Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

Tribeca Film Festival 2013

Written By Belle McIntyre


James Broughton was a revelation to me. The man was a wondrous creature. Part pixie, all diva, and 100 percent libertine. He was a poet, an artist, a filmmaker and an ardent seeker of joy. He was born into wealth and privilege in Modesto, California in 1913 but he had a difficult childhood, defined by a demanding and hyper-critical mother and a father who died when he was 5 years old. And he knew at an early age that he was ‘different’. He had a lifelong imaginary friend named Hermy who helped him navigate his loneliness.

He was bright, attended Stanford and lived with Pauline Kael, who later became a hugely influential film critic in New York. They had a daughter together but never married. He later married Suzanne Hart, a costume designer and had two children and seemed to enjoy family life for awhile. In between he had many affairs with men and women. It was while he was teaching at San Francisco Art Institute, where he was hugely popular, that he began mentoring a young man named Joel Shapiro. Their relationship developed into a deep and passionate love and lasted until his death. It was ecstatic and joyful and it fueled all of his poetry and film work.

For his early films he teemed up with Kermit Sheets, who was also his lover. They made an experimental film, The Pleasure Garden in 1953 which received a special prize at Cannes presented by Jean Cocteau, one of Broughton’s heroes. A later film, The Bed, a rollicking, surreal, uninhibited romp begins with an unmanned bed skiing down a verdant hill. When it reaches a beautiful spot under a tree the fun begins as all manner of naked nymphs and satyrs dive, tumble, fondle, entwine, play and display on and around the bed. As one of his friends says: “He managed to get to the serious by focusing on the silly”.

He was a major figure in the San Francisco Renaissance along with Stan Brakhage, Alan Watts, Imogen Cunningham, and Harry Hay. He was the bard of The Radical Faeries and a charter member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. He made 23 films and wrote dozens of books of poetry. He was “gay” in all ways and while his work is dominated by sybaritic and sensual images they are not prurient - almost innocent. The mood is celebratory, ecstatic and spiritual - and has been likened to Walt Whitman. A famous Broughton quote was: “I believe in ecstasy for everyone”.

Big Joy conveys that sensibility in a wonderful montage of still photographs, clips of Broughton’s life and his his films, selections of his poetry, and interviews with those close to him. The accumulated details, music, editing and animations reflects his own aesthetic. It is playful, light-hearted, intensely personal, and extremely poignant. The man was in love with life and believed it should be lived ecstatically and poetically. It feels as if he might have made it himself. One of his favorite quotes was: “Follow your own weird”.

He became quite frail and decrepit at the end of his life but he never lost his unbridled joie de vivre. He died as he had lived with champagne on his lips and on his own terms.

“Everything is song. Everything is silence! Since it all turns out to be illusion, perfectly being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, you are free to die laughing.”

Photo Courtesy of

Learn more about James Broughton HERE


Yoga: It’s More than You Think