SIFF Film Review – Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton
Somewhere close to the beginning of Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, James Broughton says that all films are documentaries in that they are all a document of a soul. While I don’t necessarily agree with him, Big Joy is a document of James Broughton’s soul, an influential poet, poetic filmmaker, and gay rights activist. The soul of James Broughton, or “Big Joy” as he was called later in life, must have been a large and whimsical one, and capturing that essence on film is no small feat. Directors Eric Slade and Stephen Silha do an acceptable, but unexceptional, job. There is so much they cover—his poetry, his films, his marriages, his journal entries, interviews with those who knew him or have studied him—that it all becomes a bit much. The film feels jumbled at times, and though it does a good job of endearing the viewer to the affable man whose motto was “follow your own weird,” I grew a bit weary by the end of it.
The film is a standard documentary biopic that details in chronological order the life of James Broughton, from his beginning as a wealthy child of banker parents to his later life as a beat poet, surrealist filmmaker, and queer activist. He was born of affluent parents and writes in a journal entry that, “I was born cheery, but my mother beat it out of me.” To escape his domineering mother, Broughton took himself to San Francisco during the renaissance ignited there in the aftermath of WWII. There, he wrote poetry with such contemporaries as Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, and Jack Spicer. Also while there, he met and wed film critic Pauline Kael, who must have nurtured in him a love of film.
He took his poetic sensibility to film: he eschewed narrative for surrealist dream imagery. While his films were fun and joyous variations on the theme of love, they weren’t as popular in America as they were in Europe. So he spent a time in England, where he created his most popular film, The Pleasure Garden, which was awarded top prize for poetic fantasy at Cannes. It’s a touching moment watching James relate receiving that award from his idol, Jean Cocteau.
And there are many touching moments in this film, not all of them reflecting positively on Broughton. It’s a testament to the film’s honesty that some of the more touching moments come from those who feel hurt or neglected by Broughton, most specifically his last wife, Suzanna Hart, and his son, Orion. Broughton and Hart, a costume designer, had been married many years when James met Joel Singer, a film student who was 35 years his junior. The two fell in love and James divorced Suzanna to live with the young student, making films together. In the documentary’s most poignant scene, Hart reigns in her heartbreak, but visibly trembles when saying that it devastated her and that she will never recover. In another touching scene, Broughton’s son shifts in his seat and says, “it’s not that he was a ‘bad’ father. It’s just that he was never there.” Amid all this we see Broughton reading his poetry at gatherings and lecturing large audiences and gathered with a collective of artists collaborating on projects.
And so the film doesn’t back down from painting Broughton as something of a contradiction: a man who professed that all his films were about love and that love was a universal truth, but who failed to reciprocate that love to some of those who needed it most. But as Walt Whitman says, “do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” And the allusion is fitting, because Broughton in his later years very much reminded me of Whitman. His talk of the god body and the continental union of two bodies and his film Devotions all seemed to come from the same wellspring Whitman pulled from ages ago.
While I appreciated the honesty of the film, its comprehensiveness could have been toned down. Broughton is a big man with a larger than life persona and innumerable achievements. The filmmakers attempted to include everything. The number of talking heads, the endless narrated journal entries, the excerpts from his films, the clips of his poetry readings, and a performance artist’s creative and educational use of plastic sheeting all start to jostle together and linearity gets lost. I found myself struggling to remember what was happening at given moments, and towards the end of the film, my interest began to wane. There is a heaviness created where there needs to be levity. But it’s hard to temper such a vibrant spirit as Broughton’s, and while the overall effect gets a bit muddled in the telling, the film can’t help but radiate joy.
CORRECTIONS (much thanks to Stephen Silha):
Broughton and Kael never married (she was a liberated woman; she named their daughter Gina James as an homage to Broughton and Henry James).
Also, James was quoting Cocteau in saying that all films are documents – documentaries of the soul.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton plays at SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 31st at 6:30pm and AMC Pacific Place 11 on June 1st at 1:30pm.
Final Grade: B