American poet and filmmaker James Broughton was born on this day in 1913. To celebrate his centenary, San Francisco Public Library is presenting an exhibition of his written work, numerous cinemas are hosting his films and, most especially, Big Joy, Stephen Silha and Eric Slade’s documentary which has been doing the festival circuit recently:
James Broughton is a timeless role model of one who’s not afraid to “follow your own weird,” as he put it. In the face of enormous social pressures from family and community, he always followed his muse. Hence, his work is hard to categorize. His life mirrored his work – transcending boundaries of male and female, straight and gay, young and old. Poet/publisher Jonathan Williams dubbed him “Big Joy” and eventually he took on the name for himself. He lived a good life and loved many people and ultimately died a good death.
Broughton was a prophet of positivity, and his unremitting optimism is not for everyone (this reviewer outlines the case against). Personally I found his 1953 short film The Pleasure Garden, for example, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. It was not the film’s invitation to bliss that was problematic as such, just that my idea of bliss doesn’t particularly look like James Broughton’s. That doesn’t mean you will feel the same, or that his films aren’t important documents of avant-garde cinema, or that his inventive, unorthodox vision isn’t worthy of admiration.
Here, to give you an idea, is Broughton’s tribute to silent slapstick, Loony Tom. It was made a year before The Pleasure Garden and like the later film presents an idealised, Arcadian setting where love, art and liberty conquer all (click here if you don’t see it embedded below):