I have always had an affinity for sharing my favorite films. While watching a movie I love with a different audience, I often think it might as well be my first time experiencing it. The reactions are wildly divergent, the laughter or tears flow at different moments, and I come away with new ways of thinking through particular scenes.
For the longest time I figured this was simply a particular sensibility of mine. I struggled to understand why repeat viewings of certain movies were incredibly satisfying experiences.
While researching my senior thesis, titled “Beyond The Celluloid Closet: Moving Toward an Affective and Critical Analysis of Modern Queer Cinema,” the experiences of Vito Russo (above center, carrying the pole) influenced my thoughts on the matter heavily. Vito is my personal hero, our most influential theorist and critic of American queer cinema—he wrote The Celluloid Closet—and a widely loved and revered AIDS activist. Though he died in 1991, my thesis became a means of reconciling the temporal space between us, and I sought to understand how he could love film the way he did even as he grew increasingly frustrated with the representation of the LGBTQ community.
He found some solace in what he referred to as a “gay sensibility,” an inherent communal understanding of certain cultural artifacts that allowed for a shared experience of recognition, desire, and friendship.
In the below excerpt from my thesis*, I attempted to explore the connections between Vito’s desire for shared cinematic experience and the filmmaking techniques which might elicit the communal response he (and I) find so satisfying.
*Unless otherwise stated, the parenthetical citations are from Michael Schiavi’s fantastic text, Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo.
As Vito’s passion for activism grew—and as he took part in more demonstrations and marches with GAA (the Gay Activists Alliance)—his knowledge about and zeal for cinema’s representative power also increased. He enrolled in the graduate cinema studies program at New York University (NYU) to learn about the application of film theory to criticism, a burgeoning academic field. He applied what he learned to GAA’s growing numbers. Inspired by an initial film screening, “Vito wanted to gauge whether gays and lesbians found any reflection of their own relationships on screen,” and thus the Firehouse Flicks were initiated (101). Taking place on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons in GAA’s newly acquired four-story firehouse home, the screening series elicited a huge response and became an important connective force amongst members. At a screening of The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), the audience laughed so loudly, and in unison, that Vito, consistently toying with the idea of a shared identity through film, proclaimed: “You’ve heard people argue about whether there’s a gay sensibility. Well, you just experienced it” (98).
Even in Schiavi’s written description there is a palpable sense of community in the Firehouse Flicks audience, akin to the driving forward motion of a march or the stubborn solidarity of a demonstration. One reveler, closeted in everyday life, marveled at the bodily contact at one horror film screening, where patrons would “shriek and turn to the person on the left or the right and they would hug and hide their eyes in the other person’s armpits, and it was simply wonderful” (100). In his 1929 essay “Methods of Montage,” Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein identifies this communal experience in the flow, or “beat” of edited images: “I do not mean to imply that the beat should be recognizable as part of the perceived impression. On the contrary. Though unrecognized, it is nevertheless indispensable for the ‘organization’ of the sensual impression. Its clarity can bring into unison the ‘pulsing’ of the film and the ‘pulsing’ of the audience. Without such a unison…there can be no contact between the two” (Film Form 73). The gay sensibility was, in a sense, tapped into by the “pulsing” which Eisenstein attributes to montage, the editing together of images; as such, the audience had an overwhelmingly similar experience, falling into step with the filmmaker in ways unexpected, moving, and, as he describes it, “sensual.”
Vito’s Flicks were able to bridge the divide between militant gay activism and a sensibility, sensation, and feeling of kinship that, he believed, was just as forcefully accessed through media. All of GAA’s programs were aimed at trying “to reach frightened or indifferentgays through its cultivation of ‘gay space’,” space that, in Vito’s mind, was increasingly occupied by cinema and its connective force, fostered through viewership and a shared anger toward hateful gay representation (95). He could not sit alone with the alternating pleasures of cinema and disturbing knowledge of its inherent subjugation of homosexuals. The communal experience was a necessity.
While Vito’s motivation was far more focused than mine, I think that he, along with Eisenstein, understand the complex psychological pleasure that well-wrought cinema can elicit. I joke that I could be considered a “hopelessly addicted cinephile;” perhaps there is some truth to it. Could the “unison” of the “pulse” between audience and film be connected to some sort of endorphin rush?
I have always felt it there. And I am firmly convinced that the communal pleasure of the movie-watching experience is one of the many reasons that I love to share films.
What are your favorite films? Do you have a go-to movie to share with friends and family who haven’t seen it? Let me know in the comments!
And check out the trailer for HBO’s doc, Vito: The Life Of Gay Rights Activist Vito Russo, below.