Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton chronicles roots of gay pride, spiritual awakening of America
Reviewed by Dwight Casimere April 18, 2013
NEW YORK---Manhattan is awash with spring. Cherry blossoms suffuse the air as that other harbinger of spring, the Tribeca Film Festival unfolds. Symbolically, the first film I reviewed at the festival is one that celebrates the 'spring awakening' of America and its counter-culture, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, a poet, filmaker and spiritual visionary whose life and artistic commitment foreshadowed the gay movement, the age of Flower Children and even the Beat era of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alan Ginsberg. When James Broughton died at the ripe young age of 85, he had set more trends and achieved more socio-artistic trends than any number of Facebook pages, Google searches or You Tube trenders combined. Briughton's life was "viral" before the word was even invented.
I spoke with the film's Producers and Directors, Stephen Silha and Eric Slade on the eve of New York Premiere in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Viewpoints.
"Jame's life was all about the celebration and collaboration of the worlds of filmmaking poetry and dance," said producer Stephen Silha. "Before him, all of these disciplines had been treated as separate entities and never combined in a single medium. He did his first experimental film in 1946. The other thing is that, when he began holding public readings of his poems and those of others, poetry had never been viewed before as a performance medium. It was always something that was read in solitude. James Broughton was the first to bring poetry out as performance art and give it a voice."
Broughton's life and career took a decisive turn shortly after he won the Cannes Film Festival's Prix de Fantasie Poetique award in 1954 for his very first full-production experimental film. "He decided he wanted to persue his life as a poet, instead of a Hollywood filmmaker," recounted producr/dorectpr Eric Slade. "This was a move that prompted his close friend, the writer Anais Nin to tell him "This is the biggest mistake you will ever make!"
Surely, the move cost him a great deal. Not only did he throw away a promising commercial film, but it would eventually cost him a marriage, his family and who knows whatever accolades and riches ahead.
"Instead, he achieved a kind of richness and joy in life that few others will ever know," producer Silha reflected. "Although, this all came with a great personal price."
When Broughton arrived in San Francisco in the waning years of World War II, it was the dawn of the Beat Movement in North Beach. Lawrence Ferlenghti was holding readings at his City Lights bookstore. A young New York Jew named Alan Ginsberg and a precocious young Canadian poet named Jack Kerouac soon arrived, and the Beat Generation was in full swing. When Alan Ginsberg published his obscene-laden landmark tome "Shout", which prompted violent police repression and beatings in North Beach's fog enshrouded, hilly streets, the images of gestapo-like repression when global, the equivalent of the computer age's 'viral' and like-minded youth latched on to the words, black beret, blue jeans and work shirt dress code and pot-smoking vibe of a new, Beat Generation.
In later years, Broughton would continue to make experimental films, most notably "The Bed" which punctuated 1967's "summer of love" and broke taboos with its celebration of the dance of life, complete with full front nudity and open celebrations of gay love. The film not only broke taboos, but won many awards and was the darling of film festivals around the world. For the first time, the guiding lights of what would become the New Age movement gained an international stage; philosopher Alan Watts, dancer Anna Halprin, astrologer Gavin Arthur and photographer Imogene Cunningham all had starring roles in the film and cemented it and James Broughton's reputation as one of the guiding lights of the New Age.
It was during this time that Broughton was a teacher of film and artistic ritual at San Francisco State and San Francisco Art Institute. One of his students, Joel Singer, became his muse, soul mate and life partner from 1975 until his death in 1999.
Big Joy is more than a celebration of a life well lived. It throws down the gauntlet to us all to make the choice to either acquiesce to a life of compromise and unhappiness, or go for that golden ring of deep inner reward of personal satisfaction and gladness. It is not a path paved with gold, but offers a reward that surpasses all material gain or cognitive understanding.