“Follow Your Own Weird” was the maxim by which James Broughton (1913-1999) lived each and every day. A pre-Beat-era poet, underground filmmaker, lover, gay man and artist who dared to live boldly and experiment wildly, Broughton is the subject of the documentary film, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton. Whether as an out poet during the oppressive and anti-gay McCarthy era or as the bard of the modern gay rights movement, James’ expansive life inspired thousands toward their own “Big Joy“.
All told Broughton created 23 films and 23 books of poetry and prose. His work in film won him the 1989 American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Experimental Film. It includes “Hermes Bird”, an 11-minute film of an erection shot using the camera originally created to film the Manhattan Project – James’ ultimate expression of ‘Make Love Not War’.
Film and poetry weren’t the only ways James manifested art and beauty into being. He had a number of creative friendships, and created eight of his films with his soulmate, Joel Singer, with whom he lived for 25 years. He was a charter member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a queer service organization, giving to the community for many years as Sister Sermonetta of the Flying Phallus. James was also an early bard of the Radical Faeries, a counter-cultural movement that redefined queer identity through spirituality. In 1988, he acted as San Francisco Pride Festival’s Grand Marshall. Even in times of extreme oppression, James acted openly and with joy. “There was a time when being gay was not only shunned, it was punished,” said co-director Eric Slade. “our story depicts this time period and the triumph of one who lived through and beyond such oppression.”
James Broughton is a timeless role model of one who’s not afraid to “follow your own weird,” as he put it. In the face of enormous social pressures from family and community, he always followed his muse. Hence, his work is hard to categorize. His life mirrored his work – transcending boundaries of male and female, straight and gay, young and old. Poet/publisher Jonathan Williams dubbed him “Big Joy” and eventually he took on the name for himself. He lived a good life and loved many people and ultimately died a good death.
“Follow your own weird.”James Broughton
His life story begins November 10, 1913 in Modesto, California , but his family moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter. James’ life was highly influenced by an experience he had when he was three years old. He said that at that time an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him he was a poet.
In 1918, James lost his father to the flu epidemic and spent the rest of his life getting over his high-strung, overbearing mother. At the age of nine, Broughton’s mother sent him to military school to break him of his feminine tendencies, but at the age of 16 he was kicked out for having an affair with a classmate. Later Broughton moved to New York after dropping out of Stanford University.
He began working with film in the 1940s, and spent time in Europe during the 1950’s. While there he received the “poetic fantasy” award in Cannes from Jean Cocteau for his film The Pleasure Garden, made in England with partner Kermit Sheets.
Over the years, Broughton had meaningful love affairs with both men and women. Among his male paramours was gay activist Harry Hay. He briefly lived with the notable film critic Pauline Kael and they had daughter Gina, born in 1948. Despite many creative relationships during the San Francisco Beat era, Broughton at age 49, married artist and designer Susanna Hart, whose theatrical background and personality made for a great playmate. They had two children and built a vibrant community of creative spirits, among them Alan Watts, Michael McClure, Anna Halprin, and Imogen Cunningham.
In the late 1960’s his irreverent and sexually liberating works won him a large following, especially in the Bay area. Alan Watts crowned him the “unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco.” He taught film and ritual at the San Francisco State University and San Francisco Art Institute.
At the age of 62, James embarked on the greatest love story of his life with a Canadian student named Joel Singer who was nearly 40 years his junior. Broughton believed that Singer was an incarnation of the angel who visited him at age 3. Joel and James lived 25 vibrant years together (until James’ death) creating film, art, and lively expressions of soul.
On May 17, 1999, with champagne on his lips and his favorite music in his ears James died at his home in Port Townsend, Washington in the company of his loved ones.
1913 – James born November 10th in Modesto, California
1918 – James’ father dies in the influenza epidemic
1933 – Broughton has brief affair with fellow Stanford student Harry Hay, who later creates the first gay organization in the U.S., the Mattachine Society
1946 – Collaborates with Sidney Peterson on “The Potted Psalm” (25 min), the first experimental film in the San Francisco Bay Area
1947 – First poetry book: Songs for Certain Children, San Francisco: Centaur Press
1948 – First solo film, “Mother’s Day”
– Broughton’s daughter Gina (with Pauline Kael) is born; Broughton and Kael separate
1949 – Publishes his first play, The Playground, San Francisco: Centaur Press
1950 -Works in London (‘51-‘53) at the British Film Institute
1953 – Works in Paris (‘53-‘55) with Paris Review and with the American Theatre in Paris
– Makes “The Pleasure Garden” (38 min; 35 mm)
1954 – “The Pleasure Garden” wins special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, presented by Jean Cocteau
1955 – Publishes True & False Unicorn, New York: Grove Press
1957 – Starts doing concert tours – performing poetry to the music of harpist Joel Andrews, presented as “The Bard and the Harper” (recorded)
1962 – Marries Suzanna Hart, with whom he has two children, Serena and Orion
1966 – Professor, Department of Creative Arts, San Francisco State University (through ‘76)
1967 – Starts teaching in the filmmaking department of the San Francisco Art Institute
– Makes “The Bed” (20 min) (commissioned by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium)
1969 – Makes “Nuptiae (14 min),” shot by Stan Brakhage at Broughton’s wedding to Suzanna
1970 – Makes “This Is It” (10 min)
1971 – Collected poems: A Long Undressing New York: Jargon Society
1972 – Makes “Dreamwood” (45 min), his longest and most Jungian film
1974 – Makes “Testament,” including his ‘funeral’ parade (20 min)
1975 – Receives Film Culture’s Twelfth Independent Film Award for his outstanding work of thirty years, and was cited as “the grand classic master of Independent Cinema”
– Meets life partner, Joel Singer
– Separates from his wife, Suzanna Hart
1976 – Makes “Together” with Joel Singer (3 min)
1981 – Makes “The Gardener of Eden” and “Shaman Psalm” with Joel Singer
1983 – Makes “Devotions” with Joel Singer (22 min)
1988 – Makes “Scattered Remains” (14 min) with Joel Singer (commissioned by the San Francisco Film Festival)
1989 – Selected by the American Film Institute as the recipient of the 1989 American Film Institute Award for Independent Film and Video Artists (Lifetime Achievement Award)
– Moves to Port Townsend, WA
1990 – Publishes Special Deliveries: Selected Poems, Seattle, WA: Broken Moon Press
1992 – Publishes Making Light of It (formerly Seeing the Light), San Francisco: City Lights Press
1993 – Publishes memoir Coming Unbuttoned, San Francisco: City Lights Press
1994 – Publishes Big Joy (chapbook), Port Townsend, WA: Syzygy Press
1995 – Publishes Little Sermons of the Big Joy, Philadelphia, PA: Insight to Riot Press
1996 – Publishes Packing Up for Paradise: Selected Poems 1946-1996, Santa Barbara, CA & Ann Arbor, MI: Black Sparrow Press
1999 – James dies May 17th, at home in Port Townsend, WA