Tribeca Film Festival 2013: Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

1196751612001_2255539658001_vs-51521627e4b064b78be6269a-1592194044001At the pre-festival screenings for the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, I happened to see two documentaries about two very different filmmakers in one night. First up was Michael H – Profession: Director, a profile of Michael Haneke's work and approach to filmmaking, and the second film was Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, a look at the life and work of filmmaker/poet James Broughton.

As I said in my review for Michael H – Profession: Director, I thought that I would prefer a film about sunny, carefree James Broughton to the dark corners of humanity explored in Michael Haneke's work, but that turned out not to be the case.

“James Broughton wants everyone to lighten up, get a little high, and have lots of sex. Going into Michael H. Profession: Director and Big Joy, I expected to connect more with Broughton and his philosophy of joy and ecstasy in life than Haneke's harsher reality. Much to my surprise, the method behind Haneke's madness was far more satisfying that Big Joy's shallow pleasures.

As a director, Haneke appears single-minded in his artistic vision and expects everyone on his films to work hard and serve that vision. In contrast, Broughton would stick a bed in the middle of a field, roll film, and encourage his cast to have loads of naked fun.

The results of both filmmakers were equal parts entertaining and uncomfortable for me. It was difficult for me to watch scenes from Haneke's Funny Games because the characters are in such immense pain physically and psychologically. Broughton's films were uncomfortable just because there was a lot of nudity. Fans of Broughton's work would probably laugh at my prudish tendencies and tell me that was the point of his work, to open the eyes of the unenlightened and free me from societal norms. “Follow your own weird,” as Broughton put it. Embrace a life of free love, and I will experience big joy.

Herein lies my problem. Haneke's work is often so difficult to watch because it involves people who love each other seeing the other suffering. The perfect example is Georges and Anne in Amour. Georges watches his wife deteriorate before his eyes, and in a scene featured in the documentary, he tries desperately to convince her to drink some water so she won't die. She spits it back at him, and he slaps her across the face. The anger and sadness in Amour all stems from true love between George and Anne, love conveyed in film. How can one experience suffering without first experiencing love and great joy? “

This was my biggest problem having seen Michael H – Profession: Director and then following it up with Big Joy. Broughton as an artist does an excellent job expressing sexual ecstasy on film, but from what I saw in Big Joy, his work doesn't reach deeper. It is sex and dancing and lots of big smiles, but there is nothing difficult or complex about it. In his personal life, Broughton spent years in the closet before deciding to get married because he thought it would sort things out. He later cheated on his wife with his 26-year-old student Joel Singer, and he left his wife for Singer who was his partner for the rest of his life. For someone with such a complicated romantic life, I hoped to see more of that reflected in his work featured in the documentary.

On a related note, it really bothered me that the documentary Big Joy seemed to be so quick to justify Broughton cheating on his wife. I cannot begin to imagine being married for years and denying my true sexuality the way that Broughton did. I empathize with his situation and don't pretend to know what he went through. That being said, it was jarring to see the interview with Broughton's ex-wife, who is clearly still scarred by the whole experience, and then cutting to other people praising Broughton for escaping from that suburban hell. Artists should not get a pass for hurtful behavior just because they are artists. What I understand from Big Joy is that Broughton, a man who claimed to spread joy and love, was still a deeply flawed man, an unfaithful husband, and an absent father. I wish that Big Joy would have struggled with this dichotomy instead of glossing over it. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, another film at Tribeca this year, addresses the difficulties of a married man coming out of the closet to his wife and family without downplaying the importance of their feelings or turning the wife into a villain holding him back from his true self.

As I said in my previous review of Michael H. Profession: Director, I think these kinds of documentaries either need to examine the entirety of an artist as a flawed human being, warts and all, or only focus on their work and their approach to their art. Oversimplifying real-life people and events to fit into a narrative does not serve the film's subjects nor the film itself. Big Joy wanted to me to leave the theater with a smile on my face, but I left feeling less than joyful.

Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at


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