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. 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 Chaplinlike 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)