News Column

'Big Joy' rediscovers James Broughton

June 20, 2013


June 20--James Broughton was an important part of the Beat generation, and yet many San Franciscans haven't heard of him.

One reason is that despite a prodigious output, the multitalented artist -- poet, performance artist, filmmaker, author -- didn't have a defining work; no "On the Road," no "Howl." Another is that he spent the last decade of his life -- he died in 1999 -- in Oregon.

So "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton" comes as a most welcome introduction -- or reintroduction -- to an overlooked but important figure.

How important? It premieres Saturday as part of Frameline 37 (the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival), and in attendance will be friends and admirers of Broughton, including writer Armistead Maupin, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin.

"His work is hard to categorize," co-director Stephen Silla said. "Every one of his 23 films and many of his 23 books are different from each other. Yes, he was involved with the Beats, but he wasn't necessarily a Beat poet, because he was doing what they were doing years before (them).

"When they came over, he was writing rhymed verse and they were writing free verse, so they didn't think of him as one of them."

In fact, as "Big Joy" shows, Broughton, a Modesto native, was a central figure in a burgeoning free-spirited San Francisco culture that began after World War II, in the mid-1940s. That's nearly a decade before the Beats came to town.

"It seems like when Kerouac and Ginsburg came from the East Coast, then the East Coast media heard about it and called it and created a sensation," co-director Eric Slade said. "All the important work that had been going on before that didn't gain national media attention."

Slade did not know Broughton, but Silla, an Oregon resident, got to know him during his last decade.

"When I saw him at 75 years old, I thought, 'This is the most lively 75-year-old I've ever seen. I want some of what he's got.' I was there when he died. ... We became friends and he became a mentor."

Slade became inspired by his work, especially his underground classic film from the 1968, "The Bed."

But why "Big Joy"? Broughton was a man who loved humor. Some of his work is downright silly. His mantra: Follow your weird.

"When James said 'follow your weird,' he didn't mean 'be as bizarre as you can be,' he meant 'be true to your core,' " Silla said. " 'Weird' comes from a Celtic word that means fate or destiny.

"The culture could benefit from people being inspired to say, 'OK, what is it that I'm really here for?' "

San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (Frameline 37): Through June 30 at the Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater and Victoria Theatre in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. Opening-night film Thursday night at the Castro: "Concussion," followed by gala at Terra Gallery.

Big Joy: 4 p.m. Saturday at the Castro, 429 Castro St., S.F.

G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen


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