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Knight at the Movies: Vito; Me @ the Zoo; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Throughout July, HBO is running two fascinating queer-themed documentaries that, on the surface, have nothing in common. Nor could the subjects of these two films—provocative Internet sensation Chris Crocker and legendary gay and cultural activist Vito Russo—be more different. Yet both documentaries illuminate the impact that one individual can have on society at large and taken together, both movies have an odd but compelling symbiosis.

The Russo film, simply titled Vito, gives us a portrait of a defiantly, openly gay man who had a tremendous influence on shaping today's queer culture while the Crocker film, named Me @ the Zoo, shows a gay individual who—by embracing his innate queerness—has shown his own brand of ferocious bravery. Crocker has experienced both the positive aspects of Russo's legacy and the backlash against all things queer that is still endemic in large parts of American society Russo rallied against.

We know the importance of the history of gays in cinema thanks to The Celluloid Closet, illuminated so beautifully in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's 1995 documentary. Now at last in Vito, out director Jeffrey Schwarz's new documentary, we meet the visionary responsible for the groundbreaking 1980s bestseller that was the basis for that film. But Russo, as Schwarz's documentary quickly reveals, was much more than a gay cultural visionary—here was a man who literally was also a gay cultural Zelig. From the 1969 Stonewall Riots to co-forming ACT UP in the mid-'80s, Russo was in the thick of the action. More importantly, each step of Russo's thought-provoking and unapologetic evolution became part of his rallying cry for gay men everywhere.

Schwarz's movie (which premieres July 23 on HBO and screens throughout the month) is basically told in three acts: that of a personal gay-rights pioneer; a film and cultural groundbreaker; and finally, an AIDS activist fighting up to his own untimely death from the plague in 1990. Through archival footage—much of it of Russo himself—and interviews with family members and close friends, many of them well-known queer celebrities (Lily Tomlin, Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer, et al), Schwarz builds a portrait of a man who refused to accept societal constraints in any aspect of his life.

Although I appreciate the profound impact Russo had on the lives of queer culture through his activism and personal passions, it is as a film writer via the seminal Celluloid Closet—a 10-year labor of love—where Russo has most resonated for me (it's the reason I became a film critic) and the sections of Schwarz's movie detailing Russo's struggle in creating the book and reveling in its triumph once it was published were highlights.

Vito is a no-brainer for queer audiences to embrace as an important addition to the queer film canon. This is also true of Schwarz's last movie, the documentary portrait of '70s gay-porn star Jack Wrangler. In both films Schwarz discovers men who just happened to be queer and whose indomitable spirits simply overrode anything in their respective paths. This affirming spirit, if given the chance, will surely resonate with straight audiences as well.

The young Chris Crocker—the gay man who is the subject of HBO's Me @ the Zoo, helmed by Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch—apparently shares with Russo and Wrangler the same refusal to curtail or hide his innate queer sensibility. Crocker, who lives in tiny Bristol, Tenn., with his grandparents, became an Internet sensation in 2007 when his impassioned, tearful "Leave Britney alone!" video plea defending criticisms being flogged at his idol, teen sensation Britney Spears, went viral.

Crocker, who identified at the time as female, already had a large Internet following after years of posting videos of herself online in performance while espousing various pop-culture enthusiasms and displaying her wacky and distinctly girly-girl personality. While detailing the interesting and phenomenal popularity of YouTube (the film is named after the first video uploaded to the site by one of its co-founders) and its cultural omnipresence (Warhol was right—everyone is famous for 15 minutes) Moukarbel and Veatch flesh out Crocker's bittersweet background.

Home-schooled after being subjected to years of anti-gay bullying and being the product of a teenage pregnancy, Crocker resorted to the Internet for entertainment and fantasy release—a behavior deeply inculcated in the disenfranchised segments of gay culture. At times, the film is reminiscent of Jonathan Caouette's 2003 Tarnation—another portrait of a lonely, emotionally fraught gay youth who utilized a camera as a shield and an act of self-defense.

The fallout and bitter backlash that accompanied Crocker's Britney video—a development the filmmakers detail—is one of the more disturbing aspects of the movie, along with Crocker's apparent isolation. (The homophobia that greeted the video is shown to be front and center, without apology or remorse.) However, there is also a toughness of spirit here, a hardened determination to be true to self at any cost no matter how many disappointments and dashed dreams abound. The sudden fame—and its even more sudden withdrawal—that Crocker has endured is very winning. By the film's end, Crocker seems adrift without real direction but his determination to not tamp down his queer persona or be bullied is tremendously admirable—and are things one suspects both Jack Wrangler and Vito Russo would have been very happy to see.

Film notes:

—With Farewell, My Queen, director Benoit Jacquot gives us an intimate look at the final days of the reign of Marie Antoinette through the adoring eyes of one of her ladies-in-waiting. The film, which opens exclusively at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., on Friday, July 20, goes a step further than previous examinations of this notorious historical period by adding a lesbian undertone to the proceedings. The film is subtitled.

—The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in director Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy, also opens this Friday but wasn't screened in time for Windy City Times' deadline. However, with hunky Christian Bale back in the title role joined by Tom Hardy as the evil Bane and Anne Hathaway suiting up as Catwoman, gay men and action enthusiasts of all stripes will most likely want to check out what promises to be one of the summer's biggest blockbusters.

—For alternative fare on Friday, July 20, the More for Gay Men LGBT group is hosting a screening of the queer-themed 2007 romantic drama (surfers in love!) Shelter as part of the Center on Halsted's ongoing CENTERscreen series. The 5:30 p.m. event includes a social hour, post-screening discussion and light refreshments, and takes place in the Michael J. Leppen Theatre at the Center, 3656 N. Halsted St.

—The Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave., is bringing back its enormously popular Sing-A-Long Mary Poppins 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, July 21-22. This event allows both the young and young at heart to enjoy Disney's 1964 supercalifragilisticexpialidocious musical classic that won Julie Andrews the Best Actress Oscar as the magical nanny and brought Dick Van Dyke screen immortality for his "so-bad-it's-good" cockney accent as Bert the chimney sweep.

—Personal PAC presents a free, educational screening of Iron Jawed Angels, the 2004 HBO film that stars Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston and details the struggle for women's voting rights at the turn of the 20th century. The screening will take place Monday, July 23, at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., at 7 p.m. Emmy-nominated screenwriter/author Jennifer Friedes will be present at a post-screening discussion. Seating can be reserved by emailing .

Check out my archived reviews at or . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.

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