James Broughton's liberation machine


AVANT DVD "At an early age I arrived in San Francisco," James Broughton says in his 1974 cinematic self-portrait, Testament. "There I spent the rest of my life growing up." A straight-hearted honesty and smiling irony here lie snug side by side, as they do typically throughout the work of the poet and avant-garde filmmaker. Adults behaving like children are hardly an unusual sight in a Broughton film.

Lou Reed has a line about "growing up in public with your pants down," bemoaning (with his own habitual flair) the inevitable fate of the modern artist. But if becoming one today necessarily means dropping trou, no one ever did it more gleefully, readily, and speedily than Broughton, who died in 1999 at 85. Born in Modesto in 1913, Broughton was what you could call a self-made man — though not the kind his mother had in mind when she pictured him growing beyond the family's generations of bankers into its first surgeon. Broughton created himself through his art: a playful, deeply erotic, and self-questioning poetry that, in its joyful and childlike (but never naive) reaching out to the world, ended up wedding itself brilliantly to the medium of the century.

Maximum exhibitionism was the idea. As Broughton explains in his lively autobiography, Coming Unbuttoned, he was visited one night as a lad of three by his angel, Hermy, who revealed his destiny and bestowed on him three attributes that would make his job easier: "intuition, articulation, and merriment." And so a liberator of the body and mind was christened a poet in his crib by an angel whose sparkling, throbbing wand made the boy wet his jammies. (Years later that wand was still making magic, as in 1979's Hermes Bird, an 11-minute film in which Broughton reads a phallic ode over the profile of a slowly wakening penis, bathed in an ethereal light that sets it out shimmeringly against absolute darkness.)

In a film career (and life) that had more than one end and rebirth attached to it, Broughton had originally intended Testament as his epitaph, but he soon followed it with other projects, including an erotically charged close-up tour of bodily surfaces titled Erogeny (1976), after which began what can be considered his third and final period, the films he made with Joel Singer. (It was the prize-winning piece that began his second period of filmmaking, 1968's The Bed — a multifarious 20-minute romp on a roving outdoor bed involving a large number of naked bodies — that first put full frontal nudity all over the art-film map. With a cameo by the filmmaker meditating naked before a semicoiled snake and another by friend Alan Watts, it's still a curious, jovial work and leads into Broughton's explicit mapping of human geography and erotic energy in films such as 1970's The Golden Positions.)

It's often pointed out how perennially unfashionable Broughton managed to be through a long career. In an era overshadowed by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, muscular Beat howling, and virtuously inscrutable language poetry, Broughton clove happily to his Mother Goose rhyme schemes (which he endowed with a sly wisdom and ribald play she would not have completely approved of). Although Broughton took his own good advice to "follow your own weird," he never lacked for influences, including giants on the American experimental film landscape such as his friend Maya Deren. His was a singular voice drawn from a merry mixing of lifelong passions: Mother Goose and Lao-tzu, Carl Jung and Alan Watts, Episcopalian ritual and Greek mythology, Jean Cocteau and Buster Keaton.

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