Movies are Saturday night-wasting entertainment and they’re transcendent mega-art, but they’re also history, living tissues of the past that overpower any other medium we have for preserving experience and retaining cultural memory. This is no small matter, despite the relatively slight influence that film’s historical potential has in the consumer marketplace, which is virtually defined by its amnesia. “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” (1977), then, is a gift, not just a film preserved and sold as product, but a piece of the 20th century that will now never quite fade completely from view.
Shot and assembled by a six-person collective (including Rob Epstein, later director of “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Common Threads”), this film is as simple as it is expansive: amidst the definitive stirrings of the gay rights movement, the filmmakers sat down with 26 gay men and women — young and old, fat and skinny, urban and rural, educated and not, of a variety of ethnicities — and just let them tell their stories.
Such a film made in 1997 or 1987 might have been an interesting cultural footnote or at best an AIDS-era testament, but filmed and released during the Ford Administration, “Word Is Out” pioneered the territory, and captures the overlapping moment when gay life transitioned from a secret and shameful underground into an indelible social force, where it’s been ever since.
It’s a ’70s doc, so it’s rough and slapdash and shot on actual film, itself a kind of time capsule of activist-filmmaking innocence. But it’s the people that matter, and it matters that some are remarkable while others are not, and yet all have snapshots to add to our understanding of life as it was constructed for us and by us not so long ago.
From elderly couples to college students, the stories often (but not always) entail a self-discovery flashpoint when the Eisenhower-era institutional ideas didn’t work anymore, and husbands and wives walked out of their marriages (with and without their children) in order to reinvent themselves as they should’ve been to begin with.
There are subversive disclosures — some forgotten (several witnesses testify to years wasted committed to mental hospitals, complete with electroshock) and others still not acknowledged (several men have blissfully fond memories of being children involved in sexual relationships with adults). Since the movement was still building and hadn’t yet freeze-dried into a jargonized militancy as so many movements do, there’s a refreshing lack of self-aggrandizement and flaunted eccentricity, amid the copious beer and cigarettes, and a well-articulated sense that being gay in the ’50s and ’60s was a kind of espionage, belonging to a massive sleeper cell from which you couldn’t wait to awake.
Inevitably, “Word Is Out” is a club movie, an anthem for gays, but it’s also a full-frontal contextualizer for the rest of us, at the time (it circled the globe, and played on PBS) and right now, standing in its new restored form as one of maybe eight non-fiction films high schoolers should be required to see before graduating.
The Brit horror indie “The Disappeared” is more likely what the high schoolers will pull off the Blockbuster shelves or VOD or whatever, thinking it’s a stay-up-late creep-out among far too many. What they’ll get, though, is a moody meditation on grief — which is what modern J-horror-inflected horror films all are, walking-talking metaphors in which ghosts et al. aren’t merely bugaboos or even Robin Wood’s “surplus aggression,” but symbols of personal trauma.
Director Johnny Kevorkian (his real name, apparently) has studied his Asian genre films, and “The Disappeared” is so richly subjective and gritty, with a working-class London vibe so acutely evoked, that it’s as if Ken Loach had decided to make a horror movie.
The story is maybe too simple: Matthew (Harry Treadaway) is a teenager just released from a mental hospital after his little brother vanished in a nearby park. The disappearance upsets the city, the absent lad’s face still shows up on missing children PSAs, and Matthew’s father still boils with rage, blaming the older brother. Of course, Matthew begins to hear his brother’s voice on video and audio tapes, begins to see the boy lurking around the tenements, and so tentatively searches for clues to his whereabouts.
Soon enough, Matthew realizes half the people he meets and speaks to turn out to be ghosts — busy Nigerian actress Nikki Amuka-Bird leaves a thumbprint on your forehead in a three-minute performance. (As Matthew’s buddy, Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton is almost unrecognizable.) The convenient denouement, tightly scripted as it is, isn’t important, but the film’s subtextual thrust is — it’s not the first film to use horror movie staples as a way to see social tragedy and the traces it leaves behind, but it’s a good one.
[Additional photo: Ros Leeming and Harry Treadway in “The Disappeared,” IFC Films, 2009]