The Celluloid Closet

DirectorS: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Vito RussoI saw Vito Russo's live presentation of movie clips with his commentary at the Egyptian Theater in Seattle many long years ago, immediately before his book The Celluloid Closet was published in 1981. He died of AIDS-related complications ten years later, late in 1990, at age forty-four.

In 1995 the documentary of the same title was released, The Celluloid Closet directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, inspired & largely though not entirely based on Vito's pioneering research. Epstein & Friedman had previously received an Academy Award for their documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1985) for which Vito served as publicity director.

The material Vito chose & the comments he made were different from those of the documentarians who were inspired by his pioneer work. Happily, they have one of Vitto's own presentations posing as a "commentary track." There's no correlation between what Vitto is talking about vs what is shown on the screen, but I suppose having his lecture going on behind the film made more sense than playing it like a radio program. There's also a second commentary track with narrator Lily Tomlin & the directors jabbering about what's on the screen, but it's very secondary to the actual narration.

It's a splendid documentary, perhaps as good as it would've been had Vitto lived to oversee it himself. In a short interview with Vitto among the extras, he says that in our lifetime we will not see the great films that will one day be made about gay characters. Well, if he hadn't gotten AIDs, he might've lived to see it after all, since gay cinema became a genre unto itself, & there are increasing numbers of foreign, Hollywood, & independent films by or for gays. Access marched along faster than Vito expected, which is not to say the criticisms that were current in the 1980s & 1990s are entirely inapropos in the new millenium.

The film covers a lot of gay-themed films & gay-subtexted films & gay-interludes in films from the 1890s Eddison short of two men dancing right through the silent era, classic Hollywood, & up to modern films. Everyone will think of a favorite film or six that deserved to be mentioned & wasn't, but most "types" of gay films & themes & characters have representative discussion.

The talking-heads interviews with filmmakers & actors is often very amusing & informative, & Tony Curtis in particular seems lovingly & wittily aware of his important historical position as regards gay films.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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