Interviewee Penelope Wong was featured in James Broughton's 1968 film 'The Bed.'

Slade Channels Broughton’s ‘Big Joy’

Michael Fox September 28, 2011

Artistic integrity is always in short supply, which makes Broughton an inspiration for every successive generation of poets and filmmakers.

For an instant antidote to creeping conformity, nothing beats a shot of James Broughton’s wit and wisdom. “Follow your weird,” declared the San Francisco (by way of Modesto) poet and experimental filmmaker, who departed the astral plane in 1999. Broughton is returning to a screen near you, courtesy of old friend and Washington State journalist Stephen Silha. He’s taken on the task of preserving and extending Broughton’s legacy with a feature-length documentary, Big Joy, co-directed by former S.F. resident Eric Slade.

“He’s the producer and he’s raising the money, so he gets final cut,” Slade says with a chuckle. But Silha has never made a film before, so he’s relying on Slade’s chops, experience and taste. The two talk regularly but convene once a month, which makes for a rather unusual collaboration.

“I think we’re still stumbling through that, what is the artistic vision,” Slade remarks candidly. “Making a film about an experimental filmmaker is a challenging thing, but we were clear from the beginning we weren’t making an experimental film, we’re making a documentary about a poet and experimental filmmaker. But we want some spirit of his experimental nature in our film as well. We don’t want it to be a flat-out standard documentary. I think that’s the challenge—finding the balance.”

Slade, who returned to his native Portland in 2002 after capping 14 years in San Francisco with the award-winning documentary Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, was back in town last week shooting interviews for Big Joy and going over sequences with editor Dawn Logsdon. The talking heads included Mykael David, who attended the 1980 Radical Faeries gathering where Broughton read poetry, and documentary producer and writer Sharon Wood, who studied at the S.F. Art Institute under Broughton.

Penelope Wong, the young woman smoking a joint with her boyfriend in Broughton’s Summer of Love classic, The Bed (1967), also sat for Slade’s camera. “We were hoping we could go back to the site [where the scene was filmed] in Marin, right next door to where Alan Watts lived, but she’s in town really briefly so it didn’t work out,” Slade said.

Slade feels the weight of responsibility on Big Joy, since it will likely stand as the definitive documentary about the artist.

“Kind of like with Harry Hay, I don’t think anyone’s going to make another one,” Slade muses. “With Harry I thought the story was of someone who never gave up, who never lost hope, and with James there’s lots of places where he could have taken a more commercial route and didn’t. I think he was disappointed that he didn’t receive more fame, but at the same time he wasn’t willing to compromise. He came out with The Pleasure Garden in 1953 and got Hollywood offers, and he was really clear that was something he didn’t want to do.”

Artistic integrity is always in short supply, which makes Broughton an inspiration for every successive generation of poets and filmmakers.

“There are so many different things that form James’s life and work that feel contemporary today,” Slade says. “There’s more and more of a mainstreaming of society, and for someone to say ‘Follow your own weird’ has a lot of resonance today. The tolerance for variation is growing narrower.”

Slade noted that at the end of his life, Broughton said he was changing his name to Big Joy. The artist had one of his favorite aphorisms carved on his tombstone: “Adventure, Not Predicament.”

“The thing about James is he was also a super-disciplined artist,” Slade pointed out. “He got up at 6 in the morning and wrote at his desk for five hours every day. He worked really hard. That’s why he’s not just a free-spirit hippie—well, maybe he is that, but he’s one with incredible artistic discipline.”

To follow the progress of the project, check out

Notes From the Underground
The Bay Area filmmakers in the 2010-11 Independent Lens lineup are Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton (These Amazing Shadows, December 29) and Connie Field (Have You Heard From Johannesburg, airing over three nights in January). … The NFL Players Association has adopted Nina Gilden Seavey’s documentary, 4th & Goal, produced by attorney and columnist George Rush, Jr., as the film centerpiece of its “Training Camp for Life” program for elite high school football prospects. … East Bay novelist and screenwriter Charlie Haas appears with Over the Edge (1979) at the Pacific Film Archive October 2. … Stranger Than Fiction, the vaunted documentary series at IFC Center in NYC, salutes the late East Bay filmmaker Gail Dolgin with a tribute October 11. … More from Manhattan: Amy Glazer’s Seducing Charlie Barker (SFIFF 2010) opens December 2 at the Quad Cinema and—this just in—our own Opera Plaza Cinema.

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