June 8, 2010

Word is Out

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½ [as a film]
[as history: ****½]

Just in time for 2010 Gay Pride Month comes a landmark documentary, finally appearing on DVD. Had the camera ever captured gays and lesbians so thoroughly and professionally than did the 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives? Probably not, and certainly not in this direct, honest, surprising -- even now -- manner, with all the variations in age, type and color. ("I am not the black lesbian," the woman shown below notes, as she explains why she had to consider at length her decision to participate in the film. "I am a black lesbian.")

Word Is Out was the first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers, and was directed by the Mariposa Film Group, consisting of the late Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein and Lucy Massie Phenix -- some of whom have gone on to very nice careers. Distributed by Dennis Doros & Amy Heller's Milestone Films, it has been newly preserved to 35mm by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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Call it a more old school "talking heads" style doc if you must. But see it, if only for another woman, now a senior citizen, who explains why, growing up, she didn't much think about her outsider status: "We moved from England to Canada, and when you have something like poverty to work out of, you perhaps don't pay that much attention to certain other things." Other things? Our identity maybe -- yet one that for many of us played second, if not third or fourth, fiddle to so much else.

Probably the first thing that hits you after watching a few minutes of Word Is Out will be simple shock at how effortlessly well-spoken, alert and intelligent are all of these people. Were any more proof needed of the dumbing-down of America, this documentary delivers it. Three decades, it appears, is long enough to see a noticeable decline in standards of speech and the ability to communicate extemporaneously. Of course, you say: these people were chosen somewhat on the basis of their ability to be coherent. But then, so are those chosen for today's documentaries, as well. (One of the rare recent examples that offers intelligent, well-spoken people is this year's Off and Running from Nicole Opper.)

And, oh, the variety on display. One lipstick lesbian (before that moniker became popular) talks about looking feminine and going against the grain of the day. Another serves us up a history of women in the military during the 40s and 50s. Yet another, who found it terribly difficult to appear to be different, tells of finding herself suddenly aghast at marching for the Vietnam War. "Everything was based around trying to hide my lesbian self. It was not safe to be vulnerable and so a lot of life had to do with hiding."

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The men get their licks in, too, and there are all kinds of them on display, from the nellie to the naughty, seniors to sports lovers. One blames religion: "Not Jesus: He was the savior. It's the churches that are ruining things." Another speaks of his incarceration in a hospital where he underwent shock therapy (one of the women tells of a similar story but managed to avoid the shock). They did it willingly, they tell us, to please their families. How did you handle that, asks the interviewer? "I had to make a secret, safe place in my life -- without any help from anybody else," he explains and then considers for a moment. "Except perhaps from my dog."

The movie is divided -- unnecessarily, it seems to me -- into three sections. Part Two covers growing up, although the first part provided plenty of insight into that realm, too. This second section seems to offer more humor than its earlier counterpart, though one particular young woman, so sad-eyed and quiet and that she can barely look into the camera, talks of eventually finding another job, perhaps becoming a plumber.

While it is the attraction to a sexual partner of the same gender that gets us crucified, Word Is Out spends little time on the subject of sex. It's rather a given, really. Finding a relationship, comfort, love over the long-term is much more important to these people. An occasional song by gay and lesbian groups breaks up the interviews (one duo of young women sings a particularly beautiful number in harmony). After a time, you realize how much you really like all these people on view.

In Part Three -- titled "From Now On" -- we sense the interviewees struggling with change: feminism, liberation and coming to terms with, as one person puts it, "the ways in which we hold each other down." Indeed. Among the salutary effects of this fine documentary, both of its time and ahead of it, is that, over thirty years later, we can simultaneously marvel at how much has changed -- and how little.

This terrifically produced new DVD, complete with English SDH subtitles, comes from Milliarium ZERO – the sister company of Milestone Film – and offers an equally terrific package of Bonus Features (you could spend a whole day with this DVD!): Word is Out, Then and Now: Thirty Years Later, featuring both the filmmakers and some of the participants, is a must. Seeing and hearing these people now is a lovely experience and, at the end of this feature, seeing those lost to AIDS and time, is a particularly moving one. Other worthy extras include: "Afterthoughts" (also featuring both groups); A history of the Mariposa Film Group (the filmmakers); Remembering Peter Adair (the film's late producer, and the fellow who was the main force behind the film collective); and a bit with this DVD's executive producer, David Bohnett, the man behind the film's restoration and its DVD release.

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Posted by cphillips at June 8, 2010 9:56 AM
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