Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton: SXSW Review

Big Joy - P - 2013
This doc rediscovers and celebrates an early experimental filmmaker.

An energetic doc that explores the art and sexual adventures of early independent filmmaker James Broughton.

While few moviegoers will know the name of James Broughton—a poet and experimental filmmaker—he played a role in creating the indie film scene that flourishes today, especially at film festivals. Big Joy, an enjoyable documentary about Broughton’s life and work, has its world premiere at SXSW this weekend. This is a revealing portrait of a man who helped to broaden our ideas of what films could accomplish, but since he and most of the on-camera interviewees are fairly obscure names, the film has very limited theatrical potential. It’s strictly a cult item, but fascinating in its own way.

The film opens with performance artist Keith Hennessy providing a brief overview of Broughton’s life, describing him as an “outsider’s outsider” and a visionary artist. Following Hennessy’s impudent lead, directors Stephen Silha and Eric Slade construct a lively, entertaining collage, interspersing animated bits, excerpts from Broughton’s diaries, poems, and experimental films, along with interviews with various people who knew him best, including his wife, son, and long-time male lover.

Although Broughton came from a wealthy banking family, he had no interest in following such a conventional path. He was one of the leaders of the San Francisco artistic renaissance that began in the late 1940s and helped to launch the Beat movement a decade later. Broughton was inspired by earlier experimental films created by Jean Cocteau, Maya Deren, and others, and he made his first short in 1946. At around that time he began keeping company with Pauline Kael, a young writer who would go on to become the country’s leading film critic a few decades later. They lived together for a while, and Kael gave birth to their daughter Gina, though Broughton quickly cut off the relationship. For one thing, he was bisexual, and for another, he felt that Kael was too strong a partner for him, a little too reminiscent of his overbearing mother.

One of Broughton’s short films, The Pleasure Garden, won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, and that brought Broughton some overtures from Hollywood, which he ignored. (Kael felt that was the biggest mistake of his life.) Over the next few decades he concentrated more on poetry but kept returning to experimental films. One of them, 1967’s The Bed, became an emblem of its era with its frontal nudity and polymorphous sexual couplings. 

Big Joy incorporates generous excerpts from that and several of Broughton’s other films, but the most intriguing sections of the doc deal with his personal life. One might argue that Broughton lived the double life characteristic of many gay men before Stonewall. But that seems too simplistic given the variety of sexual experiences chronicled in the film. It was Kael who introduced Broughton to his first important male lover, Kermit Sheets, a theater director and publisher. The two men spent a few years in Europe in the early 1950s, but when they split up, Broughton married Suzanna Hart, fathered two children with her, and lived with her for many years. When he was 61, he fell in love with Joel Singer, a filmmaking student who was 35 years his junior. His marriage came to an end, and he spent the rest of his life with Singer. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Hart admits that she never really recovered from their divorce. Gay activists may well claim Broughton as one of their own, but the film provides a more complex portrait of a man with deep, ever-shifting attachments to both men and women.

The candid interview with Hart is a testament to the filmmakers’ skill in persuading their subjects to trust them. Broughton’s son also reveals how little he understood about his father. (Broughton’s two daughters, including his daughter with Kael, declined to participate in the film.) The filmmakers incorporate archival interviews with Broughton himself, who died in 1999, and there are also excerpts from an audio interview with Kael conducted before her death in 2001. The other talking heads include San Francisco luminaries Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Armistead Maupin, but the film might have benefited from the inclusion of a few more well known personages attesting to Broughton’s importance as a pioneer in the independent film movement. Despite these omissions, the film is edited with great dexterity and illuminates the artistic and sexual ferment of a vital period in recent American history.

Venue:  SXSW Film Festival.

Director-producers: Stephen Silha, Eric Slade.

Co-director:  Dawn Logsdon.

Executive producers: Jok Church, Philip Willkie, Mark Thompson, Franklin Abbott, Max St. Romain.

Directors of photography:  Ian Hinkle, Art Adams.

Music:  Jami Sieber, Evan Schiller.

Editors:  Dawn Logsdon, Bill Weber, Kyung Lee.

No rating, 82 minutes.