‘When in doubt, twirl.” There was a time when that sage advice, given by the late queer genius James Broughton, was actually subversive, an exhortation to burrow deeper in one’s queerness when faced with adversity. It’s now the type of statement likely to be uttered by some reality TV show nitwit on a shopping spree.
Broughton, poet, filmmaker and Renaissance man, is the subject of the exhilarating documentary Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, co-directed by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon. His life was larger than fiction. It spanned a poor-little-rich-boy childhood, the making of groundbreaking experimental films influenced by Cocteau and Maya Deren, being part of a late-’40s San Francisco arts movement that planted the seeds for the Beats.
He had a tumultuous relationship with future film critic Pauline Kael (with whom he had a child), and he found the (much younger) love of his life at the age of 61, all while writing poems that captured his unabashed celebration of queerness. Beneath his resolutely upbeat public face, however, ran a deep current of depression and self-doubt. The film captures it all via interviews with friends and colleagues, generous samples of home movies and photos, and gorgeous clips from Broughton’s own filmography.
What makes Broughton’s life and work so important in this moment of queer assimilationist triumph is that he was, as one person describes him, “an outsider’s outsider, under the underground,” on a quest for ways of being and finding “big joy” outside the confines of the status quo.