Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton
Big Joy is a flavorful and affectionate documentary about a narcissist, James Broughton, who seemed to be a satellite around the cinematic and poetic revolutions of the ’50s, but whose name doesn’t seem to have endured alongside his peers. Partly, I think, it’s because Broughton’s work, his experimental short films and his verse, doesn’t seem to express much outside a diaristic impulse to record what was going on in his life and his head at the time. He was more effective, it seems, as a mystic and guru, throwing his arms out and accepting the young in their quest for love. This is a charitable way of saying that Broughton was a classic horny old goat. His films are full of young men with their kits off and their bits out.
One wonders if a James Broughton would be possible today, when it is leagues more easy (though still not 100% safe) to be openly gay in America. Broughton was in at least two serious hetero relationships; one was with revered film critic Pauline Kael and yielded a daughter, the other was a marriage to designer Susanna Hart that produced another daughter and a son. The son, Orion, is the only offspring willing to appear in Big Joy, though it seems as though he was about as neglected by Broughton as his siblings were. In the mid-’70s, at age 61, Broughton met 25-year-old poet Joel Singer and fell hard for him; he ditched Susanna and their two kids and ran off with Singer, who stayed with Broughton until his death in 1999 at 85.
What I’m getting at here is that if Broughton was a narcissist and a skunk with women, it wasn’t necessarily his fault; the times made him that way. This was a man who hit sexual maturity decades before Stonewall. Like William Burroughs, he fell into the societally approved man/woman thing as a cover story. Then he figured out he could express a lot of his yearnings through his art. His films aren’t stark like Kenneth Anger’s, nor brooding like Maya Deren’s. They embrace the juice and happy furry chaos of life, and his poems read a little much like kiddie poetry, not imagistic or sensual but straightforward odes to playfulness. Finding his voice as an artist and as a gay man, relatively late in life (he was 33 when he made his first short film), must have been cathartic for Broughton. Still, I wouldn’t want to have been the wife unceremoniously dumped with two kids at home while Broughton achieved beautiful oneness with his new boyfriend.
The movie uses ample footage from Broughton’s films, which helps keep Big Joy visually spiky and arresting. Broughton had an eye, although he was far from a technical wizard — the avant-garde cinema of mid-century America wasn’t about technique, though a lot of it sure influenced later masters like Scorsese. From what we see and hear of his work, there isn’t much darkness or pain in it. It’s wish-fulfillment, full of good cheer. Which may be another reason Broughton has more or less been forgotten. His work lacks the chiaroscuro Cold War hysteria and paranoia of that of his peers, all of whom seemed to be flashing tabloid Weegee snapshots of the horror of being an outsider. Broughton projected his own idealized fantasies — he was essentially a romantic comedian.
It seems that Broughton peaked creatively with 1953’s The Pleasure Garden, which took a prize at Cannes, though Pauline Kael generously called his 1971 This Is It (starring Orion as a toddler) “a perfect little object.” After his Cannes triumph, Broughton actually had nibbles from Hollywood, which he blew off, to Kael’s consternation (“This,” she told him, “is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made”). He didn’t want to pimp his angels out to the studios; he wanted to keep making little 8mm baubles. He was, I guess, a naïve artist, oblivious to the almighty buck — though Big Joy is tight-lipped on the subject of what exactly Broughton lived on for all those years. He was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of a San Francisco art movement that swept him up and probably kept him in benefactors for decades. That phenomenon seems unlikely to repeat. So, no, a James Broughton would be impossible today.