Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tora! Tora! Tora! -- Vito! Vito! Vito!

In 1849, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr declared "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" ("The more things change, the more they stay the same"). One of my favorite moments from Gilbert & Sullivan's 1882 operetta, Iolanthe, occurs when the Queen of the Fairies sings:
"Your badinage so airy,
Your manner arbitrary,
Are out of place
When face to face
With an influential fairy."
With CNN's silver fox, Anderson Cooper, and rhythm and blues singer Frank Ocean recently acknowledging that they are gay (and President Obama announcing his support for same-sex marriage), homophobia and the safety of the closet continue to lose their fearsome power. It almost seems as if the LGBT community has turned a corner and headed into that long sought territory where homosexuality will soon seem as shocking as being lefthanded. Or having hazel-colored eyes.

Still, it's important for younger generations to know what happened at Stonewall, at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, and during the long legacy of protests that helped to redefine gay rights, the medical community's understanding of homosexuality, and create a tidal wave of patients who were often better informed about their health than their doctors.

Two outstanding documentaries at San Francisco's recent Frameline 36 Film Festival helped me realize how far the LGBT community has come and how much further we have yet to travel. As I watched Vito: The Life of Gay Activist Vito Russo and United In Anger: A History of ACT-UP, a familiar face flashed across the screen. With the shock of recognition, I found myself wondering:
  • Can 44 years have really passed since Morty Manford helped found one of the nation's first gay campus groups (Gay People at Columbia University)?
  • Can 43 years have flown by since that fateful night in June 1969 when Morty was at the Stonewall Inn?
  • Can four decades have elapsed since Morty's proud mother, Jeanne, helped lay the groundwork for PFLAG?
  • Can 20 years have transpired since Morty died of AIDS on May 14, 1992?
Jeanne Manford with her son, Morty
Like Jim Owles, Larry Kramer, Arthur Bell, Harvey Milk, Arthur Evans, and so many others, Morty Manford helped lay the foundation for future armies of articulate, media-conscious gay rights advocates who were determined to fight for their civil rights by seizing their identity, redefining it, and becoming the political champions for their community and subculture. Morty was one of hundreds of thousands of gay men who died before their time; another unnecessary tragedy among a lost generation of gifted people with brilliant minds.
  • Whenever you hear someone insist that "Healthcare is a right," stop for a moment to recall how gay rights activists were at the forefront of pushing the Drug Enforcement Administration to speed up the clinical trials for drugs that might be used to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
  • What United In Anger: A History of ACT-UP makes crystal clear is that, like leopards, villains don't change their spots. Four decades ago, the Catholic Church declared war on women. That war continues today -- even against those women who are Catholic nuns.
To echo Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Have we learned anything in the interim? Writing in The Huffington Post on July 4th, Paul Abrams noted that:
"Today, we will all proudly proclaim our Founders' vision, that we 'are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,' and that 'among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' 'Life' seems to bear some relationship to health care, does it not? If one has an attack of asthma, for example, and cannot breathe without a little shot of epinephrine (adrenalin), or a few puffs of inhaled steroids, does that not connect this inalienable right to health care? Or is this link just me being overly arrogant as a physician?"
As long as we're talking about overt arrogance, what about the bullying tactics of bishops and Cardinals who protect and hide child molesters under their skirts while undermining women's health? Whoever let these pompous cowards assume that their ignorance and prejudice should be allowed to dictate how healthcare is delivered to American citizens who aren't even Catholic?

* * * * * * * * *
As is amply demonstrated in Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman's stunning documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP, from the early "zaps" performed by members of Gay Activists Alliance to the confrontational politics of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), catching the media's attention was always central to the plan of attack. So was documenting any and all protests so that the mainstream media could not ignore what had happened.

Using historical clips and interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project, Hubbard and Schulman revisit such classic protest actions as "Seize Control of the FDA," "Stop the Church," and "Day of Desperation." Even though today's political protesters have a wealth of digital media at their fingertips, this documentary is like a lesson plan in how to define and target a political event.

United In Anger: A History of ACT-UP should be required viewing for everyone in the Occupy Wall Street movement and community organizers working at a grass-roots level. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
One of the people prominently featured in United In Anger: A History of ACT-UP is Vito Russo, known to cinema fans worldwide as the author of The Celluloid Closet. A passionate cinephile, film historian, and AIDS activist, Russo was often hailed as one of New York's first gay celebrities.

Vito Russo atop the Castro Theatre's marquee
(Photo by: Sean Strub)

Back in a time when many gay men still compartmentalized their lives to keep their personal and professional contacts separate, Vito was a fully-integrated queer. Long before people were willing to admit they were gay professionals, Russo had embraced the lifestyle of a professional gay.

In addition to his passion for film, he had no problem understanding that politics often affected people at intensely personal levels. When Russo was diagnosed with AIDS, he used his media visibility to help spread the word about the disease and educate audiences for his public television series on WNYC-TV entitled Our Time.

A co-founder of GLAAD, Russo kept fighting until the end of his life. The Vito Russo House at UC-Santa Cruz's Merrill College was created in 1990 with the goal of promoting LGBT awareness, diversity, and tolerance.

Watching Jeffrey Schwartz's deeply moving documentary, Vito: The Life of Gay Activist Vito Russo is a powerful cinematic experience. Not surprisingly, Schwartz's director's statement is equally moving:
"After coming out and becoming secure in my identity as a gay man, I naturally gravitated toward films with LGBT themes. This was the early 90s, and movies like My Own Private Idaho, The Living End, Poison, and Swoon were formative. These films were outré, edgy, and empowering for a young queer. Even though I was a newbie, there was one book that everyone knew was the bible of gay film. It was called The Celluloid Closet by somebody named Vito Russo. This book combined my two favorite obsessions -- homosexuality and the movies -- and I devoured it. Vito introduced me to a whole world of images I had no idea existed, and helped me see films in a new way. As an activist, Vito knew that the key to acceptance was visibility and championed sympathetic and realistic portrayals of our lives.
When I found out that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were making The Celluloid Closet into a film, I jumped at the chance to be part of it. Working with Rob and Jeffrey as an assistant editor on The Celluloid Closet film adaptation gave me a chance to help them bring Vito's vision to the screen. It also allowed me to get to know Vito Russo, only three years after his death from AIDS. All of Vito's research for The Celluloid Closet was at my fingertips -- interviews, articles, videotapes, lectures -- and best of all, Rob and Jeffrey's extended conversations with Vito himself. Beyond his work as a film scholar, I learned about the years Vito spent battling AIDS as both a person with the disease and a passionate and angry agent for change. Although he didn't live long enough to see much of the progress he had been hoping for, his work forever changed the landscape for those living with the disease."
Vito Russo in action (Photo by: Arnie Kantrowitz)
"The idea of a film came about when I realized that Vito participated in every significant milestone in the gay liberation movement -- from Stonewall to ACT UP -- and that his story was also the story of our community. A documentary could contextualize how he and his gay liberation brothers and sisters were able to begin to overcome homophobia and oppression, and emerge from invisibility to liberation. We are all living the end result of Vito's work, and our freedom is his gift to us.
As time marches on, a new generation of LGBT youth is coming of age without knowing about pioneers like Vito Russo and how he made it possible for us to live proudly and openly in the world. Vito's message of standing up, speaking out, and living passionately and bravely in the face of adversity is something we can all aspire to, regardless of sexual orientation. More than 20 years after Vito's death, members of the LGBT community around the world still face prejudice and persecution, and HIV/AIDS is still a crisis. Vito knew the goal of equality and justice would not be achieved in his lifetime, but that it would come to pass. It's my hope that this film will celebrate one of the founding fathers of the LGBT movement, and allow his work to once again move and inspire us all as we continue the battles that he once fought."
Vito Russo and Larry Kramer (Photo by: Lee Snider)

Simply stated: I can't recommend Schwartz's documentary (which premieres on HBO on July 23) strongly enough. It is an important piece of history for cinephiles and LGBT people alike. Here's the trailer:

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