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A stone-skipping account of the life trajectory of poet Hart Crane as opposed to a well developed biographical drama, James Franco’s “The Broken Tower” is something of a companion piece to “Howl,” in which Franco starred last year, in its unconventional treatment of a gay renegade twentieth century American writer. The definition of what most people would consider arty, this rarified slice of indie esoterica was shot in rather striking black-and-white, features huge slabs of very difficult verse being read aloud as well as long scenes of the subject just walking around and includes one entirely gratuitous shot of what may or may not actually be the first former host of an Oscar telecast performing an explicit sexual act on another man, the uncertainty stemming from the deliberate darkness in which it was filmed. Franco’s name will get this around to various festivals and perhaps into very limited specialized release where the gay angle will help, but genuine enthusiasm will be scarce.
The imposing impenetrability of his notably ahead-of-its-time poetry notwithstanding, Hart Crane led a life so impassioned, questing and intense that it’s surprising the story has been ignored this long. Had Ken Russell ever chosen to make a film about an American poet, he could have created a really demented gay fantasia about him, to borrow Tony Kushner’s subtitle for “Angels in America.”
Born in Cleveland to a wealthy candy manufacturer who invented the Life Saver (no small irony given the mode of his son’s death), Crane, who was born in 1899, embraced the life-affirming
Walt Whitman, rejected the negativity of T.S.Eliot, picked up sailors around Brooklyn where he lived , was as close to “out” as one could be in the 1920s and felt he was no good at anything but writing. He was something of an American Rimbaud, in that he burned bright and flamed out early.
Inspired by the writer’s series of “Voyages” poems, writer-director and poetry grad student Franco, working from a biography by Paul Mariani, has divided the life into twelve “voyages” or titled chapters. We see the teenage Crane (Dave Franco, the director’s younger brother) overhearing his parents’ calamitous arguments, then attempting suicide; the slightly older Crane’s assignation with a lover in a truck’s cab at night; his impassioned anti-Eliot screed that “We all know life is a dance with death but we can still do something with it;” a lengthy poetry reading at a sedate ladies’ club; various attempts to write; a love affair with a seaman (Michael Shannon, with barely a line to say but Crane’s bare bum offered up); what must be the most depressing trip of a notable writer to Paris apart from that of Oscar Wilde; extensive shots of the poet at his venerated Brooklyn Bridge and, at last, his suicide by jumping ship in the Gulf of Mexico after embarking upon his apparent first heterosexual liaison.
The real issue here, however, is the film’s style, which is straight ’60s hand-held, on-the-streets New Wave stuff with a dollop of Dardenne Brothers behind-the-head following shots stirred in for good measure. Franco has acknowledged the specific influence of Godard’s 1962 “Vivre sa vie,” which is plausible enough.
But despite the highly mobile and often arresting work of cinematographer Christina Voros, who has previously worked with Franco on a short and his “Saturday Night” documentary as well as having directed a making-of on “127 Hours,” “The Broken Tower” is not a heady experience like many of the semi-experimental 1960s films he emulates. Instead, it’s mostly a tedious chore, much akin to listening poetry you don’t much like. Without a text or expert to guide you, Crane’s poetry is tough to gasp—he admitted it himself—which, minus any involving drama having been developed, is true for this film as well.
VENUE: Los Angeles Film Festival
PRODUCTION: Rabbit Bandini
CAST: James Franco, Michael Shannon, Dave Franco, Stacey Miller
DIRECTOR: James Franco
SCREENWRITER: James Franco, based on the book “The Broken Tower” by Paul Mariani
PRODUCERS: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Caroline Aragon
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Christina Voros
PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Kristen Adams
COSTUME DESIGNER: Malgosia Turzanska
EDITOR: James Franco
MUSIC: Neil Benezra
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