His mottos were “follow your own weird” and “when in doubt, twirl.”
Even in ultra-liberated, boundary-smashing 1960s-’70s San Francisco, poet and experimental filmmaker James Broughton stood out as larger than life. He was part of the 1940s-’50s San Francisco cultural renaissance that presaged the Beats. His short movie “The Bed,” featuring then-taboo frontal nudity, ran for more than a year at one movie house there.
Jean Cocteau presented him with an award at Cannes. He had a child with Pauline Kael, who became one of America’s leading film critics. He was a prominent member of the gay fringe group Radical Faeries. Yet Broughton, who died in 1999 at 85, has faded from public consciousness.
Minneapolis native Stephen Silha, who befriended Broughton in his later years and was present at his deathbed — where he passed “with champagne on his lips,” Silha said — wants to change that with “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” a documentary he co-directed with Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon.
Silha, a writer and the son of former Star Tribune publisher Otto Silha, has lived in Seattle for more than 30 years, where he helps run the nonprofit think tank Journalism That Matters. The film, which premiered at the South by Southwest festival and has been shown at several festivals, was partially financed through Kickstarter.
“‘I’m surprised at how Broughton’s work has fallen through the cracks,” he said. “One reason is that he worked in so many different styles. He was writing beat poetry in the ’40s. They considered him a godfather, but he’d moved on to other things by that time.”
Contemporaries interviewed in the film describe Broughton as “an outsider’s outsider,” a “trickster,” someone who “got at the serious by focusing on the silly.” But for a guy who promoted joy with such abandon, he left some heartbreak in his wake.
Before meeting the love of his life, Joel Singer, he fathered three children, two with then-wife Suzanna Hart, a costume designer. He did not have close relationships with them and told Silha that becoming a parent “was the worst mistake of my life” because he wasn’t very good at it, but felt responsible for helping bring them into the world.
Broughton said he made movies “to see what my dreams really looked like.” His 23 short films afforded a “treasure trove” of material for the doc, Silha said, but there were scant archival photos and interviews to sift through. But journals that Broughton wrote from age 13 till he died, archived at Kent State University, “allowed us to have him tell his own story.”
Broughton’s work will live on at the Walker, which has purchased a copy of “The Bed.” Silha calls it “the quintessential hippie film” and will screen it before “Big Joy.”