Film Review: Broken Tower

Ah, James Franco: actor, director, writer, conceptual artist, soap opera star! What can’t he do? Answer: Make a cohesive, coherent film about a great American writer.

Hart Crane (1899-1932), who, influenced by Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, wrote dense, complex verse, and who committed suicide at age 32, is considered one of most important poets of his time. He had a famously difficult life, born in Ohio to a father who invented the Lifesaver and amassed a fortune through candy. He left his combative family to go to New York, where he found work as an advertising copywriter, writing poetry on his own time. The city inspired him to write his epic, The Bridge, a song of America, during which time he began to drink heavily. The indifferent critical reception to his poem plunged him into despair, more drink and excessive promiscuity—Crane had largely, and perhaps foolishly for the time, lived openly as an out homosexual. On a steamship headed back to New York from Mexico, he was severely beaten for making advances to a sailor and, shortly thereafter, jumped overboard into the Gulf of Mexico.

Crane, whom Tennessee Williams never tired of extolling, had never had his life filmed. Into the breach jumped multi-hyphenate James Franco, who wrote, directed and starred in Broken Tower. The result begs the question: What is the most poetic way to say “vanity project”? I now feel like I know every inch of Franco’s face and most of his physique as he features himself squarely left-of-center (there are many artily askew framings) in every scene. God knows artists can be solitary, self-absorbed beings but, watching this, you could easily believe that Crane spent most of his life solo, just walking around.

You get no real idea of Crane’s personality, either—what made him tick so desolately? Instead, you get a lot of Franco reading his ultra-challenging verse in a portentously empty manner that makes you long to parse it all on paper. During one particularly extended, excruciating reading at a ladies’ club, the film, already logy in the extreme, grinds to a dead halt from which it never recovers.

Franco, inspired by Crane’s Voyages, divides his film into a dozen “voyages,” or chapters which, one supposes, are meant to lend Broken Tower a writerly feel. The movie, of course, is lensed in black and white (with a brief, self-conscious color excursion), which is, at times, quite handsome. As fancy as it tries to be, it’s all very Student Film 101 with a sophisticate’s gloss, and it's not surprising that the project began as a thesis in one of the innumerable, highly publicized classes Franco attended at New York University while pursuing a busy acting career.

It all cries out for some kind of real human interaction beyond a narcissistic contemplation of self, but all other characters remain strictly peripheral, like the sailor (Michael Shannon) who is presented as Crane’s great love but given nothing to say. To the movie’s credit, Crane’s homosexuality is not glossed over and one supposes a mention is necessary of Franco’s Brown Bunny moment, performing fellatio in close-up. This act would be more shocking if, like the passionate but completely tongueless kisses Franco bestows on his lovers, one didn’t suspect the presence of a prop purchased at any sex shop, rather than the real thing.