James Broughton's liberation machine - Page 2


It made him a representative figure in the San Francisco arts scene from the postwar renaissance through the next four decades, even while seeming to frolic forever outside the trends and categories of his day.

Recently, there have been at least three reasons to think about Broughton's films. One is the release of The Films of James Broughton ($59.95) on DVD by Facets. While not quite complete, the three-DVD set is a pretty thorough overview of his film work, which was as central to the formation of a West Coast avant-garde as it was inherently and persistently individual.

Another reason is the April 2005 passing of Kermit Sheets. A gifted literary and theater artist in the Bay Area for many years, Sheets was a conscientious objector during World War II who afterward joined fellow COs in forming a San Francisco theater company, the Interplayers. In these years he was Broughton's companion and collaborator on many early projects, including all the films that make up the first period of the latter's always poetical filmmaking, four of which (out of a total of six, counting The Potted Psalm) are included in the Facets collection, beginning with Mother's Day (1948) and culminating with The Pleasure Garden (1953).

There's no end to the pleasure in watching Sheets play a crooning cowboy hero combing the grounds for a gal as sweet as Ma or, for that matter, his Charlie Chaplin–like tramp, Looney Tom, the eponymous hero of an 11-minute film made in 1951. His boyish grin and carefree capering through Golden Gate Park in search of one love after another might have made his career in comedy (or so you can't help thinking). Over Looney Tom's gleeful abandon, to the tinkling of a piano, Broughton's gently raunchy storybook rhyming is merry and fey:

Give me a tune and I'll slap the bull fife,

I'll spring the hornblower out of his wife.

Any old flutist you care to uncover,

give me his name and I'll be her lover.

La diddle la, the hydrant chatted

Um titty um, the milkpail said.

The best reason to revisit Broughton's work, however, remains the cheering buoyancy and brightness of his vision — a serious tonic to the mordant hostility and hopelessness of the culture's Apocalypto moment and one that comes close to justifying his definition of cinema as a "liberation machine." (Robert Avila)

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