It doesn’t take much of an effort to place James Broughton at the very top of a list of influential queer artists. Even while mostly closeted in the late 40s and early 50s his poetry and films oozed a queer sensibility. He certainly influenced gay Beats, such as Allen Ginsburg, who were drawn to San Francisco, BroughtonÅs home. His films captured the Summer of Love and the human body. As the city became ground zero for queer expression and gay liberation, this talented man acted as an expressive majorette. He walked away from his wife, children, and a conventional when he fell in love with a male student. For those familiar with the late great gay Renaissance man, a documentary about him was a long time coming. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton delightfully and poignantly captures the life of a man who changed the course poetry, cinema, and activism.
With creative flare, co-directors Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon re-construct the life and times of Broughton using photographs, clips from his stunning films, emotional interviews with those who knew him best, gorgeous animation, and footage from an interview with their subject himself, shortly before his death. This is a documentary as creative as the man’s whose life is explored. Among the most engaging moments in the film, are the segments that blend animation, a musical score and the poet’s work spoken as key words and phases dance on the screen. The choice to allow a substantial amount of screen time to include clips of BroughtonÅs groundbreaking films is both bold and selfless. These expressive filmmakers allow their subject’s art to dazzle the audience.
Born in California’s Central Valley to pioneer and wealthy stock, Broughton’s life got off to a rocky start due to a detached mother, who for a time deducted a quarter from his allowance every time he acted effeminate. He escaped to San Francisco just as World War II was ending and quickly joined forces with several poets, artists, dancer who would become part of movement that would come to be known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Broughton and others organized the countryÅs first poetry festival and started a publishing house. The poet who would later become known for his merriment was considerably darker in those early years as his struggled with depression and the need to remain closeted.
Enter Pauline Kael, who would become one of America’s pre-eminent film critics. The two became lovers and each otherÅs champions, but Broughton, despite many female lovers, was not cut out for a heterosexual life. They moved in together, but when Kael became pregnant and decided to have the baby despite Broughton’s objections, they couple parted ways. Kael had a daughter, the first of BroughtonÅs three children. Inspired by Maya Darren and Jean Cocteau Broughton started to make short films, including “The Potted Palm” and “Mother’s Day.” The films were accepted into the Edinburgh Film Festival and were well received. He made his first feature, “The Pleasure Garden” while in England, it was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival and won a special award for poetic films, a genre many believed Broughton perfected. He was offered a commercial film, but he turned it down, opting for the pure artist’s existence.
In the 60s Broughton continued to make underground films and his film “The Bed” came to represent the Summer of Love in all its naked, stoned, kinky, and wacky glory. Broughton wrote more poetry, made more films, married a costume designer named Suzanna Hart, and sired a son, who as a toddler appeared in his fatherÅs film “This Is It.” The world is seen through a childÅs eye, with the aid of his fatherÅs keen camera. About the film, Kael said “It’s a perfect little movie. It has no flaws.” Broughton started teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and his History of Film and Directing classes are the things of film school legend. A student Joel Singer fell in love with Broughton and a passionate brace led to a night of lovemaking, which led to a weekend at the infamous Becks Motel in the Castro. Singer was 31 years Broughton’s junior, but the poet would leave his wife and the new couple would remain together until BroughtonÅs death.
James Broughton wrote “I am very attached to joy” and lived a life that illustrated his words, but that doesnÅt mean that such joy was omnipotent and without consequence. The filmmakers do not shy away from an ex-wifeÅs pain when recalling her husband abandoning her, a sonÅs dismay upon discovering his father is gay, and the volumes spoke when the audience is informed the Broughton’s two daughters refused to be interviewed for the film. In contrast, we can understand that Broughton needed to liberate himself from the lie he was living. The film uses footage IÅve seen before and is among the most painful archival footage. The black and white footage is of a raid on an illegal in a gay bar in the 50s and as the camera sweeps the crowd, the well-dressed men cover their faces with their hands, turn their faces from the camera, and struggle in handcuffs. Most likely the local newspaper would print their names. They might be fired from their jobs. They might have their lives destroyed. Some might commit suicide. Broughton had moved beyond such danger and such shame.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is a celebration of life and art and love. Anchored by San Francisco, the film moves through four decades of BroughtonÅs artistic career, a life lived with the backdrop of the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war, gay liberation, the AIDS crisis, and almost too much in between to mention. This artist celebrated gay life through his impressive body of work, hundreds of poems and numerous films. The documentary comes to an end with all those who were interviewed reading one of their friendÅs poems, many voices, one idea. It is an impressive film about an extraordinary artist. These talented filmmakers have created a documentary, Broughton would have himself made.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton will be shown Sunday, October 6 and Wednesday October 9 at the Mill Valley Film Festival.