Given the horrific tragedy in Colorado that's currently dominating movie news it's a good time to step up away from current releases for a moment and take a deep breath. Moviegoing has always been and will always be one of the great communal activities. We sit in the dark together and hear stories about our lives, whether they're dressed up in genre metaphors, superhero costumes, or fashioned to look as realistic as our own. If you've ever viewed the movie theater as a sanctuary or cherished the community that entertainment can create, you must tune in to VITO Monday night on HBO.
Influential gay activist Vito Russo (July 11th, 1946- November 7th, 1990) was born into an Italian family in East Harlem and in an early scene in Vito he recounts his desire to be at the movies all the time. It was his escape from sports and not fitting in. He channeled this love of Hollywood and moviegoing and his own growing awareness of injustices towards gays and lesbians into a pioneering role as a film historian and gay activist. Vito wrote the hugely influential bestseller "The Celluloid Closet", which took on Hollywood's troubled relationship with gay representation and opened up a conversation that still rages to this day. He spent the final years of his life as an AIDS activist.
I sat down with Jeffrey Schwarz (pictured left), the director of this new HBO documentary, to talk about gay history, documentary portraits of iconic figures, and Vito's remarkable accomplishments.
Nathaniel Rogers: As a young gay film fanatic, I assume you felt a kinship with Vito?
Jeffrey Schwarz: He's always been a beacon for me. I was reading "The Celluloid Closet" as part of my own coming out process. Like a lot of people who read that book it really changed my life and set me on a path in a sense. When I found out that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were making a documentary based on Vito's book in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance to try and work on it. I ended up interning for them. My first job in this business was working on The Celluloid Closet (1995) as apprentice editor!
"Vito" the man and movie, Gay Icons, and Documentary Filmmaking AFTER THE JUMP...
The idea to make a film about Vito came about five years ago when I started to realize that Vito was not really being talked about. I look at a lot of the quote unquote definitive histories of our history and I don't see his name in there. I was worried he would be forgotten and that the next generation of gay people wouldn't know his story. I started to think that because he was involved in the movement even before Stonewall, through the 80s and the AIDS crisis, that telling his story was a way to tell the story of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.
NR: I was a huge fan of The Celluloid Closet but I didn't actually know that much about Vito as a person. I found your documentary eye opening. It was especially fascinating to see how intertwined he was with entertainment history.
JS: He was a household name at the time.
NR: The scene with Bette Midler trying to help him save a Pride event that was descending into infighting chaos? "You've got to have friends ♫ " So great. And Lily Tomlin! These people are in the gay DNA.
JS: Our first cut was four hours long. We had so much material. We had fifty plus interviews. It was almost a way of casting the film. We wanted to make sure that the family was represented: his biological family, his gay family, fellow activists, friends and also people who admired Vito and were affected by his work. It's almost like a who's who, so many people that are legends in our community: Larry Kramer was one of the co-founders of Act Up; Lily Tomlin who was a very close friend from the early 70s; Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; Bruce Vilanche; Armistead Maupin. It's like a great dinner party, getting all these people together in the same room.
NR: You've had dinner with them I take it. [Laughter]
JS: Many of them, not all.
NR: The Celluloid Closet makes the convincing argument that gay characters in Hollywood movies must always die in the end. I have to say it felt a bit like a bitter irony that Vito ends with his death from AIDS. I know biopics end this way -- I mean, what can you do? -- but did you ever consider ending it another way?
JS: We did have a sequence, an epilogue, that talked about Vito's legacy and today's gay and lesbian movement and movies that came along after he passed away that he would have probably championed. But it took away from the impact. It was too easy. It made the audience feel too good. We wanted the audience to feel the loss and devastastation of losing Vito. We wanted to leave them in tears.
NR: [Joking] Cruel.
JS: [Laughter] It may be cruel. I have to thank Sheila Nevins, our visionary executive producer at HBO. That was actually one of her notes. 'Leave 'em crying.'
I think we're all living his legacy so it would have been redundant. So many scholars have followed in Vito's footsteps. Vito really opened the door. The epilogue would also maybe date the film. It's also the problem with The Celulloid Closet which I love but it ends with Philadelphia (1993) and so much has happened since then! I really wanted to make sure that the movie was an Evergreen, that people could watch it five, ten, twenty years from now.
NR: So it's purposely closed off like a period piece. But what do you think he would have thought of modern gay cinema?
JS: I don't want to speak for Vito but he always wanted -- he didn't want us to look to Hollywood for images of gay and lesbian people. He wanted us to make our own films and he wanted Hollywood to be responsible and not trade in stereotypes. My guess is he would be thrilled at how gay characters are just part of the tapestry.
NR: Especially in television.
JS: Television has always been ahead of the game.
NR: So after Vito, what's next for you?
JS: We're going to be making a documentary on Anita Bryant and her "Save the Children" campaign of 1977. It's called Dade County. We're just at the very beginning of that. That's a biggie. Kids have no idea who she is or what happened and to me that's really the birth of the Culture Wars and in a sense it's bigger than Stonewall. That was the first time mainstream America was talking about gay rights.
We're also in production on I Am Divine right now. We've shot all the interviews. John Waters gave us his blessing and opened up his rolodex!
NR: Divine is so super-sized, both literally and figuratively. How can this not be a miniseries?
JS: It could be. Divine is another person like Vito, William Castle, Jack Wrangler. They are all iconoclastic rebels. They made their own way in the world. It's a common theme with all of them.
NR: So I have to ask. What does this tell us about you? Why these people? This is clear through line in your filmography: Vito, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon... soon I Am Divine.
JS: That's a good question. I'm drawn to tell stories about people who mask some of their insecurities with a larger than life persona.
Vito's an exception to that. Vito: what you see is what you get. He never doubted himself. When he was growing up all the messages he was getting from the culture was that he was less than human, that he was a criminal, that he was a pervert, that he was sick. He didn't believe any of that. There was something in him that told him there was nothing wrong with him, nothing wrong with being gay. He wanted to communicate that to other gay people who did internalize it. They thought it was their lot in life to be harassed and manipulated and persecuted. He would say 'When are you people going to get angry?'
[VITO premieres on HBO on Monday, July 23rd at 9:00 PM ET/PT. It will be show again on July 26 (4:00 p.m., 12:50 a.m.), 29th (8:30 a.m., 5:10 a.m.) and 31st (12:45 p.m.), and Aug. 4th (3:00 p.m.) and 8th (9:15 a.m.)]
Tripp Palin calls Auntie Willow a "faggot" -- mom laughs -- AFTER THE JUMP ...
Is Michael Jackson's mom missing or not?
Michele Bachmann's search for Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the American government nets ... Grover Norquist?
The Paterno statue goes down.
Australia's ex-minister of foreign affairs on marriage equality, off the record.
For some reason, a half-dozen Indian newspapers are reporting this weekend that Marilyn Monroe was a lesbian.
Growing up gay in the west of Scotland, the Church is no help at all:
After years of watching The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City and preferring the products of Habitat and Ikea to Adidas and Puma, you finally acknowledge that there may be trouble ahead. What to do, though? Even if you tell your parents gently that you are having issues with your sexual identity, you know that they will either pretend they didn't hear you or that you should seek counsel from the parish priest. You might as well tell him that all this time he thought you were human you were really a horse. If he's not actually gay himself he'll simply say: "Take two paracetamol and lie down until the feeling goes away."
The 14 gay Olympians.
Alexander Cockburn is dead.
Boycotting Chick-fil-A? Why not Best Buy, Target, and Exxon, too?
... and what about Microsoft and Apple?
A handful of advocates, armed with nothing more than their keyboards, have put many of the country’s largest retailers, including Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Wal-Mart, on the spot over their indirect and, until recently, unnoticed roles in funneling money to Christian groups that are vocal in opposing homosexuality.
The advocates are demanding that the retailers end their association with an Internet marketer that gets a commission from the retailers for each online customer it gives them ... a share of the commission that retailers pay is donated to a Christian charity of the buyer’s choice, from a list that includes prominent conservative evangelical groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.
Posted Jul. 22,2012 at 4:33 PM EST by Brandon K. Thorp in 2012 Olympics, Australia, Bristol Palin, Chick-fil-A, Deaths, India, Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Bachmann, Olympics, Penn State, Religion, Republican Party, Sarah Palin, Scotland | Permalink | Comments (32)
Today in Washington D.C., 20,000 soldiers in the fight against AIDS -- doctors, writers, social scientists, public policy experts, academicians, and more -- have gathered for the bi-annual meeting of the International AIDS Society. Perhaps because of the gathering, the New York Times has compiled a really excellent profile of the city's recent responses to the AIDS epidemic. It's very worth reading.
Washington D.C. hasn't always reacted well to AIDS, which may be why it's got one of the nation's highest per-capita infection rates. From the Times:
“D.C. used to be a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is just three subway stops outside the city, in Bethesda, Md. When Adrian M. Fenty took office as the mayor of Washington in 2007, Dr. Fauci said, “it was a whole new morning in America.”
The change is evident on many fronts ... The city gave away five million male and female condoms last year, 10 times as many as it did in 2007. More than 300,000 clean needles a year are given away, both to heroin users and to an even higher risk group: transgender prostitutes who inject hormones.
What's more: D.C. now offers testing almost everywhere -- grocery stores, the DMV -- and, in some locations, people are paid seven bucks to get tested. Of the individuals who test positive, 89% see a doctor within three days -- in some cases, driven to the doctor's office by non-profit organizations hired by the government.
Though the city's good at getting newly diagnosed individuals to the doctor, it's struggling to maximize the effectiveness of tests to ensure that the most vulnerabe populations are served. From the Times:
[A] weak point is the inefficiency of random testing. Each test consumes about 20 minutes alone in a room with a counselor — and only about one of every 100 people tested at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, is infected. ... Even at AIDS clinics here, only 2 percent of tests are positive. Many family doctors resist testing at all.
"Contact tracing" -- reaching out to a newly newly diagnosed individual's past sexual contacts -- is more effective, but those who have only just learned they're infected are often unable, or unwilling, to cooperate. Now Washington is experimenting with a less fraught way of reaching high-risk individuals: a ten-dollar cash incentive for those who convince high-risk friends and acquaintances to get tested.
All the effort seems to be having an effect. The Times reports that the number of Washingtonians getting tested each year for HIV has tripled since 2007 -- from 43,000 to 122,000.
First it was JC Penney, and then Toys'R'Us, and then Green Lantern, The Gap, Kraft, Marvel Comics, and D.C. Comics -- the anti-gay organization One Million Moms has ineffectually boycotted, or threatened to ineffectually boycott, more things than any ineffectual boycotters in recent memory. And they're back at it! Their current target: NBC's new sitcom, The New Normal.
From OMM's website:
To sum it up, this show is about a homosexual couple who hires a surrogate to have their baby. The season premiere is scheduled for Tuesday, September 11 at 9:30/8:30 p.m. Central. It is no surprise that openly gay Ryan Murphy, is one of the executive producers and director, who also brought us "American Horror Story," "GLEE," and "Nip/Tuck."
NBC is using public airwaves to continue to subject families to the decay of morals and values, and the sanctity of marriage in attempting to redefine marriage. These things are harmful to our society, and this program is damaging to our culture.
Note the sneering reference to "openly gay Ryan Murphy," which is supposed to mean -- what? That gays shouldn't have jobs? Or that gays shouldn't be power players in the entertainment industry?
It is the case that consumers of all kinds of art, sitcoms to operas, are frequently exposed to sympathetic portrayals of characters they find unsavory, because the point of most art isn't to model some viewer's idea of utopia. Adults deal with it. And so do One Million Moms, most of the time. They're Christian, but they don't gripe about the atheists on The Big Bang Theory. They're probably very nice, non-violent, law-abiding citizens, but they don't gripe about the Soprano family. They only gripe about highly visible gays. Pretty weird.
Have you been following what the New Republic calls "Youdidn'tbuildthatgate"? This is the pseudo-scandal surrounding President Obama's slip of the tongue on July 15th, in Roanoke, during a speech about shared responsibility -- a speech in which the president explained that no successful person is successful entirely without the help of his or her fellow human beings, and in which the president garbled one sentence so that, heard or read in isolation, it seems to belittle the whole idea of entrepreneurship and individual initiative. Right-wing pundits soon set about making sure that sentence was only heard or read in isolation. Mitt Romney is now furthering that mission with a television ad.
In case you haven't seen it already, the actual quote from Barack Obama goes like this:
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, “Well, it must be ‘cause I was just so smart.” There are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.
If you are successful somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet, so then all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
Obviously, Obama could and should have interpolated the word "alone" after the phrase "you didn't build that" -- both because it's good politics, and also because, without that word, the offending sentence doesn't support the general thesis of the speech. So we know it's a mistake. Mitt Romney doesn't want us to know that, and so he's carefully edited around all the other, mitigating stuff, to create maybe the most dishonest campaign ad you've seen all year. He's running against a guy who doesn't exist. Watch the ad AFTER THE JUMP, and read along with the relevant parts of the speech above to see just how diabolical editing can be.
The unprecedented appearance of uniformed military personnel in yesterday's San Diego Pride Parade was much appreciated by spectators along the route, according to the AP:
Some of the loudest cheers Saturday at San Diego’s gay pride parade were for active-duty troops marching in military dress, the first time that U.S. service members participated in such an event while in full uniform.
Dozens of soldiers, sailors, and Marines marched alongside an old Army truck decorated with a “Freedom to Serve” banner and a rainbow flag.
From the LA Times:
A crowd estimated at 200,000 whistled, waved, cheered and applauded as the service members walked the parade route through the city's largely gay neighborhood of Hillcrest, ending at the western extension of Balboa Park. All branches of the military were represented.
Some in the crowd waved tiny flags; others shouted, "Thank you for your service!" Some saluted.
As Andy explained last week, this will probably be the last time anybody gets to witness such a thing. Generally, all service members are barred from wearing their uniforms during civilian parades. The Pentagon made a one-off exception because the parade's organizers had requested that military personnel don their uniforms, and nobody wanted to see good, patriotic paraders penalized for doing as they were asked. Military personnel will typically appear at parades in tee-shirts denoting their military branch.
Which is fine -- except, man, there's really something special about seeing the full dress uniform. Check out that pic above, from the AP (whose slideshow from the parade is excellent, and viewable here). There's a lot of dignity and sweetness captured in the interaction between the waving sailor and that lovely blue-haired gentleman, and the uniform seems essential.