The Broken Tower, written and directed by James Franco, starring James Franco, with Michael Shannon. The most obvious comment is that Hart Crane deserves better.
A complex poet who tried to combine the ecstatic reach of Whitman with a Shakespearean richness of syntax and verbal excess, while haunted by the modernist search for prevailing myths found in Eliot’s The Waste Land, Crane, born in 1899, also "wrestled the angel” that wouldn’t get full exploration until the era of the Beats: whether or not to express openly a gay sensibility.
In addition to all that, Crane was the scion of a man made rich by crass commercialism—his father invented that symbol of polite social hygiene, the Life Saver mint—with ambitions to be a writer of a more Baudelairean era. He was doomed to be “the last romantic,” a figure living out a version of the tortured artist tale that was a familiar cautionary fable before poets—beginning with the generation after Crane—regularly became tenured professors. Crane’s, then, is a very American story, poised flamboyantly between the wars, looking backward to the Paris spleen of the symbolists, participating in the Paris fads of the expatriates, and looking forward to the Paris squats of the Beats. It’s a story that partakes of an age-old incentive to suffer for art while proclaiming a noble indifference to the demands of the work-a-day world.
Does this story have anything to teach us today? Perhaps it might be the lesson that one man’s rich dilettante is another man’s outcast genius. James Franco, director and star and author and editor and co-producer of The Broken Tower, and currently a grad student in English at Yale, might be said to be resurrecting the ghost of Crane for the sake of his own romantic ambitions: as a celebrity actor, thanks in part to the meaningless but lucrative distinction of playing Harry Osborne, Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s friend/nemesis in a trio of crassly commercial comic-book rip-offs, Franco craves artistic respectability and achievement. He’s an author, an installation artist, a performance artist, a filmmaker, an exploiter/sufferer of his own celebrity—the latest post-ironic subject position in line with what used to be known as being “a poor little rich kid”—and a living, breathing, endlessly replicated image of the artist as PR stunt, or as pop image, surface sans depth, or as a self-perpetuating commodity fetish, perhaps. And, sometimes, he’s just an actor, man.
If this sounds like I’m reviewing Franco more than his film, I can’t help it. Never for a moment watching this film did I believe in Franco as Crane. Franco’s idea of convincing us of his subject’s reality is to have the folks from wardrobe put him in period costume and then let Christina Voros film him, with a sort of YouTube version of cinema verité, walking around parts of New York or Paris or the Cayman Islands or Mexico that don’t feature any anachronistic details. Unfortunately, such visuals don’t immediately transport us to the Jazz Age perambulations of Crane. Nor does watching Crane/Franco—Cranco—chop wood outside a rustic cabin while we hear him earnestly reading from a letter in which the poet voices his grand ambitions give us any real access to the ritual of withdrawal that Crane felt was necessary for his art.
And, typical of most biopics of the artist type, whenever Crane is around people he acts like a fool. He’s insufferable as, I suppose, only the truly gifted can be, but, his little moustache notwithstanding, it’s hard to separate the character Franco portrays this time around from the character he portrayed when he essayed the role of Allen Ginsberg for the film Howl, particularly when Crane sits hashing out his views over wine with a friend, sounding as if he’s waiting for a Charlie Parker sax sound-byte to catch up with him any minute. Impersonating literary mavericks seems to be Franco’s thing (he also plays Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner in short films he made for an installation), but, as an actor, he hasn’t begun to excavate what made these men who they were, rather than simply free-floating signifiers of literary greatness one finds on a college syllabus.
Franco, who began the film as a thesis at the Tisch School of the Arts, cops a bit of cinematic style from Andy Warhol in the early going, enough, particularly with Franco’s even prettier younger brother Dave playing the teen-aged Crane, to make us think fond thoughts of Joey Dallesandro, and if that’s not enough to make us feel we’ve entered a “gay sensibility,” there are quasi-explicit moments of sex with men to register Crane’s lonely candle. And there’s even—naively—Robert Lowell’s poem “Words for Hart Crane” printed on the screen (unattributed) to let us know that everything this film is trying to say, about the poet maudit “wolfing the stray lambs of the Place de la Concorde,” was masterfully said in sonnet form in the late Fifties.
And that brings me to what dismays me most about The Broken Tower: the sense that Franco, dissatisfied, understandably, with the roles Hollywood sends his way, is trying to find his own path by standing on the shoulders of giants. The background most significant to this foray into what is ultimately a vanity project about Hart Crane is Franco’s early role as James Dean. The greatness of Dean as an actor is unplayable by another actor; one can only look foolish trying to “be” James Dean on screen. And yet Franco took on the task. It helps that he resembles Dean at times, and that’s enough to make us think sometimes of Dean while watching The Broken Tower, and that produces an odd Franco-inspired palimpsest that is surely the point of this film—Hart Crane was a rebel without a cause, got it? Dean was doomed to be Dean; Crane, Crane. Franco seems doomed to be a well-intentioned interpreter of an ineffable greatness that eludes him.
The effort is not without its pathos, but it’s the pathos of Franco, rather than of Crane. The closest we get to the latter is when Crane reads “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen” to a stuffy literary salon. Franco reads the poem dutifully, respectful of its sonorities but never relishing them, and we get a shot of what John Berryman called “spelled, all-disappointed ladies,” eyes alight, listening. For a moment we get an idea, with the poet’s words ringing in our ears, of what an unheralded creature young Crane was, overwrought at times but always graceful, at his best “original . . . and pure.” We glimpse his greatness and we see that, like Baudelaire’s albatross, his wingspan will make him an awkward figure in life.
The rest is a montage of clichés in search of a script.
The film opened this weekend at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, W. 3rd Street, New York; James Franco will be on hand for Q&A following the 7:35 p.m. screening (sold out) and will give an extended introduction to the 10 p.m. screening, on Sat., April 28th; he will also be in person on Sunday, April 29th, for Q&A following the 5:10 p.m. screening and will provide an introduction before the 7:35 p.m. screening.