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Outfest Review: 'Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton' an Ecstatic Portrait of the Artist

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! July 15, 2013 at 4:35PM

Revered at Tribeca, SXSW and Frameline and now playing at Outfest, "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton" traces the life and times of the titular revolutionary and artist.
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'Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton'
'Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton'

James Broughton refused to live an inauthentic life. And in fact he had many lives. He was a poet, a filmmaker, an artist, a gay man, a straight man and an all-around visionary.

Already well-received at Tribeca, SXSW and Frameline, "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton" traces the life and times of this man of many parts. In the mid-20th century, Broughton found himself at the intersection of many Bay Area art and social movements, from the San Francisco Renaissance to the Beat Generation that rose after Allen Ginsberg first performed "Howl," that barbaric yawp of unchained imagination, in 1955.

Born and raised in Modesto, CA in 1913, Broughton moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in poetry until eventually he picked up a 16mm camera at a thrift store during one of many bouts of depression. Thus began a career in making poetic, lyrical, avant-garde short films that eventually took him to the Cannes Film Festival, where he was handed a prize by idol Jean Cocteau for his seminal cinematic work "The Pleasure Garden" (1953), a black-and-white flight of fantasia in which Broughton cast compatriots of his artistic milieu. Broughton gushed with personality, and he surrounded himself with others who did, too.

One of the film's many fascinating detours is a close look at his fraught relationship with film critic Pauline Kael, with whom he lived for a short period in North Beach. Before they parted ways over creative differences, she told him that abandoning his poet's roots for Hollywood would be the biggest mistake of his life. So he heeded her warning, firmly resisted selling out and continued to make his bizarre brand of experimental films, as formally daring and erotically charged as the early work of Kenneth Anger.

Because Broughton started filmmaking in 1930s San Francisco, any semblance of gayness had to be codified and contained in a subtext. But indeed the gay element is present. Rife with nudity, abstract bodies and gritty sensuality, Broughton's shorts are the centerpiece of "Big Joy," which weaves excerpts from the director's rarely seen oeuvre through an exploration of the man's profusely indulgent personal life. 

Lovingly co-directed by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon, "Big Joy" is as exuberant and maddening as Broughton himself. The film courses with energy, vitality and, of course, joy, revealing a fascinating portrait of an unsung artist ahead of his time and never past his prime.

"Big Joy" plays Outfest Monday, July 15.

This article is related to: Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.