‘When in doubt, twirl’: the whimsical world of San Francisco Renaissance artist James Broughton
by Tori Laxalt
You’ve heard of Jack Kerouac, and you’ve heard of Allen Ginsberg, but have you heard of James Broughton? Probably not. Broughton was one of the most influential figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, the era immediately preceding the rise of the infamous 1950s Beat Generation. In Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, directors Stephen Silha and Eric Slade argue that Broughton is a vastly under-appreciated cornerstone of American poetry and avant-garde film. However, some critics claim that Broughton’s most important cultural contribution might instead be his full-throttled embrace of sexuality in all forms, and of homosexuality in particular.
When creating a portrait of an artist (or notable figure of any kind), one must be aware of the fine line between a subject’s personal life and his or her productive output. With Broughton, that line doesn’t exist, which this documentary beautifully portrays.
Born in 1913 and raised in Modesto, California, Broughton grew up in a wealthy banking family, but immediately knew he was “different.” Big Joy touches on his childhood desires to dress up in women’s clothing and on how his mother took 25 cents from his allowance every time he acted “effeminate.”
After WWII, Broughton relocated to San Francisco and was one of the primary architects of the city’s new European-inspired avant-garde scene comprised of poets, dancers, and actors alike. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Broughton carried on with many lovers, both male and female. In 1948, he had a child with the famous film critic Pauline Kael (in her pre-New Yorker days); he also had a liaison with notable gay rights activist Harry Hay.
In addition to his prolific poetic output, Broughton directed a number of short avant-garde films. In 1954, he even won a grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival for The Pleasure Garden. Alluring offers from Hollywood soon followed, but he “chose the poet’s path” and moved back to San Francisco to continue producing volumes of poetry and a number of art films until his death in 1999.
Broughton’s work can be largely understood through his personal mantra: “Follow your own weird.” His most famous film, the zeitgeisty The Bed, produced and released fittingly during 1967’s “summer of love,” joyously captures a multitude of sensual activities males and females perform on a four-post bed in the sunny California hillside. Hermes Bird (1979) is “a slow-motion look at an erection shot with the camera developed to photograph atomic bomb explosions,” a reflection of his unabashed commitment to gay male sex toward the end of his career.
In the latter portion of the documentary, the directors focus on Broughton’s love of all things sensual, sexual, and, yes, joyful. While there is ample discussion of his tumultuous family life (including his neglected children and an acrimonious divorce from his wife), the story instead centers around the artist and his soul mate, Joel Singer, a film student of Broughton’s who was 35 years his junior. Singer was his muse, and many claim that Broughton’s prolific later years can be directly attributed to Singer’s influence.
Big Joy is successful in providing a broad yet attentive overview of Broughton’s career. Even total newcomers to his work (including this writer) will walk away being able to talk somewhat intelligently about his quirky body of work. Though some of the interview clips are not particularly well chosen and much of the artistic direction is flawed (hokey animation sequences, discordantly cheesy music), the film does indeed provide a platform through which a wider audience can begin to explore Broughton’s wide swath of creative endeavors.
From Kino Lorber’s Alive Mind (kinolorber.com).