Saturday, June 22, 2013

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (2013)

WHO: As you might guess from the film's title, San Francisco filmmaker and poet James Broughton is the subject of this documentary.

WHAT: I've yet to see Big Joy but it's getting rave reviews everywhere this week: Jackson ScarletMIchael Guillén, Dennis Harvey and even Peter Wong of the Chronicle all have made it one of their top picks of the Frameline Film Festival. And that's on top of the terrific reviews and interviews linked on the film's website. I don't feel I can add much to the conversation, certainly not before seeing it.

But having seen most of Broughton's films either in 16mm prints presented at local screening venues or on the Facets DVD, and hearing that Big Joy includes generous clips from his work, I'll talk a but about three of my favorites of his films, each from a different phase of his career.

Four In The Afternoon was made in 1951, just after the publication of his third book of poetry Musical Chairs. Each of its four parts places dancers in a different San Francisco location ("Game Little Gladys" is Telegraph Hill and "The Gardener's Son" is Sutro Heights) for a fine frolic reminiscent of the more balletic aspects of silent film comedy, accompanied by a soundtrack of lovely music and the voice of Broughton reciting one of his poems. Of particular note is the third section "Princess Printemps" in which dance legends Anna Halprin and 
Welland Lathrop enact a flirtation amidst the Palace of Fine Arts structures left behind by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

High Kukus was made in in 1973, five years after Broughton's return to filmmaking (with the groundbreaking The Bed) after a fifteen-year hiatus. It's a very brief (3 minute) iris shot of a shimmering blue pond in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden, casting reflections of the trees above and rippling with the rhythms of nature (we hear birds and frogs chirping) as Broughton recites what he called "cuckoo haikus" in homage to Zen poet Basho. Though the image brings to my mind the work of Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand and Nathaniel Dorsky, I've found that both experimental film diehards and people completely unschooled in the (here's a misnomer but handy one) "avant-garde tradition" get a great amount of joy from this one.

The Gardener of Eden is from 1981, during the "Joel Singer period" in which Broughton collaborated as a filmmaker with one of his San Francisco Art Institute students. Between 1976 and 1988 Broughton and Singer made eight films; this one was filmed when the couple were living on a Sri Lankan rubber plantation, and is so aesthetically dense and thematically multilayered as to deserve a full explication- perhaps book-length. But for now I'll just mention a few facts and formal generalizations: here Broughton's recited poetry is found only at the beginning and ending, bookending (after an opening thundercrack) a conch-shell musical performance credited to Antarjyami Muni. Between its pulsating tones and the rapid cutting and zooming of Singer's camera, upon palms and aloe vera leaves, upon dozens of young Sinhalese men and boys, but most especially on the piercing gaze of the elderly Bevis Bawa, the island nation's most famous horticulturist.

I don't know if these films will be excerpted in Big Joy or if more attention will be paid to famous films like The Potted Psalm, Mother's Day and The Bed. But I can't wait to find out!

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre at 4:00, as part of Frameline 37.

WHY: If Big Joy is as good as I'm hoping, it will be a great pump-primer for audiences to get excited about other experimental work at this year's Frameline festival. Though in an ideal world the festival would have included a full program of retrospective works by Broughton in the festival, or at least scheduled a screening of one of his shorts to play before this afternoon's Castro screening (though it may be that none are distributed on 35mm or DCP, the Castro's favored formats now that they no longer have a 16mm projector installed), I'm hoping this only means Frameline will co-present a retrospective to coincide with Broughton's centennial this November, perhaps with Canyon Cinema, which is co-presenting today's screening. 

If you click the "experimental" tag on the Frameline website you get 37 titles listed, most shorts. Of these, the most promising to me seem to be the works by experimental video artists Kadet Kuhne and Texas Tomboy screening under the banner Sexperimental this Wednesday, and the Rats In Glitter compilation of new experimental shorts by Vika Kirchenbauer, Jonesy, and other modern makers. Both of these screenings happen at the Roxie.

Other experimental film screenings I'm aware of this summer (usually a comparatively dry period with school out and both Other Cinema and SF Cinematheque on seasonal hiatus) include a June 29th Artists' Television Access screening of films by Paul Clipson, and performances by Vanessa O'Neill and Kent Long (a.k.a. Beige), and by the aforementioned Kuhne at the relatively newly-formed Shapeshifters Cinema in Oakland.

HOW: Digital screening.

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