Big Joy: The Legacy of James Broughton

James Broughton with his trusty Bolex.
James Broughton with his trusty Bolex.

James Broughton made films, wrote poetry, and lived outrageously–not an abrasive outrage, most of the time, but a gentle, kind, fun-poking at barriers.  He shunned the hammer that smashes the stone, preferring the gentle spring water that wears it away.  But he was there at the forefront of frankness, and he “followed his weird” (a catchphrase) to show, say, naked men doing jumping jacks together, cocks bouncing merrily in the breeze. This was men, plural, because Broughton wanted people to come together, all manifestations of that verb.

Big Joy:  The Adventures Of James Broughton, a documentary on the man, the myth, the madness, the life, and the work, plays the Seattle International Festival Friday, May 31 at 6 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown; and again on Saturday, June 1st, 1:30 pm, at Pacific Place Cinemas.  The film’s co-directors, Stephen Silha and Eric Slade, took questions over email.

Seattle Star:  How did you meet your partner on this film, Eric Slade?  What projects had you, done before Big Joy?  What interested you about Mr. Slade?  How did you divide the labor on the Big Joy film?

Stephen Silha:  I had met Eric Slade in the mid-1980s when we were both young Radical Faeries and were following our own weird.  When I saw Eric’s feature film on Gay liberation pioneer Harry Hay, I was impressed.  I watched it a number of times, and when I decided to do a film (instead of a book) about James Broughton, I asked Eric if he would help.

I loved the way Eric used archival footage, re-creations, and interviews in the Hay film.  And I wanted to do something more poetic and impressionistic for James.  We split up the research, and Eric focused on how to tell the story most effectively.  The film’s story arc is really Eric’s creation, and the rhythm was created by editors Dawn Logsdon and Kyung Lee, and our amazing musical team of Jami Sieber and Evan Schiller.  Plus a rousing theme song by Norman Arnold. It was truly a magical melding of various talents.

Eric Slade:  Stephen said it well. We also both took part in a ritual trance dance at the Faerie sanctuary in Wolf Creek, Oregon. That’s a bonding experience…

Seattle Star:  What attracted you to Broughton and his work?  How did you first hear about him?  Which of his works did you see/read first, and what were your impressions?

Stephen Silha:  I met Broughton’s work in 1979 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I marveled at the whimsical eroticism and funny pacing of his work.  I remember seeing Four in the Afternoon, The Pleasure Garden and This is It. I was transfixed.  They were both retro and futuristic.  I loved the way he combined words and images.  I felt subtly aroused by some of the images.

Eric Slade:  I really fell for his love poems while making this film. He was so in love with Joel [Singer] when writing the poems in Devotions, and that love just pours off the page.

For film, there is nothing like The Bed–it was inspired lunacy. But I also really love Dreamwood, his longest film which we had in our film up until the last cut, when we had to take it our for length. Dreamwood is an amazing spiritual journey.

James Broughton as seen by his friend Imogen Cunningham.
James Broughton as seen by his friend Imogen Cunningham.

Seattle Star:  Mr. Silha, you knew Broughton personally.  How did your impressions of him grow and change over your acquaintance?  Did he offer you any personal insights into his works?

Stephen Silha:  I was amazed at how delightfully consistent he was. Yet he always surprised me with insights and funny quips.  “People don’t change,” he said. “They only get more so!”

He was both very private and very transparent about his work.  He’d spend hours a day writing in his journal, reading, and corresponding with people.  Hence he was often expressing himself, and he was constantly spouting his thoughts as he did it.  He made his expressions easy for people to understand, but it wasn’t easy.  He edited a lot, and rewrote things all the time.  His admonition, “Simplify, Clarify, Vivify,” was something we tried to live by.

Seattle Star:  What are your favorite Broughton works, and why?  Did your impressions of his work change as you made the film?  If so, how?

Stephen Silha:  I must admit I wasn’t an immediate fan of Broughton’s work, especially his poetry.  Yet, as we worked on the film, we always read Broughton poetry before a given shoot or edit.  And it kind of infected the whole process.

I think his work resonates with different people at different times. I personally love his films Erogeny and Devotions, both poetic visions of human connection.

Seattle Star:  What were the biggest obstacles to making the film, and how did you overcome them?

Stephen Silha:  Broughton was dead, so we didn’t have him to talk with.  He didn’t leave a lot of interviews behind about his work, so we started by interviewing as many people as we could who knew him. Some of the “big names” that might have made the film even more mainstream and accessible did not want to speak with us for various reasons:  Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Amos Vogel.  And we didn’t want a talking heads film, so we started with interviews with Anna Halprin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others in their 90’s.

We tried to get more images and information about Pauline Kael, and their relationship in the 1940’s.  We weren’t sure whether any of his family members (from his marriage to Suzanna [Hart] from 1962-1975) would speak with us.

We tried to balance our own creative expressions with honest portrayals of Broughton’s films and poems, and at the same time inspire audiences to “follow their own weird.”

It was all a big experiment and gamble, and we think it worked…

"When in doubt, twirl!"
“When in doubt, twirl!”

Eric Slade:  There was very little archival footage of James which made telling the story tough. But we were able to mine his personal journals and, at the urging of editor Dawn Logsdon, make those the spine of the film.

We also uncovered old reels of home movie footage, which showed intimate family moments. Neither the journals nor the home movies were creations that James ever intended to show to the world–they were for himself, and I think that helps give the feeling that you are getting an inside look at this amazing artist.

Seattle Star:  Which interviewees were the easiest to handle, and which the most difficult?

Eric Slade:  Armistead Maupin is such a pleasure to talk to. I would like to interview him for every film I make from now on! No one was particularly tough–James had a big impression on everyone he touched, and that shows in the interviews.

Seattle Star:  Mr. Silha mentioned at Tribeca that Broughton’s oldest child, his daughter Gina James, whose mother was Pauline Kael, never really knew her father and looked forward to learning about him through the film.  Has she had a chance to see the film yet?  If so, what did she think?

Stephen Silha:  She has not.  I can’t wait for her to see it, and to meet her.

Seattle Star:  Broughton had plenty of male lovers, but he also lived with two women, married one, and fathered three children.  Did you ever come to a definitive verdict on his sexuality?

Stephen Silha:  He called himself “pansexual,” but I think he’s very close to gay on the Kinsey scale.  His earliest journals reveal that he was totally enamored by male sexuality.  I had a similar experience, so loved the subtle eroticism of his early work.  Later, he became pretty clear.  In his poem “God and Fuck Belong Together,” he concludes, “God is the Fuck of all Fucks / And boy, he has a body / like you’ve never seen .” What do you think?

Eric Slade:  He certainly was super-gay after meeting Joel. His poetry and films really celebrated gay sexuality during that period.

But I think James would have loved to see a broadening of all of those definitions. He clearly loved and was attracted to the human body.

Seattle Star:  Broughton’s ex-wife Suzanna Hart chokes up remembering her divorce, saying she never really recovered from her husband leaving her for Joel Singer. Two of his three children declined to be interviewed for the film, and his son Orion, who does appear on camera, seems very sad, almost as broken-down as his mother, remembering his father. How large and sad is this irony, that Broughton’s late-life ecstasy is founded on the misery of others? Does this, ultimately, blot his work and legacy?

The filmmakers at Tribeca.
The filmmakers at Tribeca.

Stephen Silha:  Clearly, it isn’t easy to follow your weird.  And it’s pretty common that when you do that, you leave some destruction in your wake.

The thing is, he was much more transparent about it than most artists. And for that reason, it is no blot at all on his legacy, it enhances it.

Seattle Star:  How successful do you think Broughton was at merging his poetry with his film?  Have other artists followed this path?

Stephen Silha:  Given the constrictions of the time, I believe he does an amazing job in merging poetry with visual image and silence.

Interestingly, George Lucas said in an interview that after he left film school he wanted to return to San Francisco and make “tone poem films like James Broughton.”  I think you can see some Broughton influence in the work of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (their bed scenes), Gus Van Sant, and scores of experimental filmmakers for whom he was a mentor on a number of levels.

Seattle Star:  What are your plans for the future, beyond Big Joy?

Stephen Silha:  I plan to spend a couple years getting this film out in the world, because it seems so right for this time.  I am thinking about several ideas for another film, most likely another creative, poetic documentary about issues that affect us at this time.

Eric Slade:  I think I’ll go to the beach.

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