I am confident that many people who will review James Franco's "The Broken Tower" will declare it a cinematic marvel. I am equally sure that its detractors will call it an incomprehensible mess. This self-consciously arty exploration of the life and work of poet Hart Crane seems destined to divide its audience, and I suspect reactions will be intense and passionate. I guess I'll straddle the middle ground somewhat and call "The Broken Tower" an interesting experiment. Of course, if you are a fervent Franco fan--you will undoubtedly seek out this project as he is its star, director and writer. Its appeal to others, however, may be considerably more limited. On the one hand, the film's visual aesthetic is undeniably arresting. Franco borrows techniques from many of the masters in developing the film's beautiful black-and-white palette and sets up interesting and unconventional shots. From a technical standpoint, the film has a lot going for it. On the other hand, the film is notably less successful at getting you to understand its subject. This, for me (as someone who is familiar with Hart Crane), may be the movie's fatal undoing.
The movie is not concerned with being a traditional biography. It is structured in a series of vignettes (labeled as voyages). Some of these interludes are evocative, some are rather obtuse. With a subject that is so inherently dramatic and tumultuous, it is quite unexpected how little of that drama actually makes it into the story. Many of the segments offer mundane slice-of-life glimpses of Crane, some offer brief outbursts usually without context, and many offer reading after reading of Crane's work and/or letters. I appreciate that Franco wants to honor Crane by using his actual words, but the modernist poems are served in rather inflectionless vocal renderings over stagnant visual imagery. Take, in contrast, the last time Franco embodied a famous poet (Ginsberg in Howl). "Howl" made a point of bringing the poetry to life with various stylistic experiments. Here, I never thought that Crane's pieces were allowed to sing.
There is no denying that Crane is a fascinating subject, if not a particularly popular one. Committing suicide at age 32 (in 1932), Crane was an idealist, a homosexual, a revolutionary, and a troubled soul. His most ambitious work, The Bridge, is an epic endeavor that is still considered quite influential today. But if you know nothing about Hart Crane, "The Broken Tower" does not seek to elucidate its subject matter. Franco is so concerned about stripping down conventional film narrative and story that the viewing experience can be a challenge. He chooses random images (one sex scene, in particular, seems like pure provocation) to make an artful, though emotionally distant, experiment of a film. While I appreciate the gamble (some of which works, some strikes as self-indulgent), it left a void at the center of the film for me. Without knowing Crane, I couldn't really care about him. So even though I admired some of the filmmaking choices, I'm not sure the movie ever fulfilled the promise of its fascinating subject.
As I said in the opener, some might decry this a masterpiece and some might call it utter nonsense. For me, the movie ends up being more about Franco trying to define himself as an iconoclastic filmmaker than it does about the actual Hart Crane. For a very specialized audience, I would only recommend "Broken Tower" to a select few. KGHarris, 3/12.