Discovering Big Joy: The Spiritual Legacy of James Broughton
James Broughton was a pioneer of experimental film as well as poetry. The wonderful documentary Big Joy celebrates the legacy of this true revolutionary.
(Click images to enlarge)
When I started to make my first film, it was to a large extent, to see what my dreams really looked like, to make them… very real.
Before watching Stephen Silha & Eric Slade’s Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, I must confess I had no idea who James Broughton was. Broughton reveals early on in the documentary that he wanted to be a dancer, but was not light enough of foot to realise that dream and so, “I had to take up poetry, because that was one way I could make pictures and it’s very musical, because for me poetry is very much rhythm and melody and dance – dancing with words”. Broughton became a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance which paved the way for, and gave birth to, the Beat poets. Broughton took his poetry of pictures to the next level and in 1946 made his first ‘poetic film’. His films were very quickly critically acknowledged and celebrated with invitations to international film festivals in Europe, a journey whose final destination was the Cannes film festival. There his film The Pleasure Garden won the special Prix de Fantasie Poetique, a prize presented to Broughton by Jean Cocteau, one of his cinematic heroes.
Broughton, in spite of his success, led a dual life, beneath the surface lay a darker more troubled side to the ambassador of Big Joy. In the documentary his friend the poet Jack Foley notes, “the darkness and the early suicidal impulses haunted James, you must understand that as much as he was a positive person, a cheery person, a great big joy bringer – and that’s all true – all of that is engaged in a dialogue with a sense of himself that he’s no good, that he’s moving towards death … there was a dark side to him that stayed with him his whole life.” This duality is detailed in his own journals which he kept from a very young age, he himself notes that the first films gave him a ‘new life’ and that, “making films saved my life”. It is also in his journals that we learn about Broughton’s struggle with his sexuality. Although he freely had relationships with both men and women as a young man, he comes to a very definitive conclusion much later in life when he meets his soul mate Joel Singer and on April 1, 1975 he writes, “and then something happened which has been building up for a long time, Joel showed me his film and then it happened – a very close embrace, with passion, with desire, very touching, very dear … all this opens up an arena that may be dangerous, it opens up what I have kept lidded.”
Polari met with co-director Stephen Silha and producer Max St Romain at the BFI’s Flare to discuss the documentary which was as much a process of excavating the inner life of the man as well as his work:
Big Joy the Adventures of James Broughton is an unusual project in that it is more than just a film isn’t it?
SS. That’s right. We like to do cabaret screenings where we not only show the film but have people read poetry or do some kind of performance. When we kicked off our theatrical in New York we had performance artist Jason Jenn who did a seven minute piece of his Ecstasy for Everyone – A Theatrical Celebration of the Poetry and Art of James Broughton, a one man show that he’s developed.
We always thought of it as a multimedia project. We started the website in 2009 and invited various performers and dancers read James Broughton poetry and dance to his poetry. We launched a video contest in 2010 to see who could do the best video of James Broughton poem and gave away Adobe Creative Suite as the prize – the woman who actually won that just released a film, which is about the first rivers in the US to have the old dams removed.
The film has a life beyond itself. Was that always the intention?
SS. It was always the intention to do something that would inspire creativity because Broughton was always about that – he really honestly believed that if you followed your ‘weird’ that you could create art that no one else had seen, which is what he encouraged his students to do and what we tried to do when we made this film. Ours is not an experimental film it is a documentary, but we tried to infuse it with the spirit of his work.
MSR. He was a unique voice, and he always encouraged other people to find their own unique voice. How that manifests is completely up to you, but when you find that unique voice it will manifest in your work in ways in which you never really expected, especially when they are natural to you but unnatural to others. He did it through the written word as a poet, he did it with the moving image and also as somebody who found away to be in love with the human body. And that’s what happened in the 1960s when he was doing his films, especially The Bed, which featured a very large amount of naked people.
It was before the sexual revolution and at the time was problematic –
MSR. Right. With that film and with subsequent films afterwards he focused on filming the naked body. It made him and influential voice affecting how filmmakers from that point on approached the naked body.
The Pleasure Garden (1953)
How did you discover James Broughton.
SS. I first encountered his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1979. I heard this interesting poetry coming out of the theatre and I went in and sat down and it was his film The Pleasure Garden. And then 10 years later I happen to be assigned to the same cabin as James Broughton at a Radical Faerie gathering in Oregon. I think it was my fourth year of going to Faerie gatherings and I had discovered a kind of spiritual home for myself in that community. James was very much involved in the early days of that movement in the late ‘70s – in fact he had had an affair with the founder of the Radical Faeries, Harry Hay in 1933 when they were both students at Stanford. But anyway we became friends and he became a sort of mentor for me.
So the project is a very personal one. When did the idea of it begin?
SS. After he died in 1999. I was present at his death and I thought, “somebody has to do something to bring this work back into the world”. His books were out of print and the movies won’t been seen any more. Originally, I was going to write a book but when I began the research I realised it had to be a film.
What was it about the research that made you decide that it should be a film?
SS. He was much better known for being a filmmaker than a poet and his work was so visual I felt that to tell his story adequately it really had to be a film. I had seen Eric Slade’s film about Harry Hay called Hope Along the Wind from 2002, and I really liked what he did with recreations and use of archival footage. So I called Eric up and asked him if he would be interested in working with me.
When you began the documentary, did you have a narrative in mind or did it find its own way?
SS. We started interviewing people because his colleagues were already in their 90s and needed to be interviewed as soon as possible. My instinct was to find the story rather than to go in with my construction of story. So I dived into interviews as well as his archive at Kent State and found he had journal he kept from age 13 until he died. So we had access to the inner life of the artist. Some of what he had written in his journal disagreed with what he had written in his autobiography, so I chose to go with what was in the journals! (laughs)
MSR. I thought it was a wise call to turn it into a film project. At the beginning we saw that we had a massive amount of information and we didn’t know where to start. We began to discuss out the story could be told, how it could be structured, in the most important thing was getting those first interviews. Things started falling into place. We realised we had the dots to connect and start to create a story that would take us through the decades.
It is a very chronological film.
MSR: It is. When you have a story that spans 85 years, how do you pick and choose? We chose to look at each of the main decades. We focus in general on his childhood into his early adulthood, then we go by decade, and we focus on the key words that represents that whole period. That tells us where he is at his life. We show the work, get a taste of what happened in the life, and we get a little slice of what is happening in the United States, in the culture.
The archive footage is intrinsic to the whole project. Was it difficult to source?
MSR: We had two types of archival film. They were his films and there was stock footage and newsreels. We ran into a problem, which I am sure many film makers face when you are working archival film. How do you work with old archival film and not make a film that feels old? We made sure a lot of the elements that didn’t exist, such as the journal entries, and the poetry, were in a more modern style so that it did not feel like a film that was made in the 1940s.
SS: By the time we started editing the film, we realised we didn’t have the archival footage we needed. And it was expensive.
When you say you were realised you didn’t have enough archival footage, did what was unearthed become part of the jigsaw of were you looking for specific footage.
SS: Both. We had very specific things we were looking for, some of which we never found, such as footage of Cannes film Festival where Broughton won his prize. We found some of the festival when someone won a Prize, but it’s not Broughton but it doesn’t matter because it looks like it is. (laughs)
In terms other challenges, what was it like getting people to talk?
SS: We were very fortunate that Joel Singer gave us the rights to all of the films and all of the poetry. If he hadn’t done we wouldn’t have been able to make this film. And of course he was willing to talk because he wants James’ story out in the world. He still feels very much that James is his soul mate.
Getting Suzannah [Broughton’s wife] was a real miracle. His daughter Serena said she didn’t want to be interviewed but I asked if she would ask her mother. It was our first interview. We looked at each other afterward and said, “this is a gold mine”.
The Bed (1967), Erogeny (1976)
What has it been like to take the film on the festival circuit? How important is festival culture to a film like this?
SS: It’s really important. We’re really fortunate to have been curated by gay festivals, international festivals. We were part of the United Nations festival because their theme was “individual to universal”, and they saw our film as the perfect manifestation of that.
MSR: The experiences are very varied, just like the cities. We go to some places where people are fighting over the tickets and some where there are about five people in the audience.
SS: It’s a mixed bag, but I think it’s really important to go to festivals because having that contact with the audience is so interesting, and for us it has been so gratifying because we made the film not simply to tell the story but to inspire people. The feedback we have been getting is that people come out of the theatre feeling inspired to live a bigger life, to be more creative, and that was our intention.
James Broughton was a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence. We’ve had the sisters bless the film in many cities. He was Sister Sermonetta of the Flying Phallus. I was humbled to be presented with the Flying Phallus award when we premiered the film in New York.
What do you feel is Broughton’s greatest legacy?
SS: In terms of film making, it’s his depiction of the human body, his loving depiction of the naked body, is an amazing legacy. But as far as the poetry and the spirit of “following your weird” goes, he said it’s more important to live poetically than to be a good poet. He did live poetically. So his legacy is people like me who have been inspired by him to go out into the world and say you don’t have to live in your little box, you’ve been given gifts, so use them. The whole idea of his evolution into big joy, he made a journey and became big joy by the end of his life, but big joy is who he really was when I knew him. I felt that his story really needed to be told in the 21st century.
MSR: Like Armistead Maupin says in the film, Broughton knew how to get to the serious through the silly. I think that’s an amazing talent that only an idealist can have. I think that idealism, like any form of extremism, can be really polarising. It can be someone you love or someone you hate. You need them, you need that extreme point of view, because you need that point of inspiration, of viewing things as an artist to then create different routes. For me, what James’ story really means, is this command to follow the life of your dreams. Although the most important duty in life is to be your self it doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with a price. That’s how I see it.