Who the hell was James Broughton? Never heard of him! Who was this late self-proclaimed poet and poetic filmmaker, I , an very active film critic did not know of? And especially since he was considered a gay pioneer. And I didn’t know him?
Turns out it’s all part of the New York/San Francisco, East Coast/Left Coast disconnect. Broughton was a HUGE figure in San Fran, and gayer than springtime. I started to watch this new documentary with some reluctance, but then it got me.
I couldn’t STOP watching it! And it gripped me unexpectedly and held my attention and interest right through til the end.
James Broughton (November 10, 1913 – May 17, 1999) was part of the ” San Francisco Renaissance,” again a phrase I had never heard before, that occured after World War II ended, and is considered a precursor to the Beat poets.
Then suddenly I remembered a section of Anais Nin’s diary where she talks excitedly about this. This moment in America, where I think she described it as “American culture finally began.” It was at a poetry reading of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl”, if memory serves, in the San Francisco bookshop which was a focal point for the birth of the Beat Generation and also for James Broughton.
This is where he met and fell in love with a bookshop worker, PAULINE KAEL!?! Whom he had an extended affair with(even though he was gay, and she seems to have known it) and also had a child with her, a girl. Which long story short, he left her to raise the child, who was disabled in some way, on her own.Not a very nice man.
But still Kael always seems to have spoken highly of him, and always praised his experimental films, which she took VERY seriously. Perhaps more seriously than anyone before or since. Her voice is heard on the sound track talking about him, but she is never seen in a traditional interview situation.
“Big Joy” tries to right this cultural wrong by including excerpts from many, many of his films. Which sort of look like a West Coast George Kuchar to me. And sure enough one of the Kuchars turns up to praise him throughout the film, as one of its’ talking heads. As is Armistead Maupin who is infinitely more authoritative.
“Big Joy” pulls out all the stops in trying to make us take James Broughton as seriously as Pauline Kael did. And it pretty much succeeds in that. At least, it makes you consider his unusual, totally original, totally unconventional bisexual life.
People really, really were into him, his facockta movies and his poetry. His greatest phrase “follow your weird” became an anthem of the hippie generation, “Big Joy” his other famous phrase, the doc. claims, and Broughton was right in sync with the Flower Power movement when it came to fruition in San Francisco in the ’60s. Although “Do Your Own Thing” was the more oft-quoted motto, which was said, I believe, by Timothy Leary. “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” was the mantra and Broughton was certainly down with that.
I think I even saw one of his films “The Bed” at the time of its’ release way back when. It was notable at its’ time, the time of “Hair,” for its’ abundant frontal nudity, male and female. And other than breaking that barrier, which was exhilarating at the time, it made very little coherent sense. But then none of his films were ever meant to, it seems.
“Big Joy” finds its’ true stride when Broughton turns 61 and meets his soul-mate, who was one of his film school students, who was in his 20s. Their amazing love story, despite their difference in age, becomes the one enduring thing this doc leaves you with. Astonishing as it seems, late in life, James Broughton at last found “Big Joy” with a lover who stayed with him for the rest of his life.
It is essential queer viewing. Check it out.