DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Big Joy – The Adventures of James Broughton (2013)

A documentary on the late avant poet and filmmaker known as the "Laughing Pan."

Published on June 6, 2013

Big Joy – The Adventures of James Broughton (2013)

Big Joy – The Adventures of James Broughton (2013)

Documentary on poet & filmmaker James Broughton
Directors: Stephen Silha & Eric Slade
Studio: Frisky Divinity Productions [4/21/13]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 82 minutes
Rating: ****½ 

“Big Joy” is the nickname poet and experimental filmmaker James Broughton created for himself in the last years of his unusual life. He was a major name in the bohemian life of San Francisco and Marin County in the ‘50s and ‘60s, living an amazingly complex life. He was thoroughly bisexual, was even married once, and lived with famous film critic Pauline Kael. He explored the Jungian idea of polarity thru his poems and films. He was nothing if not a colorful character in everything he did. He was known as the “Laughing Pan” of the area’s avant-garde, though his work generally escaped public notice. He urged people to “follow your own weird” (which should appeal to Portland residents).

James said his angel came to him at age 3 and told him he would always be a poet. As an adult he turned to film too, making a series of independent (mostly 16mm non-sync- sound) short films which launched the genre of poetic cinema. In 1951, after he traveled to Europe for the  Edinburgh and Cannes Film Festivals with his lover Kermit Sheets, he was presented a special prize at Cannes by his hero Jean Cocteau. In 1953 he shot his highest-budget film in England (in 35mm), The Pleasure Garden. Being a filmmaker, there was plenty of appropriate footage of Broughton himself to use in this documentary. He even created his own death scene for one of his films. He never did a feature-length film, or even one as long as this documentary. The many talking heads include dancer Anna Halprin, his second wife, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Armistead Maupin (“The Serial”), fellow filmmaker and Art Institute teacher George Kuchar, and his partner for the last years of his life (until 1999), filmmaker Joel Singer, whom he met when he was 61 and Joel was 26.  James’ poetry influenced the Beat Generation, and everything he did he did with gusto, his poetry and films pushing against gender and social norms and trying to get people to live their lives in a fuller fashion. The credits at the end of the film go on forever, with a lengthy list of named “thank yous.”

Some of Broughton’s many films are available in DVD sets from Facet Films. Probably his best-known one—which blew open the previous avoidance of nudity in films—was The Bed.  This delightful color short, with a harpsichord-based score by Warner Jepson, was made during the California hippie “Summer of Love” during 1967, and showed in an innocent and playful way the pivotal role beds play in the human comedy. The rickety bed in a Mt. Tam meadow is briefly populated with many icons of San Francisco-area counterculture at the time, including philosopher Alan Watts, artist Jean Varda and Broughton himself. (I lived there, made my films at the same time and knew these people.) The Bed was unfortunately his only commercially successful film. Some clips are in the documentary. Naturally I found Big Joy fascinating, but the socially uptight may not.

—John Sunier




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