Monday, March 11, 2013

And We're Walking, and We're Walking...and We're Still Walking?: "The Broken Tower" (2012)



In all honesty, I thought of writing a biopic based on poet Hart Crane's tumultuous life first.

Crane was born to a well-to-do businessman and his wife in 1899, and his parents would later divorce. He grew up in the Roaring Twenties, and would supplement his small writing income by doing copywriting in the burgeoning advertising field (a job he hated). He was gay, or at least bisexual, drank too much, and jumped from a ship and drowned in the Gulf of Mexico when he was only 32. I started collecting books by and about Crane, including the source material for this film, and even wrote his suicide into screenplay format, but then abandoned it to work on an original story that had been bothering me for years now.

I didn't know James Franco even made this film until I recognized the title from the book I never read (and later gave away). Franco seems obsessed with poets, between this film, "Howl," and a planned biopic of Charles Bukowski, and he also seems obsessed with poets I am obsessed with. I had high hopes sitting down to this, and after viewing the documentary "Hart Crane: An Exegesis," I was ready to let Franco show me Hart Crane as he saw him.

Franco wrote, directs, and stars in the film, apparently a film to fulfill a university thesis. Crane's poetry can be complex and difficult, I don't pretend to understand a lot of what I have read by him, but Franco makes the mistake of writing and directing an equally difficult film. In the film's case, I "got" what Franco was trying to do, I am saying it was the wrong approach to Crane's life. Franco casts his younger brother Dave as a younger Hart (or Harold, as he was born) and their mother as Hart's mother. Michael Shannon is Emile, the love of Hart's life and subject of some of his poetry. The problem here is that Shannon's scenes number about four, as do his lines of dialogue, and the viewer doesn't discover his name until the end credits. Crane's parents also get shorted, for being such big influences in his life. Crane's relationship with Malcolm Cowley's ex-wife (Stacey Miller) is also touched upon but not explored.

So in this this one hundred and ten minute film, what do we get? Franco does do a brave thing, exhibiting an eleven minute poetry reading just before the midpoint of the film. The black and white photography, with the exception of a color sequence in a cathedral, is nice. The muted sad jazz of the time provides an excellent soundtrack to Crane's moods, even in the lighter moments when he is with friends and drunk. It is hard to make a compelling film about something like sitting at a desk and typing, but Franco does try. The film is chaptered by title cards enumerating Crane's life "voyages", and this does help follow what was going on in his life to a certain extent.

However, Franco as Crane walks. A lot. Too much. There is so much footage of Franco walking around, I began to make morbid jokes about Crane's leg strength when he took his final plunge into the big drink. This padding technique boldly went beyond experimental or difficult and into tedium. Franco plays Crane as a spoiled genius, but he throws one too many fits and I didn't like Crane as Franco saw him. Franco looks nothing like Crane, either, and a scene where Crane performs oral sex on a lover seems out of place and exploitative, it's obvious Franco wanted to do something shocking to get the film talked about.

I was relieved when it was over, and disappointed that Franco couldn't get his admiration for the writer on film without alienating the same audience that finds Crane's writing unfathomable. Next time, I hope Franco's desire to make an arty film about an artist is tempered by a desire to make that artist accessible to the viewer. Not knowing anything about Crane, and watching this film, would make me dislike Crane even more. "The Broken Tower" turns into a broken film. (* *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Broken Tower