Ah, the carefree, refulgent salad days of postwar avant-garde cinema, when stories were meaningless, clothes were optional, flowers were foreground, everything was symbolized by something else, and mythic imagery needed only to be amateurishly conjured to have some kind of totemic power. Back then, the indie "underground" was simply the coolest way to spend an endless afternoon with your lean, nude, very high cronies and a handheld 16mm camera in the manicured wilderness of California or Chelsea.
Given to an overabundance of hippie élan and primeval naiveté, James Broughton was a high priest of the movement, with a career stretching from the late '40s through the peak moment (for both filmmakers and their fleetingly receptive audiences) of the '60s and onward to the '80s. (He died in 1999, at the age of 86.) Ever since Maya Deren, avant-garde film in all of its infinite variations has been a counterculture vehicle, and Broughton's new-agey, pansexual movies defied norms even as they feigned complete innocence. Avant-garde Methuselah Jonas Mekas called Broughton's films "celebrations on the joys of living." They're celebrations, that's certain, but of naked flesh, lush landscapes, metaphoric quest tales, lens flares, sex play, Broughton's own hairy navel, and the very freedom to indulge in dress-up make believe while daring your willing camera subjects to suppress erections.
The Pleasure Garden (1953) is a BFI-produced (and therefore tidy) goof-off in which various human entertainments running amuck in a statue-filled park are censored by a black-suited bureaucrat; nutty and fanciful, the film is all buoyant feeling and nothing else. The Bed (1968) embraces all that can and does happen in a four-poster bed situated in an open field, most of it doped on life and all of it sensual. In many ways, Broughton's ardor for basic shapes and the human form salutes the early days of cinema, with its Lumière "realities" and Edison athletic studies.
"Poet" is a word too often bandied about by aficionados of the avant-garde (the vocabulary applied to these films and those by Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, et al., rarely seems to come within a light year of the work itself). But it captures Broughton's program—the impulsive, elliptical evocation of love and earthly wonder. Indeed, each of the 17 films in this three-disc set is a Whitmanesque song of himself—if in attitude only. (Broughton never cared much for pyrotechnics.) Dreamwood (1972), his Jungian magnum opus and only feature, is a wordless dream-odyssey of nude heroes, suggested transformations, and pantomime trials—eloquent in its simple double-exposure suggestion of pagan lore but almost comic in its school-kid grandiloquence.
But today you watch Broughton's films, and those of his contemporaries, not for enlightenment, but for nostalgia—they're the home movies of a tender era, when radicalism promised to purify every corner of society, and even movies could be ruled by whim, id, and desire, not manipulation or greed. The DVD box comes with an illustrated booklet of Broughton's poetry, philosophy, and nonsensical synopses.