Bright Lights Film Journal

Laughing Pan: James Broughton

Ecstasy for all! says the pied piper of queer experimental film

Every movement has its muses. James Broughton probably would have copped to being a muse, or perhaps more accurately, a smiling spirit guide to pleasurable realms beyond the norm. It’s less likely he would have considered himself a leader of any movement. That in spite of the fact that by all accounts the West Coast experimental film scene was mostly his creation with two short films, The Potted Psalm (1946) and Mother’s Day (1948). Broughton is simply too individual for categorization, even when the evidence for labeling him this or that is overwhelming. But the lure of labels is too strong, so for the sake of shorthand, and with apologies to Broughton, let’s call him poet, avant-garde film artist, and Dionysian gay sage.

Broughton, born in Modesto, was 85 when he died in May 1999, and the SF Cinematheque celebrated his legacy in November 1999 with “Homage to James Broughton: Ecstasy for Everyone.” This irresistible sampler starts with his beginnings with Mother’s Day and then moves into what for many fans is his most fruitful period from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s.

Mother’s Day opens with a typically startling image, a send-up of the Pieta with a hapless man being cradled by a statue, one of a multiplicity of strange “mothers” in the film. Broughton’s playful attitude toward maturity and adulthood is evident immediately – this anti-tribute to Mother envisions Father as mostly a face in a frame, staring dourly; and the children as childlike adults, mindlessly playing hopscotch, shooting squirt guns, and fascinated by a spinning mandolin. The film uses titles in a mocking manner redolent of silent movies: “Mother was the loveliest woman in the world. And Mother wanted everything to be lovely.” Mother’s Day has jarring undertones in its bizarre images of ruined buildings and inscrutable characters, but Broughton would take its motif of the child-man (and child-woman) and expand it to rhapsodic effect in his later work.

Broughton was apparently mostly busy in the 1950s and ‘60s with his poetry, but returned to filmmaking in 1968 with the fanciful The Bed. The film’s central image is arresting and hilariously absurd – an empty bed is traveling leisurely down a hill as if it were a car. Eventually it settles in a meadow and becomes the locus of all manner of strange scenarios and woodland trysts. Characters – mostly naked – appear suddenly on its sheets. Broughton pops in as a kind of laughing Pan, sitting nude in a tree serenading a series of revelers. He ridicules conventional rituals when a woman arrives and officiously begins making up the bed. More typical, though, are the polymorphous pleasures of wriggling bodies apparently liberated by the bed. Broughton brings nature in harmony with humanity in odd and intriguing ways, as when a woman in close-up encounters a spider and reaches out to kiss it. In another scene, a live lizard appears to slither out of a man’s mouth.

Broughton’s poetic skills are often highlighted in the films; such is the case in one of his boldest efforts, Song of the Godbody (1977). Here a male body – no doubt the filmmaker’s own, as it is featured in so much of his work – is shown in close-up, a kind of landscape of flesh that the camera lovingly surveys. Broughton’s beatific words accompany this exploration: “This is my body, which speaks for itself… This is my body, which sings of itself.” The comparisons to Whitman are inevitable and Broughton is in a real sense Whitman’s heir, celebrating the male body and male bonding unabashedly, and going further than Whitman in ways made possible in part by Broughton’s appearance in the world decades later. What Whitman said, Broughton can say and show.

The Gardener of Eden (1981) is a brief document of his “honeymoon” with lover and frequent collaborator Joel Singer. The film was shot in Sri Lanka, and is typical in its treatment of the transporting beauty of nature and its positioning of the person as a fundamental part of it. Two years later he made the masterful Devotions, also with Singer. Set in San Francisco and featuring a gorgeous gamelan orchestra background, the film imagines an ecstatic world in which men are freed from tired, joyless convention. Broughton again appears as the sweet seer, playing a pipe, seducing his players into scintillating tableaux of union. His mostly naked men spend their time in loving embrace, washing each other, caressing, kissing. Broughton’s wit is never far away from his erotic celebrations: in one scene two men kiss on a rooftop, then slowly don nun’s habits and saunter away in the fading day. Later, a pair of leather queens whip up a soufflé. Without being the least bit polemical, this graceful film, like all his work, shows the sweet rewards that come from living authentically and, above all, joyfully.