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Just attended the premier of The Broken Tower at the LA Film Festival
and, once again, James Franco makes brave choices and produces a
beautiful film. The camera work, editing, score, and the actors'
performances, sustain a sometimes difficult story with elegance,
honesty, and passion.
Set against the backdrop of 1920's New York, Paris, Cuba, and Mexico, The Broken Tower succeeds in merging two disparate art forms, film and poetry, to propel the narrative. There's also a lot of silence in this film where we are allowed to see Crane's world as through his eyes. Elegaic sequences are punctuated with cuts to black and the spare and subtle soundtrack perfectly matches the storytelling.
I admit to knowing nothing about Hart Crane before tonight's screening but I left wanting to read his poems and letters myself.
Thank you, Mr. Franco,
THE BROKEN TOWER will likely never be on the list of best films made,
so why award it five stars? Because this very fine art piece is the
result of the devotion of James Franco to his craft. He worked directly
with Boston College professor Paul Mariani, the author of a half dozen
volumes of poetry, as well as several biographies of 20th-century
American poets, including William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, and
Robert Lowell: Franco based THE BROKEN TOWER on Mariani's similarly
titled 2000 biography of Crane.
The subject of the film is the life and creative genius of Hart Crane, (July 21, 1899 - April 27, 1932) an American poet who found both inspiration and provocation in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Crane wrote modernist poetry that is difficult, highly stylized, and very ambitious in its scope. In his most ambitious work, The Bridge, Crane sought to write an epic poem in the vein of The Waste Land that expressed something more sincere and optimistic than the ironic despair that Crane found in Eliot's poetry. In the years following his suicide at the age of 32, Crane has come to be seen as one of the most influential poets of his generation.
James Franco wrote the screenplay based on book by Paul Mariani, directed and edited the film and acted the main role of Hart Crane. Crane was a nearly disconsolate man who refused to follow his wealthy father's business, longing instead to be a poet. Born in Ohio he traveled to New York (the place he always considered home), to Cuba, and to Paris searching for his poetic voice. He was a gay man in an era when his lifestyle was always under threat, he had a lover (Vince Jolivette) early on in an affair that was filled with passion, and in his travels he seemed to find his true love in Emile (Michael Shannon) that endured the manic highs and depressive, death-haunted lows that befell this self -destructive visionary poet. He attempted suicide at least once and finally ended his life in a successful suicide at the young age of 32.
Franco breathes life into Hart Crane, offering more understanding of this enigmatic genius than we have ever been afforded. In making the film Franco uses his younger brother Dave Franco to depict the young Hart and selects his small cast wisely. The film is completely in black and white and is in the format of 'Voyages' - each voyage takes us through a distinct part of Hart's life: his gay loves, his poetry readings, his forays to Cuba and to Paris and his lonely hours of sitting before an old typewriter where he created the major epics of poetry that remain some of the finest ever written by an American poet.
The film is choppy, not unlike the manner in which Hart's mind worked in bits and pieces, always immersed in thoughts of the sea, the labor of common man, of the Brooklyn Bridge which would play the major role in his most famous epic poem THE BRIDGE, and of the fellow artists whose work he so admired. There is a strange musical score (the work of Neil Benezra) which is long on choral chanting, and a quality of gritty cinematography achieved by Christiana Vorn. The technique of the making of this film matches the vision of James Franco in continuing to visit the lives of isolated geniuses. The dialogue, what little there is, is Crane's poetry as spoken by Franco.
For many this film will seem self-indulgent on Franco's part. And perhaps it partially is. But the flavor of this gay American poet of the 1920s and the reflections of America at that time ring true. THE BROKEN TOWER is not a biopic of Hart Crane. It is an elegy.
I must confess that I bought The Broken Tower for the wrong reason,
because I read that James Franco did something in it that gay men do
all the time but non-porn actors NEVER do on film, even openly gay
actors in flagrantly gay movies. That bit was kind of a bust, but I
ended up liking the movie anyway, for less sleazy reasons.
I know next to nothing about Hart Crane, and I don't know a lot more after having watched this movie. It's not a biography by any means. My best guess would be that it's James Franco's impression of what Crane was like, and that's what makes it interesting.
It's oddly directed, with very many long, hand-held, extreme closeups, filmed from about chest-level, of Franco (as Crane) walking the streets of various cities, usually looking up from just under his chin, but sometimes looking at the back of his head. That motif repeats often.
At least 70% of the spoken lines in the movie are Franco (always as Crane) reading Crane's poetry: one long scene reciting to an audience in a formal setting, and much poetry read as a sort of narration as various events unfold on screen. This movie definitely is not for people who hate poetry - Crane's poetry in particular.
It's definitely not for people who need action, romance, likable characters, or a clear story line in movies. It's for people who can sit through a 108-minute experimental movie without any particular expectation as to what it's going to be like.
It's for people who appreciate enthusiasm and passion in artists (I'm talking mainly about Franco, but it applies to Crane too, I suppose) even if the result is not particularly coherent. It's obvious that this was a labor of love for Franco, and that more than anything else is what makes it interesting.
The Broken Tower is the type of movie one generally sees at minor film
festivals and thence disappears into the darkness, never to be seen
again. Having said that, one should never dismiss such honorable
efforts simply because there is no vast audience for a film that has no
special effects, extra terrestrials, car chases or gunplay (which would
exclude most European movies.) Oh and yes, it's in black and white and
concerns Hart Crane, a gay poet in the 1920's who killed himself at
James Franco wrote and directed this movie, which comes across as an experimental film from a student still with much to learn. (Not knocking it, merely an observation, which is open to argument.) What the movie lacks most of all is an introduction to the many people whom Crane came into contact with during his life (from literary and social critic Waldo Frank - HUGE in his observations on American Society, to writer Malcolm Cowley and his painter-wife Peggy (Crane's only heterosexual love affair), painter Georgia O'Keefe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, introducing Crane to Literary New York in the shape of Eugene O'Neill.) And other major influences in his life, Caresse and Harry Crosby (publishers of the Black Sun Press in Paris, who first brought recognition to William Burroughs, James Joyce etc, whose works were considered too obscene to be published in America.) WHERE is the scene where Harry Crosby (nephew of J.P. Morgan) considered the model for the Great Gatsby and the acknowledged epitome of drug-fueled extravagance and irresponsible behaviour in the 1920's, murders his mistress and kills himself while Hart is obliviously having dinner with Caresse? And what about Emil Opffer, Crane's one great love, for whom he wrote the suite of poems VOYAGES, which drop into the movie with flat readings, completely unbolstered by imaginative visuals? Nothing about Opffer's background, his family's flight from assassination in Denmark or Opffer's own experiences during World War 1. And what about Crane's mother's mental instability, her rejection of him for his homosexuality and threats to expose his sexual preferences to his father? And the meeting between Crane and Federico Garcia Lorca in 1929? Two doomed poets, both homosexual, totally unalike but both critical of American Society in the 1920's, although Crane's love for his country was absolute and eternal.
The Broken Tower does illustrate the difficulties of Crane's poetry, which in his own words is described as "A jazz roof garden method, evolved from a pseudo-symphonic construction, of an abstract beauty that has not been done before in the English language. A kind of metaphysical quotidian combination". (Wow!) At the time Crane's poetry was more appreciated outside of the United States than within. (The London Times: "Mr Crane reveals a profound originality in lines of arresting and luminous quality", whereas in the New York Saturday Review, "Mr. Crane rapes language under the impression he is paying it the highest compliment".) Poet Marianne Moore, who printed some of Crane's earliest poems, found them so impenetrable that she rewrote them without Crane's permission, an act of betrayal that devastated him.
What Crane was aiming for with his poetry was an Elizabethan accent on the American scene, drawn from the example of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but rejecting Eliot's whole-hearted pessimism. Crane believed in America as the bridge to the future through mechanisation and he tried to infuse this in his poetry. What he ended up with was a mass of images that were so dense in their construction that the uninitiated reader would find them impossible to navigate. Crane believed in starting the journey for the reader, but forcing them to complete it on their own, which inevitably led to a great deal of frustration.
The Broken Tower is divided into various "Voyages", supposedly designed to illustrate the major events in Crane's life, drawing ever closer to his suicide. These are introduced by cue cards. For example "Hart Crane goes to Cuba" -- and we see him taking a long, long walk down a street somewhere. Or "Hart Crane goes to Mexico" -- and we see him singing in a bar with a Mexican guitarist. The pivotal moments in his life simply fail to materialize. While his alcoholism and poverty are well documented, and figure in the movie, so many other incidents are missing. The fact that he left America when the Great Depression hit, the fact that he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled him to live in Mexico during this period, but was threatened with withdrawal due to his erratic behaviour and public intoxication, is nowhere to be seen.
Another screenplay, entitled HART CRANE, written in 2008, can be found on www.simplyscripts.com and covers all the main incidents in Crane's life. Unfortunately, while it might be of interest to anyone seeking a fuller and more coherent version of Crane's life, it is unlikely ever to see the light of day due to the release of The Broken Tower.
Summing up, James Franco deserves kudos for having tackled such a difficult and uncommercial subject. Certainly an original interpretation of a problematical character, the chasms that exist between each "Voyage" and the lack of depth in the main character (due to the absence of any interaction with the main movers and shakers in his life) make it highly unlikely that this movie will have any lasting effect or figure in any revival. However, if this movie interests anyone enough to seek out Crane's poetry, then that is everything one can wish for -- and grateful thanks to James Franco for that.
Even though this movie certainly is not entirely my cup of tea, I'm
still able to see and recognize it as a good and original movie, that
doesn't always makes things easy for itself.
You could definitely say that this movie is being a bit too artistic for my taste. It's shot entirely in black & white and doesn't necessarily follow a main plot line. It just follows its main character, without making it apparent what direction the movie will be heading at. It also makes it often hard to see what the point of certain sequences in this movie are. It makes the movie at times feel like a bit of a pointless and overlong one.
The movie definitely starts to become a bit of an endurance test after a while. I was perfectly able to take and follow the movie for its first 90 minutes or so but after that point it starts to become much harder to stay interested, also since the movie too often isn't providing you with anything interesting or provoking enough.
It's definitely not an usual biopic, that goes deep into things. You still feel that you really get to know its main subject though, through its slow and subtle storytelling. He doesn't even say all that much but he lets his poetry and actions speak for him. In that regard I really have to compliment the movie and this also was the foremost reason why I still really liked it. You might not fully get to know the real Hart Crane through this movie but it might still get you interested in him and his work.
James Franco is excellent as the movie its main character, even though he looks absolutely nothing like the real Hart Crane. It was not an easy role to play but Franco is luckily not afraid to make things hard on himself at times, which results in an interesting character and performance, that is solid enough to carry the entire movie. Since it really foremost is Franco who has most of the movie its screen time and the movie isn't focusing ever on any other characters.
But that's not all Franco did. He also directed, wrote, produced and edited it. In other words, this was a real passion project for James Franco and this luckily does show in the movie. It's a skillfully made movie, with eye for detail, that handles its main subject subtly and with real respect.
I liked it good enough and respect it but I of course do realize that this movie is not for just everyone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
***Alert: some spoilers contained herein - but if one knows the life of
Crane then these are not so revealing).*** Such is a healthy attitude
for a despondent artist. It is one of the few bright spot seen
shimmering from Crane in this biopic. James Franco takes Hart Crane's
words - poetry and letters - and uses them as a backdrop for the
evolution of a writer of promise cut down by his own wretched soul. At
least that is how Crane comes off.
Before I watched this flick I re-acquainted myself with Crane's verse; then I kept his book at hand during the film - which helped me keep interested in the movie. Franco manages to take the best of Crane - his poetry - and make it as bland as boiled chicken. There is one scene with Crane reading his work - rather than infuse the passion seen elsewhere in the film emanating from Crane - Franco chooses to recite the poems with no heart. The crowd's reaction to the second of the poems ('For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen') is understandable given the content and how Franco drones as Crane. The man's poetry needs to be read and sifted through several times before it feel accessible in some small way and Francdo blew a great opportunity to get his fans - who might not otherwise read any verse - interested in poetry. Granted, the rest of the film has me wanting to delve deeper into Crane's bio and his work. But I am most likely an anomaly in this respect, as I, too, am a poet and a teacher of literature. Still, with a positive attitude toward what is shown and read of Crane someone could become entranced with his work and also want to read more of it.
As for the filmmaking aspect, there are many issues there: hand-held cameras make for unsteady viewing, seemingly random pick-up shots are meant to set scenes, and a windscreen was sorely needed for the microphone used to collect audio in several shots. An interesting approach is used to show the leap from younger Crane to the (slightly) older Crane played by Franco - using the aforementioned sporadic shots. It is filmed almost entirely in black and white (which is what one might expect from this sort of film, artsy and so-forth). Colour does work its way in during a trip to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris - but it had me screaming for the return to B&W since the cameras employed could not handle the natural interior lighting of the church, therefore showing the limitations of the production. Perhaps Franco thought this approach would show the beauty of the place and highlight the impact it had on Crane; however, the camera's constant trying to adjust its 'eye' to the setting took me out of the film.
The story is unfolded through a series of "Voyages" (fitting, as the film ends with an excerpt from Crane's so-named poem and that it is on a sea-vessel that the poet chose to end his life). Title cards offer the subject in each 'Voyage' and the section reflects this accordingly: which helps one follow Crane's overall voyage.
Franco manages to show the tortured artist trying to support himself and create poetry - but is ultimately unable to do both. Grants and fellowships are the godsend for any artist to contribute his verse to the world and that Crane enjoys both and is able to write is evident. Malaise works its way into his psyche and builds along the way to show the viewer what led to Crane's demise.
The much-hyped oral pleasure scene seems unnecessary - yes, Crane was gay. There were better ways to make this known (as Franco shows in other parts of the movie) without having to resort to such a cheap ploy for shock value.
There is a scene where Crane - frustrated by finding out his financial situation is hopeless, vents his feelings in his room; while I get the emotion, Franco falls short in expressing the way Crane would have felt. This stems, perhaps, in Franco himself never feeling denied anything he truly wanted so he is unable to display the rage a truly tormented artist would vent when going from simmering anger to a boiling cauldron of virulence in an instant.
Michael Shannon appears in a minor, yet major role, but his character hardly speaks and comes, then goes, and comes then goes again so quickly that such a power of talent (he alone propelled 'The Runaways' forward and made that flick worth watching) never gets a chance to make an impact.
Overall, the movie is ambitious and Franco does a righteous job of adapting the source material employed (Crane's poetry and Paul Mariani's 'The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane') into a watchable slice of celluloid. The build-up of a creative genius torn apart by knowing his own abilities are wrecked by external factors is shown rather well.
(Full Disclosure: the above is the exact same review I posted on iTunes for this film)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERS This film fails on so many levels, it is hard to decide what is the worst thing about it. For one thing, the pace is maddeningly slow, and way too much camera time is spent on the back of Franco's head, or of him walking up endless flights of stairs. The incessant, long blackscreen segments are excruciatingly boring and add a further drag to the film's pace. Dialog is mostly absent, save for over-long recitals of Crane's poems by Franco, who becomes nothing more than a talking head for minutes at a time. Continuity is spotty, at best. At the film's conclusion, one knows nothing more about Crane than he knew before viewing it. I realize this was a student thesis of Franco's, but the entire project is boring, puerile, and without merit.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
How to catch a tone, and what one betrays. James Franco is some kind of
cultural phenomenon of our times; he has been called "Hollywood's
workaholic", he himself has admitted an aversion to sleep since "there
is so much to do", and for some time now has a flair for what may be
his signature mode, that is performing artistic stunts, from cinema to
video to installation and fiction.
Hart Crane is a different matter. Who is not - even slightly - taken aback at first encounter by his curious mix of idioms, mixing Elizabethan enunciation, coining even words, with exotic images (rum, calypso, pirates, mermen) that are witnesses to a grinding difficulty almost agonizing in his voice, a voice of such distinctive music, that one wonders this concoction of the archaic, the deliberately anachronistic and the hesitant, traumatic modern - what does it mean? Should we bother, as in a peripheral phenomenon? Or, and here is my stake, it is America's unique candidate for articulating how can one write poetry - and of what kind - in a traumatic modernity? From John Ashbery to James Merrill and all other major or minor gay poets of the '60's, everybody seemed at least baffled when asked about his relation to Hart Crane. This is crucial.
In my mind I tend to associate his act with Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" case of having two, not quite satisfying, versions of the novel, as if he too was coping with something. Alcoholism is a common ground, but I think is more symptomatic, and just not enough. To cut to the chase, what troubled Fitzgerald was how to integrate the ideal(ized) couple's disintegration as failing to conform in the eyes of the social order, the question "How the Big Other perceives me?" That social order, its stability, cracked in the dawn of 20th century modernity, and I think this is what troubled Hart Crane, too, as his pirate, clandestine imagery suggests.
Is all this relevant? It is. For I think James Franco shies away from confronting the specificity of the case in regard to his stance; for what we get is big chops of poetry reading and then a bizarrely inarticulate movie. There is a gap between these two modes that Fitzerald and Crane confronted - that is the gap in the social link that is to be filled/articulated with artistic production or love - and is not convincing, for one simple reason if you will: tell me what is the difference between this depiction, and the one Franco performed in "Howl"; both seem to fit a "maudit", more misfit than doom-eager artist of the '60s, let alone articulate, and there is where Franco's social sense betrays him.
On another level, let's look into this: the film, tellingly, evolved from Franco's thesis on Hart Crane. For all its borrowed cinematic vocabulary and merit, it has an "objectified" look, as referring to some external discourse, as if its "artistry" was compromised. Compromised by what? This is one case of what the french analyst Jacques Lacan called "the Discourse of the University", that is turning an object into quantifiable knowledge, that means taking Hart Crane or some gay, beat, marginal poet and integrate him (what an ideal object) in the academic machinery, domesticating exactly what resists it, its excess.
To put it plainly, there is no sense of bravura from the poems to inform the cinematic form, even what was instantly a surprise - the chromatic turn inside Notre Dame - misfires for it makes "the visionary company of love" a question of dubious religious upbringing or disposition (that recurring choir) and finally desexualizes the carnal, endangered alert of Hart Crane's poetry. No true sense of poetic threat or encroached lamentation or release as in "The Broken Tower".
In the end, it is a curio of cultural rather than artistic contours: James Franco has a disturbed, rebelled social sense without a cause that fitted him perfectly from the role that made him rise, James Dean, onwards for some time - I would even say he showed true allegiance with it. On the other hand, he is a post-Warhol era phenomenon: it seems his ambition is to perform literally Warhol's poker-faced phrase "I want to be a machine". But look what happens: instead of holding on to this rebellion, that sort of impatience that is such a virtue for the French people, he has collapsed the two into a machine without a cause.
Not a particularly great poet to begin with. I don't know why the film is in black and white, is that supposed to make it look more arty or something? I don't see why he was not happy with the advertising job. He could have still found time for his poems on the side. His poems are really heavy and monotonous and pedantic, I bet they don't necessarily mean anything most of the time. They just kind of sound like they do. But its just drunken delirium. Some nice shots under the bridge. The guy does have a nice smile. Poet was destructive. I bet Ginsberg liked this guy. Lucky guy got to travel a lot, not bad for a broke cliché of a suffering artist.
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