Vito Russo

Vito Russo: an activist scholar (Photos courtesy Trinity College / May 29, 2012)

The necessity for — and the rich possiblities of — a gay and lesbian film festival might easily be grasped by viewing Vito, the documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz about Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, the acclaimed study of homosexuality in classic Hollywood films. Vito, showing June 7, 7:30 p.m., is a fascinating and moving film depicting Russo's life, including his activism for gay rights in the '70s, for AIDS research in the '80s, and even, c. 1981, for less conspicuous consumerism and more caring and brotherhood in the gay community. The segment of the film depicting Russo's extensive work on movies shows many clips from films pre-Hollywood Code and during the Code (early '30s to mid-'60s). It's enlightening to see pre-Code films depicting gay characters without stigma, though with certain stereotypes, only to find that, during the Code, all references to such matters are veiled or symbolic, often with an overlay of Freudianism or, worse, a sensationalist sense of menace and monstrosity. A collection of films such as those gathered in the 25th Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival would probably have made Russo, a very articulate and clear-eyed commentator, weep with joy.

Here are films in which gays and lesbians are part of our culture, are part of their own culture, and face both the hardships we all face — such as the failing health of a loved one — and the hardship of a kind of bigotry and distortion and persecution reserved for those who, as the saying goes, "dare to be different."

In Cloudburst, two Oscar-winning actresses, Olivia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, play Dot and Stella, an aging lesbian couple who have lived as partners for 31 years. When Stella's meddlesome grand-daughter, too dense to grasp their relationship, tries to put Stella, blind and facing some health issues, in a care facility, Dot, a foul-mouthed "dyke," rescues her and together they set out on a road trip to Canada, where they can be married. Along the way they pick up a feckless young male dancer who is charmed by the lively relationship between the two. Dukakis lends her role great gusto and humanity, making Dot at times a knowing caricature of herself, but also depicting the depths of her attachment to her lover. She is, as Stella says, "like a trained seal," doing whatever is necessary to keep them together. There are some surprises along the way, and a touch of melodrama here and there, but the film's adventurous tone is sustained by Fricker's devil-may-care sense of fun as Stella, and by Dukakis' salty compassion as Dot. June 1, 7:30 p.m.

Christopher and His Kind revisits the Berlin diaries of Christopher Isherwood ("Dr. Who"'s Matt Smith), the basis of the musical Cabaret. Here the emphasis is rather different since the Sally Bowles character plays second fiddle to the story of "Chris," an emigré Englishman who goes to Berlin because "Berlin meant boys." The film is beautiful to look at, but doesn't shy away from the ugly thuggery of Naziism, and captures the seediness of Chris's life quite well, while also getting at, with comic touches, the pointedly well-mannered relation between Isherwood and his mother and brother. Along the way, the film offers a telling portrait of Isherwood, in his search for sexual license, romantic fulfillment and, ultimately, authorial self-possession. June 2, 7:30 p.m.

Jonathen Lisecki's Gayby, based on a short film shown at last year's festival, must be the most progressive comedy in some time. Matt (Matthew Wilkas) is a gay comic book store clerk, perpetually moping about his lost boyfriend; Jenn (Jenn Harris), a hot yoga teacher with no steady boyfriend material, wants a child. Lovers briefly in college, they decide to make a baby the "old-fashioned way" while still searching, respectively, for Mr. Right. They are supported by an amusing cast of friends (each is seconded by comical queens who have a delightful spat late in the film), co-workers, family (Jenn's sister is a spot-on portrait of a certain entitlement type), and possible partners. Wry and wise, Gayby is a situation comedy for today's non-traditional family.

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