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Florida Film Fest review: BIG JOY: THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES BROUGHTON

April 5, 2013
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BIG JOY: THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES BROUGHTON

★★★

You shouldn’t have to like a documentary’s subject to appreciate the doc itself. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton sure puts that theory to the test, though, as directors Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon have fallen under the spell of experimental filmmaker and poet Broughton, believing almost everything he created was pure magic instead of the pretentious garbage some claim it to be.
Broughton was the product of post-war West Coast bohemia, and he greatly influenced the San Francisco performance-poetry scene and the gay movement. (As the doc reminds us, “Even in San Francisco it [was] dangerous to be queer in the 1950s.”) Yet Broughton’s greatest fame came as an experimental filmmaker and director of such well-known shorts at The Potted Psalm (1946) and The Pleasure Garden (1953).

Whether you love or hate Broughton’s work, the filmmaker makes a worthy subject, and this movie, in just its second U.S. showing, embraces his own special celebration of life in all its self-indulgent, crazy, joyous incarnations. But by refusing to step away from its subject and examine the purpose and merit of experimental film, it squanders an opportunity to become more meaningful.

One interviewee goes as far as to claim that Broughton “in a sense, invented and perfected the poetic cinema.” That’s an outrageous exaggeration and briefly gives the film the feel of a Christopher Guest mock-umentary. Yet, thankfully, it’s Broughton himself, toward the end of the doc and the end of his own life, who finally makes sense of the “big joy” he so passionately projects to the world:

“Everything is an act,” he admits. “When people ask how you are, always say you’re fine. It makes your friends happy and your enemies furious.” – Cameron Meier