Stephen Silha is the co-director of Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton, a lyrical documentary about the beloved director of The Bed, The Pleasure Garden, This is It and other counter-culture classics. Here, Silha recounts his friendship with the late Broughton, the subject he brings to luminous life along with fellow filmmakers Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon.
When I met James Broughton at a Radical Faerie Gathering in 1989, it was like a door opened in my soul. Here was a master of images and words who was also sexy, 75, and surrounded by beautiful young admirers. “What can I learn from/with this guy?” I wondered.
I had been mesmerized by Broughton’s films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York 10 years earlier. I watched a California cowboy in The Pleasure Garden befuddle the fuddy-duddies who tried to rout out joy, sex, and spontaneity from people in the ruins of London’s Crystal Palace—not knowing that Jean Cocteau had awarded that film a special award at Cannes in 1954. I sat enraptured as a little boy born from a tree chased a red ball around his neighborhood while a gentle voice resounded, “This is it / and I am it / and you are it / and so is that / and he is it / and she is it / and it is it / and that is that…”
But meeting James Broughton, and his partner Joel Singer, gave me a new look at life. “It’s more important to live poetically than to be a good poet,” James said. And his life reflected that, even though he worked tremendously hard at using language and images to convey his inner dreams and voices.
We became good friends during the last 10 years of his life, after he and Joel moved from San Francisco to Port Townsend, Washington. We read drafts of our writing to each other–sometimes critiquing, sometimes delighting. We took “writing retreats” to the North Cascade Mountains, where his friend Jack Kerouac had worked as a ranger, and to the ocean, to vineyards and islands. After a debilitating stroke in 1996, he didn’t travel as much, and I became one of his attendants in Port Townsend, especially when Joel traveled to visit family or take a break.
James Broughton wrote in his journal most days of his life. Sometimes he would get up at 5 a.m. to write, even in his last years.
Next to James’s bed hung symbols of some of his spiritual influences: a cross, a Buddha, and a dancing Pan. “Jesus, Pan, and Buddha are my sidekicks,” he wrote in a poem. “We like to sit by Lao-Tsu’s river.” He remained mentally sharp even when his handwriting shriveled to tiny lines. When he volunteered to be a guinea pig for students learning geriatric massage, he signed in as “Mr. Jerry Atrick.”
While he remained generous and loving to the end, he also got more particular. He had little patience for poor grammar, ungrounded generalizations, mediocre food, or people who clear the table before everyone is finished. He didn’t always follow the advice he gave me: “Don’t pass judgment. Pass judgment by.”
“I thought I’d go out with a bang, not become an invalid,” he told me after his stroke. I’ve never known anyone who thought, and wrote, so much about death as James. He wasn’t morbid about it; he ultimately embraced it. His favorite epitaph was “Adventure, Not Predicament.”
In his 1974 film Testament, Broughton and his film directing students staged a colorful funeral parade for him in the streets of his hometown, Modesto, CA, where he had been asked to give a speech to dedicate a new library. He danced with strange mythological figures and laid himself down on his ancestors’ graves. In our film, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, we use those images, as well as a series of portraits from Testament, as Broughton reads his poem “Thinking About Death.” (“Shouldn’t we think more about death more often? Death is thinking about us all the time.”)
It was Broughton’s mastery of images, both in his films and his poetry, that convinced me to make a film about him rather than write a book. I was so grateful that James’s friend Galen Garwood had filmed a “last interview” with him five months before he died. There, he read poems and talked about his afterlife: “Oh boy! Then I’ll be able to really dance. Dance with the angels.”
In fact, he died at home with champagne on his lips, and his last words were, “Praise and thanks… and more bubbly please.”
I didn’t really realize, when I knew Broughton, how important he had been to our literary and cultural history; how he and his friends after World War II had created a San Francisco Renaissance out of which the Beat movement grew; how his 23 films had impacted a generation of filmmakers, both experimental and mainstream like George Lucas and Gus Van Sant.
I was so grateful that he journaled so much, as his journals ended up providing the spine of our film.
For his 80th birthday in 1993, I wrote a poem for James:
Master of images
splaying sense and nonsense
on the screen of future thought
shocking sight to insight
turning insight upside-down …
How was I to know that 15 years after his death people would come out of watching our film echoing my sentiments in another verse of that poem?
Celebrator of mirth
embracer of the dark
diviner of everyday ritual
send us, richer, laughing, crying
into the circle of sight …
Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton is currently available on VOD and DVD, and playing throughout select cities this summer. For information, visit bigjoy.org
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