Thursday, January 28, 2010

WORD IS OUT is back: Mariposa Group's doc, more timely than ever, opens at AFA

Had the camera ever captured gays and lesbians so thoroughly and professionally than did the  landmark documentary WORD IS OUT?  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.")

Call it "early talking heads" 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.  Thirty-five years, 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 week'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 (above) 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."

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 (below) speaks of his incarceration in a hospital where he underwent shock therapy (one of the women spent a similar stay but managed to avoid the shock).  They did it willingly, they tell us, to please their families.  Shock treatment!  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 (shown below), 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 interview-
ees 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, thirty-five years later, we can simultaneously marvel at how much has changed -- and how little.

Word Is Out (the first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers) was directed by the Mariposa Film Group, consisting of Peter Adair (a photo of the late filmmaker is shown above), Nancy Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Robert Epstein and Lucy Massie Phenix -- some of whom have gone on to very nice careers.  Distributed by Milestone Films (Dennis Doros & Amy Heller ), it has been newly preserved to 35mm by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  It opens tomorrow, Friday, January 29 for a one-week run at New York City's Anthology Film Archives., playing daily at 6:30 and 9:15pm, with 3:45 pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

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