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Uncovering the layers of a queer film classic

by The Concordian January 24, 2012
Uncovering the layers of a queer film classic

Legendary 20th century director Luchino Visconti had a monumental appetite for the arts. Based on Thomas Mann’s novella, Visconti’s Death in Venice is perhaps one of his most controversial films. So how does Montreal critic, novelist and Dawson College cinema teacher Will Aitken come about writing a book based on a queer film classic? It certainly wasn’t his first choice.
Though a huge Visconti fan, Death in Venice was by no means Aitken’s favourite. “I didn’t want to write about it,” said Aitken, who first saw the film in 1973. “Originally I was going to write about an earlier Visconti film called Senso, but in the writing, Death in Venice completely took over and I decided not to write about Senso at all.”
Death in Venice chronicles an unexpected love affair. The protagonist, an older man, goes to Venice to recharge his batteries, and ends up meeting a young boy. In Mann’s account, the boy was about 10 years old, but in Visconti’s version, the boy was about 14. The man becomes transfixed and falls madly in love, despite never speaking to the boy. As a result of his obsession, the man decides to stay in Venice, where a plague of cholera hits, and he dies.
Taking on such a well-known film by an influential director was not an easy task. “I tried to look at the book and the film in a fresh way, and to show how Visconti ‘improved’ on Mann in that the film isn’t laboured with the homophobia that Mann exhibits in the book,” said Aitken.
Aitken’s voice is present in his book as he talks about how the film affected him as a spectator the first time he saw it, and how his experience differed decades later. In 150 pages, he chronicles the extravagant life of Visconti, analyzes Mann’s novella, and takes a closer look at the film version.
Classic gay and lesbian directors immensely contributed to the LGBT community but also to the film community as a whole. “When it came out, not so long after gay liberation, as it was called then, came about, lesbians and gays were hungry—desperate—for films that reminded the world that their form of passion existed, ” said Aitken. “It was a very big deal at the time—a big-budget international film of exceptional quality that was popular with gay and straight audiences alike.” Similarly to Visconti’s film, Aitken’s book does not strictly target the LGBT community; it aims to be accessible, informative and lively.
Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic, is one of 22 in a series for Arsenal Pulp Press, celebrating the work of gay and lesbian directors. The series is being edited by Concordia professors Tom Waugh and Matthew Hays.
“It’s kind of a historical, retrieval project, since these directors and their films also represent how homosexual love has been pictured over the years, and how much has changed, and how much is left to be done,” said Aitken.

Death in Venice launches on Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. at Royal Phoenix (5788 St-Laurent). For more information, visit www.arsenalpulp.com.

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