E1 Entertainment // 2011 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 28th, 2012
The truth is indecent
Hart Crane (1899-1932) was arguably the first great poet of America's twentieth century. Although his work had precedents (T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" left a tremendous impression), books like The Bridge and poems like "The Broken Tower" still stand as works both ahead of their time and totally indebted to the past. The fact Hart Crane was also fairly openly homosexual for his time, probably suffered from mental illness, and killed himself by jumping off a boat into the sea before his thirty-third birthday make his biography as interesting as his poems. However, the difficult nature of his poems and their lack of easy academic reference compared to poems like "The Wasteland" have ensured that both his poetry and his biography have been largely ignored. However, James Franco is not one to ignore literature (he was a PhD student in literature at Yale while this film was in production), and so the writer/actor/director made The Broken Tower as a monument to a poetic genius. It's not quite the biopic that Crane fans would want, but fans of Franco will probably be pleased.
Told in twelve chapters, The Broken Tower follows Hart Crane's biography from his early teenage years (where the director's younger brother plays the poet) through to his eventual suicide. In between we get a lot of the poet's work along with a lot of shots of the poet experiencing life.
Edna St. Vincent Millay summed up the experience of most of the great
20th century poets with her poem "First Fig:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends...
It gives a lovely light!
Hart Crane was perhaps the first of those twentieth century poets to burn out, and the light he left still shines on younger poets. He wrote great poetry, did a lot of drinking, and apparently had a lot of sex -- most of it with men, but he did have at least one female partner. Franco, though, rather than taking a typically biographical approach (or the more legal one of Howl) has chosen to focus on a broader, more elliptical survey of the poet's life. By focusing on twelve shorter incidents, Franco gives more of an impression of an impassioned life lived rather than a strict chronology of one man's life. His tools are black-and-white cinematography, his own excellent acting (along with Michael Shannon), and a fearless approach to the character's sexuality. Yes, the scene is dark, but it does appear that Franco gets it on with another man, which is something that at least some segment of his fan base has been clamoring for.
Franco, is unsurprisingly, the draw for the film. His interest in Crane's life and work and his love of avant-garde cinema are both evident. Whatever the film's problems (which I'll address below), his passion is contagious.
This DVD is also excellent. The film's black-and-white cinematography is beautifully reproduced in a standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Detail is pretty good, black levels are strong, and contrast is consistent and appropriate. The Dolby 5.1 surround track is focused heavily on readings of Crane's poetry, but that comes through clearly and is well-balanced. Extras include a solid commentary with Franco, his producer Vince Jolivette, and cinematographer Christina Voros. There are also interviews with Crane scholars where Franco questions them on the poet, his work, and his afterlife.
In some ways, The Broken Tower is an incomprehensible film. It has obvious roots in '60s avant-garde films, like Franco's admitted influence from Godard's Vivre Sa Vie. I love those films, and I think their techniques are useful. However, I don't understand why a film made in 2011 about a poet who died in 1932 would choose a kind of '60s handheld, elliptical aesthetic. It's almost as if the film's style is intended to cover up for the fact that Franco has nothing to say about Crane. Surely he doesn't provide the audience with much of a foothold. There's no attempt to make the average viewer care about Crane or his life. Instead, we get readings of his work, and lots of contemplative shots of Franco-as-Crane walking around. For those who've always wanted to hear Franco read Crane, it's a boon, but Crane's poetry is difficult, and just hearing a reading is not likely to be enough to let most viewers connect with the material.
The viewer's appreciation for the film will also likely be tempered by his or her ability to sit through explicit gay sex.
The Broken Tower is a weird entry in James Franco's filmography. He continues to show himself to be passionately committed to making offbeat films about things that strike his fancy. While I admire his passion (and Hart Crane), this biopic (if we can even call it that) will likely have limited appeal. Fans of Crane will probably want to at least rent it, and Franco fans will similarly appreciate his hand behind the whole production. However, for most viewers there won't be much payoff to watching a film with this much difficult poetry and little narrative investment.
Indecent, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated