met outside the theater to discuss the film. Annie Becker once again shared her thoughts on the film.
“It was so inspiring and sad,” Becker said. “Everything he did, he did because that’s what he wanted to do. Who can say that?”
Greg Youmans said after the film that gay representation in media is far different post-Russo.
“It’s dramatically changed,” Youmans said. “There is a lot more positive images and complicated images.”
Youmans said that while representation was better today, it isn’t without its own problems.
“There’s also films where the character is gay, and that is a central thing, but they’re often limited in terms of plot,” Yeomans said.
He mentioned that many consider having a character being incidentally gay, rather than being defined by their gayness, as a good goal.