Film review: Big Joy reminds us that we too should follow our own weird


Big Joy reminds us that we too should follow our own weird

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The LGBTQ history books are filled with fascinating people, but those that have become instantly recognizable are a mere handful. With Stephen Silha and Eric Slade’s fascinating new documentary film Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, they are helping to raise the profile of one more.

2014 UPDATE: Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton screens at The Cinematheque (1131 Howe Street) on July 20 & 23.  Visit for tickets and information.

Big Joy is the life story of James Broughton, a poet and often hailed film visionary for his experimental works. Interspersed with interviews from some of his contemporaries, family and friends plus clips from his films, the documentary paints a picture of a man who lives up to his nickname of “Big Joy” given to him by poet and publisher Jonathan Williams.

An obviously personal movie it isn’t surprising to discover that co-director Silha and Broughton were friends after having met at a Radical Faerie gathering. Silha remembers him as the liveliest 75 year-old he had ever met and that characterization is captured perfectly in the biopic.

Present at Broughton’s death, Silha was determined to have others discover his work. “I really wanted to get his work out since it’s mostly out of print and totally relevant to the 21st century”.

The documentary explores Broughton’s numerous affairs with both men and women that included Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society (one of the first gay rights groups in the United States), and with 22 year-old Canadian Joel Singer who Broughton took up with at age 62 and lived with for nearly 25 years before his death.

The film also chronicles Broughton’s marriage to Suzanna Hart with whom he had two children. The interview segments with Hart are some of the most powerful pieces of the film, the first that Silha undertook for the documentary and one he recalls as incredibly emotional and powerful.

“She has pre Alzheimer’s so the first questions I asked she said ‘I can’t remember, sorry’,” he recalls. “Then when I handed her the wedding announcement which she had calligraphed, her memories flooded back gradually and the rest of the interview was very emotional. It was a challenge for me to be quiet and let her be with those emotions, but it paid off.”

Silha and Slade also use generous amounts of Broughton’s films including his 1967 short The Bed which quintessentially captures both Broughton’s joie de vivre and that of San Francisco’s Summer of Love.

Big Joy does bog down as it offers up a very linear recounting of Broughton’s life, but that is a small price to pay in getting to know a life that may have otherwise been a footnote for most in the LGBTQ community. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton ultimately reminds us that we too should follow our own weird.

Mark Robins on Google+

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