James Broughton: 'Big Joy' documentary

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday June 11, 2013
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The life of poet, shaman, and trickster James Broughton will unspool as part of the 37th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival at the Castro Theatre on Sat., June 22.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is a new film from Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon. If you've never heard of James Broughton —son of Modesto, unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco, filmmaking pioneer/teacher, husband/lover to some fiercely independent partners, from legendary critic Pauline Kael to filmmaker Joel Singer— then this essay is your invite.

In the spring of 1974, at 61, James Broughton was doomed, trapped in what many would have thought an enviable rut: teacher, suburban husband and father. For him, this had become a slow death of the spirit. Suddenly he was swept off his feet by a lad of 25.

We pick up the threads of this life-changing moment from a 1983 radio chat. It's Nov. 6, four days before his 70th birthday, and we're conversing on my old ABC Radio talk show, in a studio nestled above the old Giraffe Bar on Polk St.

David Lamble: How and when did you meet Joel Singer?

James Broughton: I was 61 and teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, and he enrolled as a graduate student in the film department. He had already made some films and was a brilliant student, and then to my astonishment we discovered that we were soulmates. I've written about this in my book Ecstasies, in a section called 'Wondrous the Merge':

"At Beck's Motel on the 7th of April/we went to bed for three days/

disheveled the king size sheets/never changed the Do Not Disturb/

ate only the fruits of discovery/drank semen and laughter and sweat."

"I was on the point of feeling my life was over, my life in the suburbs was routine. Joel has actually extended my life by giving me a tremendous shot in the arm or rebirth, re-enthusiasm and delight in the world; he's half my age. It means I associate with his friends, who are all in their 30s, and so suddenly I felt I was the same age I was when I began making films 40 years ago. I do not think of myself as a senior citizen, but I ride on the Muni for 15 cents anyway."

Born in 1913, Broughton was a sissy-boy whose patrician mother fined him a nickel every time she caught him in a flagrant act of effeminacy. Following the death of his father in the great influenza epidemic after WWI, he was exiled to a military academy, a blessing in disguise since he came to see it as his real home.

In the late 1940s, you had a relationship with Pauline Kael, who wasn't yet the great film critic she would become.
"She was just fresh out of UC Berkeley. She was a passionate film buff and had that thing which is so remarkable: total recall of a film on seeing it only once, including all the dialogue, which I always found bewildering. If you ever asked Pauline if she had seen a film again, she said, 'No, I never see a film again!'

When I started to make Mother's Day, she was very excited and helped me a lot with it, in getting the costumes and the props, dressing the ladies."

Has she reviewed any of your films?
"No, never, but that doesn't mean she hasn't been a friend to my work, because I received two Guggenheim fellowships, and she was on the committee. She always said to me that I made a great mistake after The Pleasure Garden, which was made on 35mm and got prizes at Cannes. She felt that that's the time I should have gone into big movies. But that really was not my way. I didn't want to go into business! It's not my thing!"

Did you ever get a feeling that she disliked gay people, or had any strong opinion about them?
"I think that would be an extremely ambivalent area for her, because she had so many gay friends here. It was [poet] Robert Duncan who introduced me to her, and she knew that he was very flamboyant. Pauline has an acid tone about everything underneath, so she could whiplash in all directions, and she could make snide comments about the gay scene because that's part of her game, to put things down."

Kael biographer Brian Kellow (Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark,) thinks that the Broughton/Kael relationship, ending abruptly when he kicked her out after discovering she was pregnant by him, was symptomatic of a bigger cultural shift, where gay men would abandon "cover marriages" and start to assert their right to be open.

"Pauline was making a mistake that heterosexual women in the arts often made: They were surrounded by attractive, bright men unafraid to engage in emotional discourse, and they mistakenly thought that a passionate friendship could turn into an enduring romance. And the men, lacking strong gay role models, did their best to conform to what the women wanted them to be."

In our radio chats and in his seminal text on 40 years of filmmaking Making Light of It (City Lights Books), Broughton discusses pivotal films:

Devotions(1983) "Joel Singer and I set out to show some of the ways that men can enjoy one another without resorting to insult or aggression. We filmed 45 couples in a variety of locations, from Seattle to San Diego. Devotions has divided the gays from the straights right down the middle. In New York they seem to find the film embarrassing, quite a different experience from the Castro Theatre. It's too open, too direct and too playful for New Yorkers, who don't live the way we do."

Mother's Day(1948) "I found myself reexamining indelible memories from my San Francisco childhood. Inevitably the dominant figure of the mother entered the field of play as an indifferent goddess disapproving of romp and spoof."

The Pleasure Garden (1953) "With producer Lindsay Anderson, I developed a comic fairy-tale in the style of British pantomime. A fat fairy godmother routs a puritanical Minister of Public Behavior and bestows love unions on the daydreaming strangers in a public park."

The Bed(1968) "I wanted to use a bed as a stage for the variety of acts of the human comedy. My theme: 'All the world's a bed, and men and women merely dreamers.' When The Bed was shown, another harmless film at the New York Film Festival, it was booed, and critics wrote how it was lewd and disgusting. You don't pay any attention to these things. You can't."