Festival season is in full swing in the summer, so we naturally wind up with a plethora of film reviews from various festivals around the country, even after the festivals are long over. We've chosen to dole them out to you individually, and this week Nate Abernethy brings you a look at Big Joy, a documentary on noted poet, experimental filmmaker and gay icon James Broughton, which we felt was especially appropriate given the generation defining battle being waged at the moment in the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly since the film details the complexities of Broughton's domestic life. Nate saw this film at this year's SXSW Film festival, which Nick Hanover and Dylan Garsee reported on daily.
I dearly love the Beat Generation. My bookshelf is filled with anything and everything William S. Burroughs ever touched, there’s a collection of letters between Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on my desk, I have a copy of the transcript from the “Howl” obscenity trials, and could easily recite the gory details of David Kammerer’s murder at the hands of Lucien Carr. Hell I once wrote a thesis over the allusions to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in Allen Ginsberg’s famous “Howl” poem. I knew James Broughton was a pre-cursor of sorts to the Beat Generation; so armed with nothing more than that knowledge I headed into Big Joy and I’m so glad I did. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is not a documentary. It’s a celebration.
The film opens with performance artist Keith Hennessy’s exposition of sorts as he helps introduce a timeline of Broughton’s life and impact. Hennessy’s occasional interjections feel a little disjointed from the rest of the work, and are one of the film's very few faults. Big Joy first sets out to document Broughton’s early life and rise to underground fame through the use of archived interviews and journal excerpts. Despite Broughton’s overwhelming message of joy and happiness, the looks into his early life provide the viewer glimpses of the secret darkness Broughton carried around with him, and serve as an excellent contrast to his later positive perspective. In particular his relationship with his domineering mother is examined.
As Big Joy progresses, Broughton’s growing boldness in his films is illustrated while his clear love for antics reminescent of vaudeville schtick keeps Big Joy lighthearted and entertaining. As Broughton’s expanding success is documented, his persona of brilliant joy and message to embrace your "weird" begins to take center stage. Once the line is blurred between Broughton’s work and Broughton himself, the film truly begins to shine. As Big Joy takes us through the timeline of Broughton’s work we see his impact not just upon the San Francisco Renaissance, but also the parallel world of the Beat Generation and to an extent, modern experimental film.
The film’s greatest strength though lies in the interviews with those that were close to him. Directors Stephen Silha and Eric Slade have done something incredible in the genuine honesty they capture from these intimate interviews. Particularly touching are the interviews with his ex-wife, Suzanna Hart, whom he left for a younger man, Joel Singer, who he stayed with until his death. These interviews also give a balanced portrayal of Broughton's faults as the viewer sympathizes with Hart, and Singer discusses Broughton’s self-admission that he was a horrible parent. It’s rare that a film can successfully celebrate a life while also admitting the negative impacts that life had.
James Broughton was a poet, a dreamer, and a troublemaker. Ultimately Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton does exactly what it sets out to achieve: to spread Broughton’s infectious joy with a hint of his charming mischievousness.
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to do film reviews. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy