Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Maria San Filippo
A film by the Mariposa Film Group (Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Robert Epstein and Lucy Massie Phenix); produced by Peter Adair; cinematography by Peter Adair, Andrew Brown, Robert Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver; edited by Peter Adair, Andrew Brown, Robert Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver. DVD, color, 135 min., 1977. Distributed by Milestone Film & Video.
Newly restored and preserved to 35mm film and digitally remastered for DVD by the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Word is Out’s thirtieth anniversary rerelease is a welcome arrival, and, one hopes, not just for those teachers of LGBT history and filmmaking who have long made due with its previous availability solely on VHS. Along with the 1973 PBS reality series An American Family1 (whose eldest son Lance Loud was U.S. television’s first out gay personality), these must be the best known but least seen documentaries of LGBT liberation for those who weren’t around in the 1970s, and the least rewatched among those who were.
Aside from its being the first feature documentary about gay identity made by gay filmmakers, likely what is most remembered about Word is Out is that it was created by a collective of six individuals with varying degrees of filmmaking experience. Peter Adair conceived the film and was self-appointed director and producer before dissolving any hierarchy among the partners he recruited: sister Nancy Adair (a taxi driver at the time), burgeoning filmmakers Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver, as well as Andrew Brown and a teenaged Rob Epstein (who went on to make The Times of Harvey Milk and the forthcoming Howl), who responded to Adair’s ad for “a non-sexist person to work on a documentary film on gay life. No experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit.” They called themselves the Mariposa Film Group, named for their office’s location at 3rd Street and Mariposa in San Francisco.
Over five years they conducted interviews one-on-one (or occasionally with a couple) with subjects ranging from eighteen to seventy-nine years old, starting in the Bay Area and eventually extending throughout the continental U.S. Those selected range from well-known gay activist Harry Hay (cofounder of the Mattachine Society) to people whose coming out happened as a result of their participation in the film, and most everyone encountered their costars for the first time when taking their places on stage at the 1977 premiere at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. In line with Mariposa’s utilitarian ethos, each interviewer also operated the camera (filming on 16mm) and recorded sound, and made little attempt to hide their presence—indeed methodological transparency was emphasized, about which I’ll say more.
200 interviews were edited to a final runtime of 135 minutes, suiting its epic ambition and destiny for public television broadcast, where it ran in three parts: “The Early Years,” featuring sobering remembrances of personal and political repression in the preliberation era; “Growing Up,” relating stories of public emergence and self-acceptance; and “From Now On,” appraising the then-present and offering hopes for the future. Length aside, it looks and sounds refreshingly pared down, devoid of the irritating affectations of so much contemporary documentary (hyperactive editing, sanctimonious voice-over, the ubiquitous Ken Burns effect). Though it does, for all its 1970s time capsule charm, have its dated moments—namely the kitschy interludes with gay pop group Buena Vista which never fail to get a laugh from contemporary audiences (though what would a gay film be without camp?).
Regrettably there is a lack of clear titling to identity the interviewees; perhaps the intention was to heighten the “everyperson” effect by having their words alone speak for them, but consequently the appearance and mise-en-scène of each takes on heightened resonance. This too may have been intentional, as the interview settings look unstaged and are chiefly domestic, signaling a heightened familiarity and intimacy from the first sequence’s introduction of shy, soft-spoken Nadine Armijo perched on her bed. This conversational, even confessional tone is further enhanced by a production setup designed to have subjects look straight into the camera, a proto-Errol Morris technique but with the softer, less confrontational effect of putting the filmmaker-interviewer and spectator in the position of therapist, priest, or loved one.
Rather than having one complete interview follow another, the film intercuts the twenty-six conversations to emphasize the interviewees’ similarity of experience: personal shame and denial, unrequited first crushes, pressure to learn to “act straight” then later to “act gay,” coming out as celebratory ritual, etc. A more engaging structure to be sure, it nonetheless standardizes “the gay experience” and (because interviewers’ questions are mostly omitted) places the majority of statements out of their clear original context. As the Mariposa Group told Cineaste in a 1978 interview, “We were trying very hard not to manipulate. We wanted very much for the people to speak for themselves. Of course, that can’t happen without a lot of editing. And a lot of manipulation.”2
Presumably this intent to construct a unified voice was politically motivated. In the year that Word is Out premiered, Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign and California’s Briggs Initiative were erupting. Though it had been five years in the making, Word is Out appears to anticipate those desperate times with its moderate appeal and humanizing measures. “It’s not a film that drives you away, it’s a film that sucks you in,” as one Mariposan notes, but in striving to simultaneously reassure straights that gays aren’t monsters and gays that they weren’t alone, Word is Out has been predictably faulted for attempting to serve two masters.
Where certain documentaries are alleged to be manipulative of their subjects, any manipulation here is of audience expectation of the interviews’ spontaneity. The filmmakers’ method, to which they freely admitted, was to pre-videotape prospective interviewees, providing a first round of transcripts from which to shape storylines.Sans any naïveté about documentary “authenticity,” knowing the interviews were rehearsed and to some degree scripted makes me warier of, if still moved by, the film’s most powerful scenes: Whitey Fladden and Rick Stokes recounting their institutionalization in the 1950s, when individuals diagnosed as homosexual were administered or threatened with shock treatments; Pat Bond recalling halcyon days serving in the Women’s Army Corps before dishonorable discharges rained down, then demonstrating how to walk like a butch and complaining about the fit of Jockey shorts; and George Mendenhall recounting nights spent, pre-Stonewall, at San Francisco’s The Black Cat Bar, where drag performer José Sarria would lead a crowd of embracing men in singing “God save us nelly queens.”
Another thorny strategy, however well-intentioned, had the filmmakers conducting test screenings as rigorously as a Hollywood studio, out of what they “felt [was] a tremendous responsibility to listen to the community” as well as a desperate need for financial donations.3 The gridlock of contradictory responses proved a setback, both temporally and creatively, though any aftereffects of equivocating or pandering seem to me negligible. Others have disagreed, criticizing Word is Out for allegedly playing it safe. In his New York Times review, Dave Kehr pronounced Word is Out’s subjects “more Norman Rockwell than Robert Mapplethorpe”4 with a glibness that diminishes what was, for its time, considerable heterogeneity among the interviewees and views expressed. After all, it features a drag performer, two sets of gay parents, an advocate of tolerance for man-boy love, and a shout out for lesbian separatism. Certainly it steers away from the truly outré, but considered overall, the film’s rhetoric is not nearly so assimilatory as much of that emanating from contemporary gay activism.
The most glaringly homogeneous aspect among the interviewees was summed up by one participant as there being “too many dykes in the woods,” and reportedly resulted in the recruitment of three-piece-suited businessman Mark Pinney to represent mainstream corporate America; ironically he proved the film’s most controversial voice with his expressed distaste for those “flaunting” their gay pride. But while several participants are people of color (including one of the filmmakers, Andrew Brown, an African-American), Achebe “Betty” Powell seems entirely justified in objecting on-camera to being positioned as the token black lesbian, just as seventy-nine-year-old poet Elsa Gidlow protests the filmmakers’ attempt to fit her character “into a context that she doesn’t feel is true to her.” Whether the filmmakers’ choice to put on-screen such instances in which their motives are questioned constitutes accepting accountability or covering their asses is arguable.
My own chief disgruntlement comes with the fact that not one of the twenty-six appears to be bisexual-identified, or at least no one admits to feeling that relationships with both women and men have the potential to be equally fulfilling. There is also a gendered division among the interviewees when it comes to describing the determinants of their sexual preference—men talk about the joys of sex, women about the emotional depth of relationships—that may well run deeper than filmmaker intentionality but makes one bristle just the same. And while there appears to be some attempt at economic diversity, it’s unclear how much class variance there is actually—both because the lack of interviewee identifiers makes it difficult to differentiate between the back-to-landers and the actual working class, and because class as a topic is not addressed save a sobering remembrance by Gidlow that as the child of an impoverished immigrant family, sexual orientation was hardly her chief concern.
As Nancy Adair commented in 1978, “I think what we’ve done is to change the concept of what a positive role model is. A positive role model isn’t somebody who looks acceptable. A positive role model to me is somebody who accepts herself or himself and is self-affirmed.”5 Word is Out’s final section shows participants attending political protests, starting families, and generally coming into political and personal consciousness. The pervasive feel-good atmosphere is tinged only by Pat Bond’s lament that with social acceptance comes a however necessary loss “of having our own language, that secret Little Orphan Annie decoding society.”
Of course the other encroaching loss, unknown at the time, was that which AIDS would wreak. As part of the DVD special features, homage is paid to Word is Out’s participants no longer with us, five of whom (including Peter Adair) were felled by the pandemic. The additional bonus content doesn’t stretch much beyond the standard “making of” and “where are they now” featurettes, with all but two of the still living interviewees returning to occasionally cringe at their earlier performances and to describe how, with the wane of identity politicking, sexual orientation seems less of a determinant on their personal identity or (the implication becomes) their means to social access. One such speaker may be right in remarking on how much the typical American family has changed in thirty years, though until legislation like California Proposition 8, the Defense of Marriage Act, and Don’t ask, don’t tell are repealed for good, there’s less cause for celebration, and more reason than ever for films such asWord is Out.
- An American Family, made by Alan and Susan Raymond, remains unavailable in any format, though clips from the series are interspersed throughout the DVD release of HBO’s 1983 broadcast An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later.
- DuMont Howard and Jeffrey Escoffier, “Word is Out: An Interview with the Mariposa Film Group,” Cineaste 3.4 (1978): 59.
- Ibid.: 11.
- Dave Kehr, “Coming Out, Looking In, Summing Up,” New York Times (May 30, 2010): 12.
- Howard and Escoffier (1978): 9.
To buy Word is Out, click here.
Maria San Filippo teaches film and television studies and gender and sexuality studies at Wellesley College and Harvard University.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.