Renowned Montreal author and Dawson College film professor Will Aitken launches his new book, Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic, a new monograph on filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of the famed Thomas Mann novel, this week in Montreal.
Death in Venice is also the latest title in Arsenal Pulp Press’s Queer Film Classics series, edited by Concordia professors and acclaimed film scholars Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays. Past titles include Gods and Monsters and Fire, and upcoming titles include Female Trouble and Paris Is Burning.
Aitken says Waugh proposed the book when they ran into each other while working out at the Montreal YMCA.
“Tom asked if I was interested in writing about a director and suggested Visconti,” Aitken recalls. “Originally, I didn’t want to do Death in Venice because I had seen the film when it first came out in theatres in 1971 and didn’t like it. But the more I researched it, I realized it was a fucking masterpiece.
“That’s also because I’m a different person today,” the 62-year-old Aitken explains. “When I first saw the movie I was 22 and thought it was too much costume drama and too pretty, with that heartwrenching music. And I was uncomfortable with the sexuality of a middle-aged man hungering after a teenage boy. I didn’t really question what Visconti was doing with the film. But 40 years later it looks so fresh, so new. For the movie to work you do fall in love with this kid. It becomes a very strange experience for whoever watches it because it puts you in the illegal position of loving somebody that young, fresh and so watchable. He was the first gay icon to cross over, and the press were even calling him the most beautiful boy in the world.”
Despite the film’s nomination for a Palme d’Or in 1971, uncomfortable and homophobic movie critics called it a gay piece of trash. But in his book, Aitken shows why it wasn’t and analyzes the film’s profound cultural impact.
“I fear for LGBT titles like Death in Venice because big [publishing] houses are taking over all the little ones, and the big houses are only interested in bestsellers. Gay literary fiction is in such great peril right now, and I worry about it a lot,” says Aitken, whose novels include Realia and Terre Haute.
Aitken’s new book is being launched at the Royal Phoenix, a queer bar in Montreal’s arty Mile End district, because Montreal’s much-lamented queer bookstore L’Androgyne – which Aitken co-founded in 1974 – closed in 2002.
“I miss L’Androgyne terribly – browsing online isn’t like browsing book stacks,” Aitken says. “But a lot of my students go to the Royal Phoenix and say it’s a great place. I also think it’s wonderful to have an LGBT bar that’s not in the gay village; that’s breaking the mould. So I’m looking forward to having a party and not a solemn literary event.”
Death in Venice
Arsenal Pulp Press
Book launch at Montreal’s Royal Phoenix bar
Thurs, Jan 26 at 6pm
5788 Blvd St Laurent