James Broughton refused to live an inauthentic life. And in fact he had many lives. He was a poet, a filmmaker, an artist, a gay man, a straight man and an all-around visionary.
“Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” which world-premiered at SXSW in 2013, traces the life and times of this man of many parts. In the mid-20th century, Broughton found himself at the intersection of many Bay Area art and social movements, from the San Francisco Renaissance to the Beat Generation that rose after Allen Ginsberg first performed “Howl,” that barbaric yawp of unchained imagination, in 1955. (Stream the film now on Netflix.)
Broughton was born in Modesto in 1913, and then raised in San Francisco where he pursued a career in poetry until eventually he borrowed a 16mm camera during one of many bouts of depression. Thus began a career in making poetic, lyrical, avant-garde short films that eventually took him to the Cannes Film Festival, where he was handed a prize by idol Jean Cocteau for his seminal cinematic work “The Pleasure Garden” (1953), a black-and-white flight of fantasia in which Broughton cast compatriots of his artistic milieu. Broughton gushed with personality, and he surrounded himself with others who did, too.
One of the film’s many fascinating detours is a close look at his fraught relationship with film critic Pauline Kael, with whom he lived for a short period in North Beach. Before they parted ways over creative differences, she encouraged him to shake his poet’s roots and go the Hollywood route. But he firmly resisted selling out and continued to make his bizarre brand of experimental films, as formally daring and erotically charged as the early work of Kenneth Anger.
Because Broughton started filmmaking in 1940s San Francisco, any semblance of gayness had to be codified and contained in a subtext. But indeed the gay element is present. Rife with nudity, abstract bodies and gritty sensuality, Broughton’s shorts are the centerpiece of “Big Joy,” which weaves excerpts from the director’s rarely seen oeuvre through an exploration of the man’s profusely indulgent personal life.
Lovingly co-directed by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon, “Big Joy” is as exuberant and maddening as Broughton himself. The film courses with energy, vitality and, of course, joy, revealing a fascinating portrait of an unsung artist ahead of his time and never past his prime.