by Fran Taylor
Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 27-28
This review of WORD IS OUT is reprinted from Off Our Backs May 1978. The film was reviewed in JUMP CUT 20 by Ray Olson in a review of independent gay and lesbian filmmaking in the United States. And its inception was discussed extensively by Thomas Waugh in an article on gays and film in JUMP CUT 16, under its working title WHO ARE WE? We encourage further responses in Critical Dialogue to this important film.
Why was I so grumpy after seeing the movie, WORD IS OUT? Wasn't it a film about gay people, featuring gay people, on the subject of homosexuality, enough to put a bounce into any queer's step? Why did I drag out of the theater, muttering in dismay?
The movie is entertaining. It was a relief to see all those gay people on the screen. I liked most of the 26 people who talked about their lives.
I thought about it for days. I waded through the vague feeling that what I disliked about the movie was its liberalness, before reaching a clearer realization that I was disturbed really by its reactionary message.
Several connected factors prompt me to label this movie reactionary, but the basis is its anti-materialist point of view. By this I mean that "human nature" dictates what we believe, and beliefs and feeling drop out of the sky. This ignores material reality. Homophobia, racism and sexism are all more than bad ideas that some people cherish who happen to be obnoxious. These attitudes provide certain groups of people with certain privileges. WORD IS OUT says, with its presentation of engaging, personable gays, that we should all go out and melt the hearts of the queer-haters with our charm. We know how well this flower in the gun barrel approach worked in the 60s.
Each homophobic person mentioned in WORD IS OUT comes across as a narrow-minded individual, not just someone who's reacting in an ordinary way to the material conditions and propaganda of their whole lives. The essence of the film's reactionary philosophy lies in this unquestioning acceptance of homophobia. Understanding and change don't grow out of an attitude that puts the starting point miles into the race. Instead of beginning with the fact that there are people who make gays miserable, we need to figure out why they want to. Without this kind of exploration we are left with moral exhortation as our only means of changing people's minds.
It may sound like I am asking for a lecture series, not a movie. But WORD IS OUT isn't supposed to be "just" a movie — a screwball comedy or Busby Berkeley musical. It's purpose is political and its politics stink. Peter Adair of the Mariposa Film Group says, "There were certain premises that were very fundamental … the film would never take an overt, political, rhetorical stand." (Advocate, 4/5/78) By making a conscious decision to take no political stands, the filmmakers evade a lot.
The inclusion of an avowed capitalist who tells us (and how weary we bra-burning libbers must be of this one) that he finds the more flamboyant gays a bit much, but guesses that they do serve their purpose — reflects this no-politics. The Third World representatives often smack of tokenism, and bring little to needed discussion of racism within the gay community and the interconnection of the struggles of all oppressed groups. These are only two examples of the liberal politics that ooze out from under the declaration that the film can somehow avoid politics altogether. And claims of cinema verité or protection of the integrity of the interviewees hold no water — the film is already edited in a gimmicky fashion, and the filmmakers frequently intrude on the subjects through juxtaposition and pace.
I hope that gay communities in cities where WORD IS OUT will be shown raise these and other questions. I don't think people should stay away from the film, and haven't come to feel totally comfortable with the conclusion that it does more harm than good — it may be of value just by the positive images it shows of homosexuals. It certainly doesn't have much competition.
WORD IS OUT: STORIES OF SOME OF OUR LIVES (125 mm.) was made by the Mariposa Film Group (Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Lucy Phenix, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown and Robert Epstein). It is distributed by New Yorker Films, 43 W. 61st Street, New York, NY 10023.