Before James Franco’s new film, “The Broken Tower,” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Monday, Franco issued a warning.
“This is not ‘Pineapple Express,’” said the Oscar-nominated actor, appearing in person to present the film.
Indeed, the film follows the life of gay poet Hart Crane (1899-1932), who “emerged on the scene with his Brooklyn-bridge epic, ‘The Bridge,’ yet agonized over ever written word” and ultimately killed himself, Journal writer Naomi Pfefferman said in her recent story on the film.
The black-and-white, 99-minute passion project episodically traces Crane’s life, from young adulthood in Cleveland, when he decides to he doesn’t want to work for his father, a wealthy businessman, to his subsequent moves to New York, Cuba, Paris and Mexico, where he writes and writes and drinks and drinks and finally, to his suicide in 1932.
Paul Mariani’s 1999 biography, also titled “The Broken Tower”-which was Crane’s last poem before his death—helped Franco craft the film, which he began work on seven years ago, while enrolled in film school in New York.
During a Q-and-A after the film on Monday, Franco, 33, said:
I remember doing interviews at that time and people would say, “Well, who you would like to play?” and I’d say, “Hart Crane” … but I was just waiting, I was waiting for somebody to make the movie, [so I could] jump on board as the actor, and nobody did.
And so then I went to film school and I did this series of short films, based on poems, [and] when I needed to do a thesis—a longer project for a thesis—I thought the perfect next step would be not a movie based on a single poem, but a movie based on the life of a poet ... so I remembered the Crane biography.
Franco’s Crane embodies the image of a romantic poet, hunched over a typewriter late at night, glass of wine within reach, making statements like, “Life is a dance of death, but you can still do something with it.”
The film is the second time Franco has played a gay poet—in 2010, he starred as Allen Ginsburg in “Howl.” Franco also played gay in “Milk,” in which he was Harvey Milk’s lover.
But why would Franco choose such an obscure figure as his subject in this latest film? It’s a question that might be easy to answer. Franco, who, as Pfefferman said, “has famously juggled acting on soap operas and in blockbusters (think Rupert Wyatt’s upcoming “Rise of the Apes”) with doctoral studies in English and film at Yale, hosting the Academy Awards, creating art exhibitions, albums, a short story collection, conceptual and visual art,” simply makes unconventional choices.
“He’s at a place in his career, where his celebrity and his star status makes people interested in what he’s doing, and he’s doing stuff with it,” said Sheldon Larry, a filmmaker who attended the screening of Franco’s film and whose film, “Leave It On the Floor,” is featured in this year’s festival.
Franco ‘s mother is Jewish, but Crane was raised as a Christian scientist, according to his Wikipedia page. In one of the film’s early scenes, Franco-as-Crane, enthusiastically sharing his poetic ambitions with an acquaintance – “I’m the last romantic alive!” he asserts – calls himself “Rabbi Crane.” Franco said he wasn’t sure if Crane actually said this, that he thought he had heard it somewhere but couldn’t remember exactly.
“Why Hart Crane?” was also a question posed by Francisco Ricardo, moderator of the Q-and-A and Franco’s professor at the Rhode Island School of Design—he teaches Franco in a small class on Digital Media Theory.
If you’re going to make a film about a poet—okay, fine, but why not a more well known poet?
“Why not T.S. Eliot? ... Why pick this particular individual who was surely going to be very difficult to portray?” Ricardo said.
“Finding [Crane’s poetry], I read it and thought…‘Oh, this would be—this is speaking to me as a movie,” Franco said.
But “it’s not just, ‘This could be a movie,’” Franco added. “It’s, ‘Oh, I want to interact with this. I want to speak to this. I want to have a different kind of relationship to this than just enjoying it for what it is. I want to transform this work or give it a second life.’”
So, I thought well, ‘If I’m going to do a movie about him, I don’t want it to just, you know…I don’t want to simplify it. I want it to feel something like the texture of his poetry,” Franco said.
Ricardo said that the film does share characteristics with poetry.
“It’s got lack of structure, it’s got incredible depth of feeling, it’s got any number of inconsistencies, which are portrayed very carefully, and it’s a got number of what can really only be called really very unfortunate tragedies,” he said.
The film is “a masterpiece,” he said.
“Now you know why I brought Francisco,” said Franco.
Among the many risks the film takes, there’s the display of explicit homosexual sex. On Monday, Franco said that he felt he couldn’t hide from he sexuality in the film since Crane didn’t hide from his sexuality in his life. Crane, rather, was proud of his homosexuality.
And the film is unapologetically difficult, told in sections called “voyages” - inspired by a poem by Crane entitled, “Voyages” - large chunks of the film devoted to nothing but Crane’s misery, voiceovers of his often, to the layman anyway, incomprehensible poetry.
“It’s difficult even if you know Crane and love a lot of Crane,” poet Frank Bidard, whose poem, “Herbert White,” Franco recently turned into a short film, said, during an interview at Monday’s screening. “I think [Franco] does real justice to the poems.”
Franco, on Monday, weighed in on how the audience might react to his difficult film:
Crane himself said if I have like six good readers, that’s enough for me. Now I don’t want just six viewers, but like I also took into account that this is not going to be a piece of entertainment, that it is difficult and so, with that in mind, we made it for a responsible price, so I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel like I need to, um, jazz it up in certain ways I feel would not be in line with the spirit of what we wanted to do.
Unsurprisingly, making “The Broken Tower” was more meaningful to Franco than some of his lighter and larger fare, he said.
But how did the audience react? After the film, one man said that the critics will most likely call the film self-indulgent, and many appeared restless during a ten-minute poetry reading, in which Crane stands there and reads and does nothing else.
But the majority, young adults, seniors and even tweens, embraced the film-and Franco.
“He’s a curious talent,” said Larry. “He’s an observer of life.”