Film Review: Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

Completely engrossing, rich and humane documentary about the life of a too-little-known pioneer in life and art.

A life of total hedonistic artistic creativity is explored in Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, an ebulliently rich documentary by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade. Broughton (1913-1999) has an assuredly important place in both the worlds of poetry and cinema. He was one of the founders of the influential San Francisco Renaissance school of artists and writers in the fervent artistic years following World War II, and soon after he began making a series of pioneering independent experimental films, which gained international attention (including a Jean Cocteau-proffered prize at Cannes in 1954). His work, which all his life unwaveringly celebrated personal choice, difference and freedom, prefigured the Beat school, led by such as Allen Ginsberg.

Born into a California banking family, Broughton early on rejected any conventional path; a tellingly dark and complex relationship with his often-disapproving mother shaped his entire life. Although outwardly seeming the soul of ecstatically liberated pansexual individualism, in truth he suffered from depression, which was no doubt exacerbated by the time's repressive attitude towards homosexuality. A youthful follower of Jungian philosophy for its espousal of the male-female duality in all of us, he had affairs with both men (publisher Kermit Sheets was an important lover) and women. He had a fascinating, deep involvement with Pauline Kael, who aided and encouraged his moviemaking and would go on to become this country's preeminent film critic. Broughton even sired a child, Gina, with her, before the strong-willed pair parted ways. Among the valuable interviews the filmmakers have gleaned—including those Broughton did in life—is one Kael gave them before her death in 2001. In it, she refutes the notion that their breakup was simply because he was gay, as this by no means entirely defined him as a man, in her view. All of this is even more intriguing to hear in light of the notoriously complex attitudes towards homosexuality in her writing.

Broughton eventually married another woman, costume designer, Suzanna Hart, with whom he had a daughter and son, Orion (who appeared in This Is It, a 1971 film Kael deemed "perfection"). Wife and son are interviewed, and it becomes clear that the often-absent Broughton was anything but the ideal father. Everything changed in 1975, when, teaching film at the San Francisco Art Institute, he met and fell in love with a student, Joel Singer, 35 years his junior. Silha and Slade get Hart to open up about this time, and her words about never recovering from his desertion ("He rode off into the sunset with some guy. That was very sad for me, but not for him, which was…very irritating.") are heartbreaking, revealing a wrenching side to these kinds of difficult personal situations all too often left in the dark.

Singer seems rather callous when he announces that he felt no guilt over breaking up the marriage, which he deems something of a sham, and calls his own relationship with Broughton a much-needed final act of personal liberation in his life. Their years together, beneficently coinciding with the nascent 1970s Gay Lib movement, were indeed gloriously happy, evincing itself in volumes of poetry celebrating their love. Broughton's work—in film and on the page—in the doc's many excerpts is certainly fulsomely romantic, and interviewee Armistead Maupin and his younger lover share a rather evil moment of glee as one particularly purple example of his poetry is read ("When you tickle my cravings and sniff my privacies").

Other esteemed writers and artistic personalities from Broughton's life—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, dancer Anna Halperin, filmmaker George Kuchar—weigh in with telling, mostly admiring insights. His 1967 film The Bed is particularly singled out, with its copious sexuality, as being instrumental in the subsequent depiction of formerly forbidden frontal nudity in puritanical America. In another happy coincidence, the film came out during the Summer of Love, and its unabashed ode to the unfettered Id is entirely emblematic of a man whose final words, on his peaceful deathbed, were "More bubbly."