Islander Stephen Silha (Courtesy Photo).

Islander Stephen Silha (Courtesy Photo).

‘Big Joy’ celebrates exuberant poet and filmmaker

Film screenings, discussions and a performance will celebrate the life and work of James Broughton.

What’s it like to have an angel who guides you through life as a poet?

To find your soulmate at age 62? To have friends like Allen Ginsberg, Imogen Cunningham, Pauline Kael and Alan Watts? What’s it like to feel both male and female?

These kinds of questions have consumed the imagination of islander Stephen Silha, who has long pondered the exuberant life story of his friend James Broughton, the pre-Beat poet and experimental filmmaker from San Francisco and Port Townsend.

Now, Silha is sharing his explorations with islanders in an expansive series of film screenings, discussions and a performance celebrating Broughton, called “Big Joy Weekend,” set to take place on Jan. 11 and 12, at Vashon Center for the Arts. It’s being presented in collaboration with the Vashon Heritage Museum’s current exhibit “IN AND OUT: Being LGBTQ on Vashon Island,” which was co-curated by Silha.

This weekend’s series is the latest Broughton-themed endeavor designed by Silha, who co-directed a 2012 documentary film “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” that has now traveled to more than 50 international film festivals including South By Southwest, Tribeca and Hong Kong. It won several awards, including the Reel Northwest Award, at Seattle International Film Festival and played in a shortened version on many PBS stations.

Silha told The Beachcomber shortly after the film’s release that he met the writer and filmmaker in 1989 — an encounter that he described as “like a door opening in my soul.”

Silha developed a passion to learn more about this older artist, whom he called the liveliest 75-year-old he had ever met. The two became fast friends, but it wasn’t until after Broughton’s death in 1999 that Silha discovered the degree to which Broughton stayed “true to his own weird” in his quest for creative artistry, sexual and spiritual love and an evolved state of happiness.

“His sensual poetry and films of the 1970s and ‘80s broke taboos and gave voice to a spiritualized sexuality that is continuing to emerge culturally today,” Silha told The Beachcomber. “He foreshadowed today’s multimedia culture.”

Inspired by Broughton’s films, books, and philosophy, Silha — who has had a long career as a print journalist — embarked on a biography project which eventually resulted in the “Big Joy” film and a robust web presence at bigjoy.org.

During one of 37 interviews conducted for the documentary, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti confessed he felt like an interloper in the early 1950s, building his career on Broughton’s. Other big names of that era and beyond — Anna Halprin, Gus Van Sant, even George Lucas — admitted their artistic debt to Broughton, as did a cadre of his students from the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State.

Broughton, who is considered by some to be the father of West Coast experimental film and is described by Silha as a “gay, hippie version of Zelig,” made 23 experimental films and wrote 23 books of poetry.

His life included escaping to Europe during the McCarthy years, winning a special film prize at Cannes, consorting with the Beats, making films celebrating the human body and becoming a bard of gay liberation. His many honors include a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and an American Film Institute Award for Independent Film and Video Artists.

But according to Broughton’s autobiography, “Coming Unbuttoned,” it all started early in the 20th century when, as a tiny child, he was visited by an angel who insisted that he would “always be a poet, even if he tried not to be.”

Broughton wrote that the angel told him, “Despite what I might hear to the contrary the world was not a miserable prison — it was a playground for a nonstop tournament between stupidity and imagination. If I followed the game sharply enough, I could be a useful spokesman for Big Joy.”

VCA’s “Big Joy Weekend” will kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, with a screening of Silha’s award-winning documentary, “Big Joy,” followed by a question-and-answer session with Silha.

According to Silha, this is only the third time the film has played on Vashon, and he hopes those who have seen it before will come back for a second viewing.

“It’s a very dense film, and there is depth to it, so it bears seeing again,” he said. “I’ve watched this film hundreds of times, and I still learn from it.”

A performance celebrating Broughton, “Ecstasy for Everyone,” will be performed by Jason Jenn at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, at VCA. Jenn’s work often mixes humor with tragedy and is frequently infused with sociopolitical and/or queer-empowered themes.

The performance, said Silha, will help audiences connect with Broughton’s many sublime personal mottos, which included “Adventure, Not Predicament,” “Follow Your Own Weird,” and “I believe in ecstasy for everyone!” 

It will include dramatic readings, supported by movement, song, film clips, costumes, props and other visual elements inspired by Broughton’s films.

Screenings of four of Broughton’s experimental films, grouped under the banner of “In Bed with James Broughton,” will close the series at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12, followed by a discussion with his friends, including filmmakers Janice Findley and Corwin Fergus.

“The Bed,” a 20-minute film made in 1968, and Broughton’s most famous film, will be included in the program. Made during the summer of love at Druid Heights, Alan Watts’ Marin County compound, it explores all the things that can happen on a bed. The cast includes Watts, Imogene Cunningham, Gavin Arthur, Anna Halprin and many naked hippies.

Another film in the program, “Devotions,” is a 22-minute film made in 1983. This film was a collaboration with his husband Joel Singer, exploring many different ways men can love each other.

According to Silha, Broughton’s work still delivers insights that seem more timely than ever in our present age of gender and marriage equality as well as rapidly advancing social media.

“If he were alive today, he would have been the first on Instagram, using it to do all these interesting things,” Silha said. “He would have taken to new media like a fish to water. One of his aphorisms was ‘Simplify, Clarify, Vivify.’ He made that last word up.”

Tickets for each of the events in the “Big Joy Weekend” range in price from $10 to $15. Content of all the screenings and performances will include nudity and adult themes. Find out more and purchase tickets at vashoncenterforthearts.org.

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