DOXA 2013: Director Stephen Silha delves into the dark side of James Broughton's Big Joy
What the world needs right now is more weird.
That's what filmmaker Stephen Silha thinks. He's conveying that message with his biographical documentary Big Joy about James Broughton, an American experimental filmmaker and poet who espoused the message "Follow your weird".
The Seattle-based Silha, on the line from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, says he first encountered Broughton's films at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979 and was taken with the "mystical eroticism and the poetic dimension" of his work.
He later met Broughton when he was assigned the same cabin at a Radical Faerie gathering. Silha helped Broughton write prose while Broughton, in turn, taught him poetry. The two remained friends up until Broughton's death in 1999. (Silha was one of four people who were by Broughton's side as he uttered his last words: "Praise and thanks, and more bubbly, please.")
Editing down the story of Broughton's rich and vibrant life and work was far from an easy task. There was a plethora of material to work with. In addition to Broughton's creative works, Silha and codirector Eric Slade accessed his journals, which he wrote from age 13 until he died, archived at Kent State University in Ohio.
"We really tried to be true to the spirit of his work as we created the film," Silha says.
Ultimately, they resorted to one of Broughton's maxims in order to maintain their focus: "Simplify, clarify, vivify." For instance, they conducted 37 interviews but only used about 20 in the final cut.
What they distilled was a revealing portrait of someone whose celebration of the effervescence of life was rooted in a polar opposite side. Silha and Slade reveal Broughton's suicidal tendencies, his interest in writing about death, his difficult relationship with his mother, his struggles with his sexuality and feminine tendencies, and the hearts he broke.
Silha thinks his passion for life helped him journey through his darker impulses.
"One of his messages and one of the things he told me once is that you have to go through the valleys to get to the peaks."
In fact, dualities were a recurring theme in both his work (as one example, Silha points to his film Dreamwood, which explores archetypes of masculinity and femininity) and his life. He had intimate relationships with both men and women, including actor/director Kermit Sheets, gay activist Harry Hay, and film critic Pauline Kael. Some of those closest to him, however, paid a price.
"He tended to see the glass as half full. He tended to exude confidence and love, most of the time," Silha says. "But of course, that wasn't true of his wife and kids necessarily. That's another one of the interesting messages of the film. A great artist sometimes leaves some lives in ruins."
While Broughton's son appears in the film, his two daughters didn't want to be interviewed but one of them did, however, help to arrange an interview with their mother and Broughton's ex-wife, artist Suzanna Hart, who was in a dementia ward at a retirement community in Mill Valley, California. Although she didn't remember anything at first, Silha gave her a wedding program that she did calligraphy for, which triggered her memory.
"She remembered the joy that she felt in being with James, and of course, you can see the total devastation when he left," Silha says. (At age 61, Broughton left Hart for a 26-year-old Canadian student, Joel Singer, who became the love of his life.)
Working on the project helped Silha expand his creativity, but it also deeply affected him emotionally.
"It's definitely gotten me in touch more with my dark side…..James…really was not afraid of diving into his dark side and I think that making the film, I found myself doing that and sometimes getting very depressed and having to deal with emotions that I hadn't experienced before."
Silha feels that the film, which is being released upon the centenary of Broughton's birth, is a timely one in this era of consumerism and rapid global changes.
"I think it's a much-needed film, not just in queer culture but in the culture overall—this message of follow your own weird—and James was clear that the word weird came from a Celtic root that means fate or destiny. So following your weird is not just about being as bizarre as you can be but it's about simultaneously being true to your core and being on your creative edge. And I feel like we're at a point in culture right now where that is really important, where we need to think in a more systemic, complex way about what we're doing and what is happening in the world. So in that sense, I see the film as a gift from the Radical Faerie sensibility of queer culture to the culture at large."
To put it more simply, clearly, and vividly, Broughton himself advised, "When in doubt, twirl."
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton plays on May 11 (9:15 p.m.) at the Vancity Theatre.