The Films of James Broughton

Everything is Song. Everything is Silence. Since it all turns out to be illusion, perfectly being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, you are free to die laughing.

James Broughton is one of the unsung masters of early avant-garde cinema, along with being one of its most revolutionary, influential, and important. Although Maya Deren preceded him by a few years and the two had extremely different outlooks on experimental films, the two also had a lot in common, namely that they were panaesthetes who had a love an appreciation for all the arts. Deren was arguably as much into choreography, dance, and photography as she was into film and, likewise, James Broughton was just as much a poet. Deren dabbled in poetry herself, and it’s hard not to see a certain link between experimental cinema and poetry as its literary equivalent—or cousin, or, at least, neighbor. Brackhage even said that his love for cinema and vision came from his inability to express himself through poetry.

In that sense, perhaps it’s not surprising that Broughton is somewhat forgot, or at least neglected and ignored. As Broughton himself said, “The American public does not know poets exist. That Americans have no knowledge of nor appetite for poetry is symptomatic of the impoverished prosiness of their lives.” Part of the problem is likely the (not entirely unjustified) image that accompanies poetry, and avant-garde cinema and art, as being so pretentiously serious. For those who hold such a notion, Broughton might be an interesting cure, primarily because his cinema seems to be one of the sprightly wit and good humor. The four films on this disc certainly have plenty of poetry, but it isn’t poetry of the overly serious brooding kind, rather, it’s poetry of a fun and joyous variety.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is one of Broughton’s earliest works, and it immediately establishes an a rather complex, ambiguous tone that slips between absurdity, satire, and a certain authenticity with ease. The film essentially traces the titular mother from her time as an adult, awaiting and courting suitors, to her married life, to her life as an actual mother. Broughton presents the actual children as adults in terms of age, but children in terms of attitude. One would think that the title would be a loving tribute, but Broughton seems to be mocking the notion of delusional “lovely” mothers who want their children to be all-lovely too.

The film is awash in bizarre, surreal images, jarring frames, and jagged editing patterns. If one were to watch this with no knowledge that Broughton was behind it, they might be tempted to attribute it to a recently found Bunuel silent film. Broughton himself even uses the silent film aesthetics of expressive, grim faces and intertitles to add to the absurd and satirical tone. If I could find any negative to say of it, it’s merely that it feels a bit too long. Broughton occasionally lingers on scenes and images too long, and returns to others to the point they feel repetitious. Of course, he probably took the concept of repetitions from poetic refrains (and Broughton does show a tendency of using such refrains in his spoken-word poetry), but too often they seem arbitrary rather than pointed.

Loony Tom

Loony Tom takes the humorous elements of Mother’s Day and extends them into a pure brand of silent film physical comedy ala Chaplin, with Kermit Sheets in the title role. Tom could easily be described as an amorous cartoon caricature who roams around his local town, flirting and playing with the women who eventually take to running away from him. You wouldn’t exactly call the film substantial, yet it is quite enjoyable, especially for those who appreciate the silent film, physical comedy aesthetic. Sheets, like the great silent comedians, does have an almost effortless physical grace to his movements, and given Broughton’s work with dancers in his later films, and his equating poetry with dance, it’s not hard to see his attraction to such a performer.

Four in the Afternoon

Four in the Afternoon contains four short vignettes based around Broughton’s own poetry. Game Little Gladys features a young girl jumping rope, singing a ditty about what man she’ll marry. In Gardeneer’s Son, a young man awakens and begins doing his chores, while daydreaming about love that seems to constantly be around the corner. Princess Printemps features one of Broughton’s ballet dancers, here embodied as a kind of fairy of spring who soon finds herself pursued by a male suitor, while Broughton’s spoken poetry plays around with riddling identities. The Aging Belletomane features an older man sitting on his porch as he reminisces about the past and his youth, as he envisions a woman who appears before him that he reaches out to grab that never can quite get there.

This short piece may constitute Broughton’s best work on the disc, as its four pieces are perfectly sculpted in isolation, but form more than the sum of their parts when considered together. The poems move from youth to old age, but while such a conceit maybe considered banal in isolation, Broughton accompanies them with a cinematic language that supports each section, while progressing and developing with each subsequent section. Apart from the movement from young to old, there’s also a pacing movement from fast to slow; Gladys skips, while the gardener walks, the Princess dances, but the old man sits. There’s also a movement in tone, from the light and carefree young girl, to the more angsty young man, to the confused but satisfied Princess, to the wistful old man. So the sections alternate between lighter and darker moods. They also alternate between the sexes, from female to male to female to male.

Perhaps most importantly, all four sections contain fantasies of different sorts. Gladys lives in a fantasy of fun, imagining what man she’ll marry as they materialize in front of her, but disappear just as readily. The Gardener is more sober, and his amorous dreams are of a less fantastical variety, as he now dreams of women that are attainable on a physical level, which comes to fruition when he sees several dancing in a field. This prefigures the Princess, who has now become so adept at life she can effortlessly dance through it and play the coy coquette. But the pretended loss of identity more darkly foreshadows the old man, who, like Gladys, now lives in a world of fantasy, but a fantasy of memories, of things that’s past. Like Gladys, his fantasies materialize before his eyes, but prove impossible to obtain.

Overall, Four in the Afternoon is amongst the most perfect short films I’ve seen, truly taking the creative principles of poetry and applying them to images. Broughton’s spoken poetry occasionally accompanies the images, but typically only in an abstract manner, more so than in a narrative one. But it is important to approach the four films as a unit rather than individually as they present the same focus on life from different perspectives, alternating age, sex, and tone which in turn alters the modes of expression, movement, and cinematic language.

The Pleasure Garden

Of the four films on this disc, The Pleasure Garden is certainly the most ambitious. It’s certainly the longest, coming in at only about 20 minutes short of what one might consider a short feature film. Here, Broughton establishes the majestic, mystical ruins of The Crystal Palace Terraces as the titular garden where a war begins to rage between the pleasure seekers who go there and a puritanical minister of behavior who descends on the individuals intent on stamping out all indecent forms of activity. Apart from being the longest film on the disc, the film also feels like the most personally important for Broughton on the disc, at least in the respect that it finds the director most directly tackling the theme of social oppression and government.

But I don’t want to make it sound as if the film is in any way more “serious” than the other Broughton films on the disc, as it certainly isn’t. If anything, this is Broughton at his most playful, weaving an almost cartoonish depiction of the battle between good (liberality) and evil (oppression/repression). Given the lengthy runtime it was a smart move that Broughton decided to establish so many characters and anchor them to the central location, and there certainly are several mini-plots that are introduced so Broughton can tie them up (perhaps rather obviously) in the end. One of the obvious examples is a woman who wants to beome a work of art, like a statue, and so must pose in a (scandalous!) nearly undressed state, at the same time an artist is frustrated because he can’t find any medium that is “real” enough to create the perfect work of art.

If it’s fairly obvious that these two constitute the perfect pair, other matches are less obvious. One young woman enters the grounds with her stern mother (or perhaps aunt) that is determined to keep a tight rein on her as she snoops around the garden, obviously lusting after the men there. She ends up being paired with a cowboy stranger (who’s come all the way from Cal-i-forn-I-A) who immediately begins causing chaos upon his arrival. It’s not long before the “behavior” minister steps in. Although he’s countered with fat fairy godmother who swoops in and uses her magic scarf to make matches amongst the people and free them from their particular imprisonments. If all of this sounds a bit silly, it very much is, and yet there’s certainly no law that says that serious thematic concerns can’t rise out of absurd silliness and good humor.

Of all the films on the disc, The Pleasure Garden seems to find Broughton playing the delectable Pan spirit that he seems to easily identify with, mixing chaos, fun, music, poetry, and nature to surprising results or, like Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, orchestrating and sewing chaos behind the eyes of those involved. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Pleasure Garden is the sheer joyous mirth that lurks on the surface of what must have surely been an important theme for a self-described “pansexual androgyne” and poet like Broughton. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that while Broughton seems to be promoting this kind of pleasure-centric, aesthetic behavior, he’s also parodying the levels of frivolous idleness it can reach. Ultimately, it all seems to come together as a paradoxical blend of parody and preaching, all wrapped up in a big ball of cinematic fun and good cheer.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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