23 June 2007

Vito Russo

In honour of San Francisco Pride weekend, a few words about Vito Russo.

Russo was an important gay rights activist and a cinephile best known for his book about the representation of GLBT characters in film, The Celluloid Closet.

In 1989, a year before AIDS would take him from us, he taught two classes at the University of California at Santa Cruz. One was on the history of GLBT culture in the US, including his eyewitness account (!) of Stonewall.

The other was Celluloid Closet and somehow, in spite of being a heterosexual physics student, I decided to take it. Good decision; it was the best class I've ever taken on any subject.

Among many fascinating clips from films, Russo showed us a lot of sissy characters in 1930s films, particularly as played by Franklin Pangborn. Russo was quite a fan. Sure, he knew that these characters represented a stereotype that was a problem in several ways, but they were charming and were far preferable to the invisibility of the '40s and '50s and the monsters and Problem Characters of the '60s and '70s. They were allowed to just be who they were and speak for themselves, if in a limited, one-note way.

So years later, when I saw Con Air in a theater in San Francisco, it was his sensibility that enabled me to enjoy the silly, swishy character Ramon “Sally-Can't-Dance” Martinez without cringing too much. There's a bit where the escaped prisoners are getting ready to make a stand against a bunch of cops. Sally-Can't-Dance has been AWOL from the preparations, having stumbled across a trunk full of dresses in his size. He rejoins the fray in drag, and goes to their leader, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, asking, “What can I do?”

Cyrus doesn't even blink at Sally-Can't-Dance's outfit, and says in deadpan thug professionalism, “Take this [handing over a big rifle] and head to the boneyard. Anyone makes it through, you scratch their eyes out.” Sally-Can't-Dance has Cyrus' respect.

I'm quite certain that I heard the shade of Vito Russo laughing in the seat next to me.

My other story about him takes place at the start of a class session sometime in the middle of the quarter. He announces that a local TV crew is thinking about doing a story on the course. They've interviewed him, and they want to get some shots of the class in session. He's made arrangements with them that they will position the camera such that it won't see any of the students sitting in a particular corner of the classroom, so any student who doesn't want to take a chance of someone seeing them in the news report should sit there. He pauses after explaining this, then says, “Please folks, so it's not a disruption later, if you don't want to be on camera, move now.”

There's maybe 200 of us in the classroom. Nobody moves. It takes a few moments for it to register with him that none of the students care if someone sees us in the class.

He's astonished. Then he doesn't cry. Just barely, but he doesn't.

1 comment:

Lasara said...

Thanks, Jonathan. You're really an excellent story-teller.