If you’ve a sizeable DVD collection and a tendency to sample the special features, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ve already become acquainted with Jeffrey Schwarz’s work. As director and producer (and sometime editor) he’s been responsible for, quite literally, hundreds of behind-the-scenes featurettes, those pithy little documentaries that take us back to the making of The Silence of the Lambs, say, or sit us down for a quick chat with the composer of Resident Evil. In some cases he was producing feature-length works (for the special edition of Rent, for example, he provided a two-hour history on the original stage show and its creator Jonathan Larson), though Vito could be termed his one of his first ‘proper’ documentaries. Produced for HBO, it’s enjoyed a healthy life at various film festivals across the globe since its premiere in late 2011 and a handful of limited theatrical runs.
Vito focuses on the life of Vito Russo, gay activist and author of The Celluloid Closet, which looked at Hollywood’s representation of homosexuality. It was turned into a documentary film in 1995 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman which, fittingly, counted Schwarz among its crew. At the time he was still finding his place in the industry and took a number of roles on gay-themed features during the early part of the decade. Here he served as apprentice editor and you can also find his name on the likes of Todd Hayne’s Poison (production assistance) and David DeCoteau’s Leather Jacket Love Story (editor). In many ways Schwarz is the ideal person to put together this documentary: not only does he have that immense experience in non-fiction filmmaking, he also served his apprenticeship, so to speak, during the era of New Queer Cinema, a movement that, arguably, wouldn’t have existed without Russo.
Schwarz’s approach, as perfected on all of those featurettes, is direct and compact. Vito is split into three sections, each of which could be a documentary short in its own right. The first concentrates on Russo’s early years, how he was “out of place” child and how he integrated into the New York scene: cruising in Central Park West, being arrested in a bathhouse, and so on. Interestingly, whilst he witnessed the Stonewall riots at first-hand (albeit as a spectator perched in a tree), generally considered to be the key event leading up to the gay liberation movement, it was not Russo’s turning point. For him, the death of Diego Vinales following a raid on a bar by the name of the Snake Pit – he leapt from a police station window and, in doing so, impaled himself on the spikes of an iron fence – was the decisive point that led him to activism. In the weeks that followed he helped to co-found the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and would, many years later, be equally instructive in the creation of GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
The GAA were based out of a firehouse in New York City that would also double as a dancefloor on weekends and, occasionally, play host to Russo’s movie nights. He would screen pictures he deemed of homosexual interest, whether that meant starring vehicles for Judy Garland and Carmen Miranda or women’s prison pictures. Soon enough the shows took to the road, accompanied by a lecture and planting the seeds for the subject of Vito’s second part, The Celluloid Closet. Eventually published in 1981 (after a lengthy gestation period and a number of rejections), the book was yet another sign of Russo’s activist zeal. In breaking down the coded representations of homosexuality on the big screen and exposing the stereotypes (gay characters, however ‘concealed’, were always unhappy and would often die) he also was revealing the lie behind Hollywood portrayals and paving the way for more positive depictions.
The third part of Vito concentrates on Russo’s AIDS activism, his own diagnosis with HIV and death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990. In some respects this final half-hour can be seen as a whirlwind guide to gay life in American during the conservative eighties. This was the era of Reagan and a time when AIDS was at the bottom of the mainstream political agenda. It was initially referred to as the gay plague, gay cancer, gay pneumonia or GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) and, as such, deemed of little significance when it came to Reagan’s emphasis on family values. Thanks, in part, to The Celluloid Closet, Russo had a platform with which to air his views, appearing on Good Morning America, say, or using his own television series, Our Time as a means of addressing the key issues. He had also, by this point, become something of an elder statesman within activist circles, partly as a result of his long-standing presence at rallies, marches, protests and so forth, but also because so many of his contemporaries had passed away due to the disease.
Despite his passing in 1990, Russo is ever-present in Vito. Schwarz has an immense library of archive material at his disposal, whether it’s footage of his subject sharing the stage with Bette Midler or being interviewed by local television at a gay pride march. Particularly valuable is a candid direct-to-camera piece recorded shortly before his death. His recollections interweave with newly recorded interviews with the likes of fellow activist (and playwright, author, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, et al) Larry Kramer, critic David Ehrenstein, filmmaker Rob Epstein and many more besides. The impressive roster is matched by the film clips, which no doubt cost a small fortune to licence. (Bryan Singer’s presence as executive producer may have played its part here.) Everything from Edison and Laurel and Hardy shorts to The Boys in the Band and Sunday Bloody Sunday put in an appearance.
Schwarz’s great skill is in combining all of these events, these people and these clips into a punchy whole. His editor here, Philip Harrison, has been a regular presence on his DVD featurettes and so shares in that compact, pithy approach. At times Vito is almost too fast such is the pacing, yet it’s remarkable as to how much material is covered over its 89 minutes. Needless to say, there has been some streamlining and an aversion of digressions (the disc contains over an hour of extended archive footage and excised interview material) in order to maintain the punchiness. But anyone looking for a lesson in US gay activist politics during the seventies and eighties or just simply looking for a superb documentary portrait could do much worse.
Vito has been released onto DVD (and VOD) in the UK courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures. The dual-layered disc presents the documentary in its intended 1.78:1 aspect ratio and with a choice of DD5.1 and DD2.0 soundtracks. Understandably for a film made up of so much archive footage the picture quality does vary somewhat, though the sources are in mostly good shape. Do be aware that some of the newly-filmed interviews are interlaced which can prove distracting. The soundtrack, meanwhile, offers no such problems and remains crisp and clear throughout. (There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.)
Extras consist of 34 minutes worth of excerpts from Russo’s Our Time television series, 23 minutes of additional interview material and the original trailer. (There is also a bunch of cross-promotional trailers for other Peccadillo Pictures releases.) The Our Time footage is wonderful, containing interviews with Harry Hay, Barbara Gittings, Larry Kramer, Virginia Apuzzo and Harvey Fierstein backstage on Broadway during a run of Torch Song Trilogy. Lily Tomlin, in Mrs. Judith Beasley guise, also pops up for a quick quiche-based sketch. The new interviews, meanwhile, come with subject headers to highlight their discussion topics. Essentially we’re dealing with digressions here that would have interrupted the feature’s impressive pace.