There is nothing comically awful in The Broken Tower, James Franco’s cinematic ode to/pantomime of Hart Crane. No scene screams “Poorly written vanity project” or suggests the Hollywood star didn’t make an effort to comprehend a significant figure in 20th century American poetry. An MFA grad, Franco has been a prolific author, publishing several books of poems intermingled with essays and short fiction in only a few years. Though his critics have accused him hiring a factory of writers to produce his books, a quick look at them bears out a style too idiosyncratically meh to copy( unless all his writers are really good at doing bad Carver/Hugo) However, the published poems that will be in Directing Herbert White, his debut book of (just) poetry, show him to be improving into a crafty mimic, incorporating flashes of Kinnell influenced lyricism into his usual cliched poetic narratives.
Where Tower fails-and at times depressingly so-is in how Franco cannot see Crane beyond his ( Franco’s) poetic persona. Crane shot to critical acclaim at a staggeringly young age with White Buildings, lived the life of a poet-celebrity, crashed and burned with The Bridge (a half majestic/half pretentious mess of an epic poem) and committed suicide shortly afterwords. For me, the sadness in his art lies in how close the sketches of the Key West manuscript were(if he had lived, it would have been his next book). Those poems show that Crane knew he had to reign it in, get back to basics and focus on his gifts as an imagistic lyric poet. The Crane of Buildings and a good deal of Key West had discipline, an ear, a eye for narrative and sense of lyric that served a poem rather than drawing attention to itself.
That Crane was no where to be seen in The Broken Tower. Franco’s version of the man is a cliche, a disciple of difficulty, alienated from society and wracked by demons that lead him to his suicide; a figure closer to Strindberg and Hamsun than the humanist he actually was. Time and time in the movie, he reverts to scenes and that aren’t entirely truthful, but fit the trope narrative he is trying to write: A reading of Voyages, his long form poetic masterpiece, receives audience scorn( It actually got better reviews than The Wasteland at the time). A fight scene/breakdown at an advertising agency wreaks of the same overwrought aesthetics that plagued Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of Van Gogh. Worse off, throughout the movie, Franco reads Crane’s poems in a haunted-poet patois that is achingly slow and pretentious.
Does that mean that Franco’s Crane is a complete lie? No. A gay man who created his own lyrical idiom, who went against so many currents that he became a wave in himself, Crane suffered tremendously and I do not discount that. Putting that suffering on parade without giving any direct context to his work, however, does no one any favors. In The Broken Tower, James Franco doesn’t introduce him to the modern world as much as he repackages and sells the archetype of the tortured artist to another generation that doesn’t need it. After an hour and 39 minutes of that, I ended up wishing that it was comically awful.