January 2012 was a big month for James Franco. First, news broke that Amazon would be publishing his first novel, Actors Anonymous, and then they began streaming his newest directorial feature. Written, directed, and starring Franco, The Broken Tower tells the story of poet Hart Crane (1899-1932). Franco filmed The Broken Tower at the end of his time at New York University. It was a thesis of sorts. And like most theses, it should have been left to obscurity.
The Broken Tower is based on Paul Mariani’s biography of the same name. Mariani agreed with Franco that the material was perfect for film. Crane’s life was dramatic and, according to Mariani, “filled with so many roaring-boy, 1920s figures.” He describes Crane as a “lost visionary.” Moreover, Mariani says that he wrote the biography like a novel, which implies the existence of some dramatic arc—a crux Franco ignores entirely. To call this film a biopic would be wrong, because the biographical elements are painted with such broad strokes and with such obfuscation that once the credits roll, you’re left to wonder who Hart Crane really was. Is he even in this film, really? It would be more accurate to say that this film is inspired by Crane and his poetry, though even that assertion feels too generous.
A tragic figure, Hart Crane led a life filled with conflict and distress. He was gay and lived a mostly closeted life. He had a few serious lovers. Some nights he would drunkenly wander the docks of New York trying to pick up sailors, only to end up in brawls instead. He fought with his editors. He seduced one of his friend’s wives while living in Mexico. He wrote some of the most beautiful and notoriously difficult poetry of the twentieth Century, culminating with The Bridge (1930), a modernist epic poem inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge. Then, in 1932, at the age of thirty-two, while on board the USS Orizaba, Crane walked to the edge of the ship, took off his jacket, folded it, and stepped over the railing, leaping to his death. The legend says that before he jumped he was overheard yelling, “Goodbye, everybody!”
With that kind of material, it’s a shame Franco decides to tell Crane’s story the way he does. Here is a life steeped in art, sex, fights, drunken debauchery, suicide, and yet none of it, save the sex, made it credibly to film. If anything from this list is touched on, it’s with a throwaway line. His choice to live a closeted life? Dealt with in one line of dialogue. His views on poetry and art? Even less. This is a film supposedly about a man’s life, but it’s not concerned with exploring it on any level. Instead, Franco offers a hodgepodge of scenes that treat action and coherence as a frivolity.
Shot almost entirely in black-and-white, the film does its desperate best to be taken seriously. It wants to be experimental and obtuse. Franco seems to have taken Crane’s poetic difficulty to heart and tried to apply it to filmmaking. But rather than making a film that functions like a poem, or a film that challenges its viewer, Franco directs a dull 99-minute slog. The Broken Tower wants to conjure up the mystique of Cassevetes-style cinéma vérité; its every flourish and ornament attempts artfulness but results in pretense.
Unfolding episodically, the film takes its cues from Crane’s poem “Voyages” (1926). Ostensibly, it suggests the vignettes are separate journeys, as each is prefaced by the title screen “Voyage I,” “Voyage II,” “Voyage III,” etc. On paper, this sounds like a competent mechanism for this particular story. In execution, it only serves as a cheap framework to connect scenes that have little to no relation to one another. The only constant thread is the appearance of a Franco in every scene—yes, a Franco. In the opening sequence, the audience is introduced to a young Hart Crane, played by James Franco’s younger brother, Dave.
Crane’s voyages continue, and the audience is left adrift trying to piece together what’s happening, when it’s happening, and how/why Crane got to each place. He’s in New York. He’s in France. He’s in Mexico. What significance do these places hold for Crane? From the film, it’s impossible to say. The settings only serve as different backdrops for recreating the same scene, ad nauseam. Much of the film, which is to say roughly 80% of the film, is made up of long shots tracking Franco as he walks from place to place, squinting in the light and rubbing his eyes and looking forlorn (you know, acting). There is virtually no dialogue, no context for these scenes. A couple of moments are adorned with voiceovers of Crane’s poetry, but that’s it. Not that it helps. When Franco reads his delivery is narcoleptic.
It’s difficult to tell what Franco wanted out of this, whether he wanted to make a film about the poet or the poetry. In trying to do both, he fails to accomplish either. The dramatic scenes sideline the poetry, and the poetry feels completely alien to the drama. In that light, Franco seems to have taken much of his inspiration from 2010’s Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman), in which he played Allen Ginsberg. Much like Howl, The Broken Tower cuts between a pseudo-narrative and long excerpts of poetry. And much like Howl, The Broken Tower doesn’t know what to do with those long excerpts. Both films struggle to convey poetry visually. Howl relies on animations as a visual interpretation of Ginsberg’s language. Franco attempts to solve the problem in much the same way but opts for real geography. In both cases, the interpretations are laughably literal. The best Franco can do in The Broken Tower is pair a line of Crane’s with an objective correlation. As he’s reading from The Bridge, we see shots of the Brooklyn Bridge. When he reads from “The Broken Tower,” we see a tower in the distance. If there’s a subway train mentioned in a line, it will be shown on screen.
While Franco may be fascinated with the idea of being a writer and revels in that particular experience, he doesn’t seem to realize that it makes for terrible cinema. Most movies about writing are inherently boring. Watching a dude stare and tap at a typewriter is the height of pabulum. The drama of a writer (or any artist) on film is the turmoil of not writing. Artistic block has potential to be interesting. How does an artist cope with an inability to produce work? Show me that. Don’t show me Hart Crane leaning over pages, typing them up, reading them back to himself, and typing again. It’s not insightful. It offers nothing unique to Crane’s experience as an author. I’m currently ensnared in this exact process as I type this piece. It’s excruciating enough to live it. Why would I want to watch five minutes of Franco doing the same? There’s a reason films will only show a snippet of the sausage getting made before resorting to montage. There’s nothing learned from the clacking of keys.