Friday, April 27, 2012

James Franco tackles gay poet Hart Crane in THE BROKEN TOWER. No one wins.

TrustMovies loves James Franco (shown on the poster at left and below). He loves to look at him and listen to him. He loves the guy's quirky intelligence and sometimes bizarre humor. He thought Franco's performan-ces in the underseen Howl and the much-seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes were both excellent. He admires the man's willingness to go out on limbs and engage with everything from life and higher education to film and soap opera and art installation and even... moviemaking. He thought Franco's 2009 five-minute short, The Feast of Stephen was somewhat interesting and certainly not awful. And now we have his new full-length THE BROKEN TOWER, which gives us a look at the life of the American poet of a century past, Hart Crane, which also proves to be somewhat interesting. But -- oh, gosh, how to put it nicely? -- this film is awful.

More than anything else, The Broken Tower, which Franco wrote (from Paul Mariani's biography and novel), directed, edited and stars in as Crane, reminds me of those would-be "art" movies we used to see back in the 1960s, which were probably indebted to the work of, if we had to single someone out, John Cassavetes, more than anyone else. These were black-and-white, shoestring budgeted (Franco's film has a bit higher budget than that), and intently focused on being artistic at all costs -- the biggest of which would be the almost complete annihilation of any possible entertainment value the movie might have possessed. (Cassavetes was better than this, but many of his acolytes were not.)

According to the press materials, The Broken Tower is actually Mr. Franco's New York University Film School "thesis" film, and as such it deserves, if not a grade, at least a pass or fail certificate. I might give it a pass, barely, with a grade of C-, and the suggestion that Franco center his ambitions back on acting. Arty and pretentious does not a good movie make. Watching the film, it seems as though the filmmaker may have been impressed with other black-and-white art movies such as Christopher Munch's Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day. But Franco does not yet understand what to do with the camera. He has it concentrate on typing and walking -- two very paltry actions that are not designed to interest the viewer past the first few seconds of screen time -- and worse, he likes to film the back of the head on those walks, as though something is about to be revealed.... by the hair, maybe?

And, oh, the sparkling dialog!  (I jest, because there practically is no dialog -- it's mostly title cards that key us into chapters from Crane's life. And then Franco repeats in action what has been told us by those cards.) As for the man's poetry, I cannot figure out if Franco imagines that, by reading aloud what sounds like an entire, lengthy and not very well-written poem, he is honoring Crane, or showing him up for the artsy twaddle the fellow created. It is certainly easy to understand why the man's poetry is not much remembered these days. (Still, before I "down" this guy's work, I should go to the source and trying reading some of it, rather than relying on what the filmmaker has presented.)

So why did Franco bother with making this film? It must have to do with Crane's homosexuality. One of the filmmaker's best scenes involves a blow-job, and I am not being funny about this: Franco does a good job of shooting the scene, of creating tension and release, and of giving us something to look at that seems both fresh and "felt." There's also a nice scene than has Crane, who worked as an advertising copywriter, trying out the sound of the word naugahyde -- a synthetic product which was evidently new at the time. But this, as so much else in the movie, goes on way too long. Otherwise, this mostly fledgling filmmaker keeps his camera to a tight frame on everything, in order, I would guess, to make the film look more "period" by including the necessarily detailed close-up, as above, but not expanding the view into scenes that would clearly call attention to modern times. (The good cinematographer is Christina Voros.)

In the cast, the biggest name is Michael Shannon (above right), who portrays a sailor for whom Hart has the hots. There's a nice lovemaking scene (three photos above), but Shannon is given so little to do that the use of an actor this good seems a bit wasteful. Also on view, as the younger Hart Crane, is Franco's brother Dave, who may actually be even more beautiful than his older sibling and director, and -- given the parameters of the movie -- makes a pretty good impression.

The entire film is in black-and-white except for a few moments that take place in a church. These are in color -- which calls to mind once again those artsy film duds from the 60s. Over all, and over its 99-minute running time, the movie acts as a kind of cinematic vacuum, sucking up energy like a black hole. I still love Mr. Franco and in fact will look forward to his next venture as a filmmaker -- but only with hope that he gives up trying to create "art" and decides instead to simply create -- come what may.

The Broken Tower opens today in New York City at the IFC Center in New York, and is simultaneously available via VOD. Consult your TV reception-provider to see if the film is being shown  on VOD in your specific area.


kitteh pundd it said...

Hart Crane's poetry is not "not much read these days"
I gather you're some sort of trusted authority on movie issues. that's cool. but before you go around trashing a major American poet you might be wise to dio at least one eye toward the man and his work and his legacy. might keep you from becoming a trusted authority on making a public ass of yourself. might.

James van Maanen said...

Hi, kitteh pundd it--
I'm not so sure I'm any trusted authority on movies, either. I just say what I think and feel. And I am certainly not trusted on poetry. I was going by what I heard read in this film. And I'm sorry, kpi, but it ain't much. (I realize that could have been Mr. Franco's rendition of it standing in for the thing itself.) I also asked a couple of acquaintances who ARE poetry people, and they told me Crane's work is not considered to be of the first rank. But if YOU love his work, then, fine. As to making a public ass of oneself, all or most critics do that from time to time, no? It's part of our repertoire.

John Berard said...

James is a young artist besides being an actor. His work on the film James Dean(2000) proved to me that he has more talent than most. I look forward to seeing his newest movie The Broken Tower.......John Berard in New Iberia, Louisiana

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for your comment, John. I wish I liked the movie more but I do agree with you regarding Mr. Franco's talent. By the way, The Broken Tower is already out on DVD and available for rental (unfortunately not for streaming yet) via Netflix and elsewhere -- and for sale on Amazon etc. So if you're already on Netflix, stick it into your queue. Or get your local video store -- if one still exists -- to order it.