James Broughton, and a DVD Eden

Robert Avila December 20, 2006

Take a bit of vaudeville, a bit more surrealism, a lot of silent screen comedy, a fair dose of Christian liturgy, equal helpings of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Alan Watts, a sprinkling of fairy dust, a showering of Greek myth, and wrap it all in a big, gleeful Mother Goose bow. Get the picture? Probably not. As the product of a true cinematic innovator and gloriously individual poet, James Broughton’s film work remains much too idiosyncratic to be deconstructed, Frankenstein-like, as a sum of borrowed parts. Better perhaps to let the summing up go to Broughton himself, for whom “cinema is poetry and love and religion and my duty to the Lords of Creation.” So much is evident in “The Films of James Broughton,” released on DVD this year by Facets Multimedia.

Broughton, who died in 1999 at 85, was a representative figure of San Francisco’s arts and experimental film scene from the Renaissance of the postwar years through the Beat era and on into the 1980s. Yet the serenely individual tastes and concerns of this California native also helped to cast him as ever outside the fashions and categories of his day.

The film career of the lifelong poet began almost by accident in his mid-30s with “Mother’s Day” (1948), the film leading off the collection and the first under his own name alone, following a seminal collaboration with SF filmmaker Sidney Peterson on a surrealist escapade called “The Potted Psalm” (a piece of deliberate nonsense hooted down at its premiere screening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1946). The ironically titled “Mother’s Day” harkens back, lightly and not overly literally, to his childhood memories of a domineering, all-powerful, beautiful and terrible mother. It looks like a family photo album set in motion, kept alive and running like the children inside us all — hence its gamesome, ultimately rebellious children are all played by adults. In some way these grown-up children keep on running, with some foreboding and all the exuberant play of childhood, through the next four decades of Broughton’s filmmaking.

Facets’ (almost) complete 3-disc set of short films (the longest by far is 45 minutes, most are in the 10 to 20-minute range, a few are under 10 minutes) divides neatly into three periods. The first includes three other black-and-whites in addition to “Mother’s Day,” works spanning the late 1940s to early 1950s and all made in collaboration with Broughton’s companion Kermit Sheets, a multiple talent and longtime Bay Area theater artist who died in April of this year at 90.

Period one includes “Four in the Afternoon” (1951), a whimsical, beautifully fluid film suite built on four poems in Broughton’s published collection “Musical Chairs” (1950). It’s one of the most successful fusions in these early years of poetry, image, and music (Broughton always managed to find excellent musical collaborators, in this case one of Darius Milhaud’s students at Mills, William O. Smith). In addition to his work on the production side, Sheets figures prominently before the camera in the two remaining films, winningly playing a Chaplinesque tramp-lover cavorting across Golden Gate Park in the title role of the 11-minute lark “Looney Tom” (1951), and appearing in a ten-gallon hat as a glad-hearted singing cowboy roaming the condemned gardens of London’s Crystal Palace in the British-made “The Pleasure Garden” (1953). This last film, made during a sojourn in England and pitting free love and gladness against the forces of prudery and restriction, seems an appropriate culmination of this early period, even receiving its own prize at Cannes in a makeshift category (“fantaisie poetique”) invented by jury chairman Jean Cocteau himself.

Produced haltingly under significant financial duress, despite the efforts of enthusiastic British supporters (among them the director Lindsay Anderson, who takes a central part in the film), “The Pleasure Garden” would be the last film Broughton would make until the late-1960s, when he returned (in color) with one of his best-known works, “The Bed” (1968). By then Broughton had moved into a distinct period in his life and work, colored by the emergent counter culture whose “new approval of sensualities,” he noted, “had caught up with my long-cherished desire to celebrate the flexible beauties of the body unclothed.” “The Bed” became its filmic expression, while its reveling bodies –

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