Word Is Out (DVD Review)7 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark
As a landmark gay documentary worthy of its reception at the time yet with equal or surpassing power today, this intense labor of love from San Francisco’s Mariposa Film Group collective benefits from eerie historical placement that wasn’t evident when it was made in 1977. The film was released a little less than a decade after New York City’s 1969 Stonewall Riots — when combative patrons at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall in said “no more” to oppressive police — yet before the onset of the AIDS scourge just a few years later.
Thus, a two-and-a-quarter-hour talking-heads history divided into three sections — “The Early Years,” “Growing Up” and “From Now On” — takes on sobering poignancy in the final section. “From Now On” ended up encompassing “still a long way” in terms of unthinkable suffering compounded by the Reagan Administration paying scant heed to it — and in the sense that younger viewers may view these 26 stories as something from another world, which in a way they are.
I saw this film in its original release and was very taken with it — though in one of the smallest commercial auditoriums in all of Washington, D.C., a city with a sizable gay population. Small venues are the province of documentaries in general because there’s always some comic book superhero fantasy that the masses regard as more important. But Out is the kind of emotional experience born to feed on the home market (and vice versa), which means it ought to make significantly more waves amid its new life. Class-act distributor Milestone, which carefully picks its shots so it can give hands-on treatment, has made another of its ideal choices (think Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep). And the restored print gets more out of its primitive filmic origins that you’d think possible.
The long early section deals with a lot of interviewees who even then were middle-aged, which means they were definitely part of a special club in terms of what they had experienced. Most participants here are from one coast or the other, but one aspiring actor is from a rural community and one very pretty young woman was all honor student/cheerleader/young wife “perfection” before coming out — in Texas. (She’s one of the few still living interview subjects — happily, many are — who declined to appear in an outstanding update in the generous DVD bonus supplements).
One of the documentary’s best sections involves a woman named Pat Bond, whose deliveries when she chooses to be funny equal those of the best stand-up comics — which makes it all the more affecting when she shows an emotional side. A former member of the military, Bond’s fascinating insights and reportage on that culture recall parts of the late journalist Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming. She talks about the mixed signals other women (and sometimes superiors) were known to give off — sexually beckoning at times but also capable of a crackdown if they feared matters might get out of hand or become public knowledge.
The extras include a tribute to Mariposa’s late Peter Adair, who came up with a great but then novel idea: showing gays on film as normal people worthy of respect — and then finding an array of subjects who could put the concept across. The Mariposa group was so tightly knit that one of its key contributors was Adair’s own sister. The members didn’t just envision Out as a job of work, which is obvious in every frame.