Hart Crane was an early 20th century modernist poet. His poetry was difficult to understand, it was highly stylized, and very ambitious. James Franco, as writer, director, and actor, brings to us the complicated life of the mustachioed gay romantic living mostly in his own head in The Broken Tower. As complicated as Crane’s life and poetry was, so is this biopic based on Paul Mariani’s biography of the same title. Shot in black-and-white video, Franco’s film uses repetitive, stop-and-start-like cuts that are very chaotic and could simply mirror Crane’s life, that of a man who ended his own life by jumping from the steamship SS Orizaba at the age of 32.
Franco tells the narrative of Crane’s life using a chapter-based structure (not unlike a technique used by director Lars von Trier). These chapters are called “Voyages,” which is the title of a series of erotic poems written by Crane. The Voyages help guide the film through Crane’s narrative, moving us from his early years in Cleveland, to the streets of New York, to trips to Paris and Mexico.
Otherwise, the film is slow. Franco has said in various interviews that this was done on purpose. There are scenes where we only see Franco’s Crane walking or staring into the camera. These scenes easily last a good five minutes or more at times. Franco behind the camera is clearly comfortable with the silence, comfortable with the stillness, and yet on screen Franco’s Crane does not appear to be as comfortable. Crane appears to be just as uncomfortable with these scenes as we do. The dialogue-less scenes where we painstakingly watch Crane (Franco) walk through the streets, or touch the face of a woman, or stare out from the Brooklyn bridge, could represent the word-less days of Crane’s poetry.
And yet, as frustrating as this slowness may be for the viewer, we have to acknowledge that Franco does deliver in experiencing Crane’s frustration. He has a vision, he has dreams, he has words he wants to write. And yet he is stuck in an endless tug-of-war between the man he wants to be and the man he is expected to be. And this tug-of-war prevents him from writing as he wants to write. He goes to Mexico to seclude himself and write, but can’t deliver as he wants to (even though he did write “The Broken Tower” while in Mexico). It leaves Crane frustrated.
At times, for better or for worse, the film seems to linger in the frustrations. It lingers in the frustration of unemployment. In possibly one of the greater scenes, Crane is on the subway headed to his advertising job. He looks like everyone else on the subway, complete with suit, tie, and hat. But his eyes communicate he is not like everyone else. His eyes communicate that his is uncomfortable in this place. The film lingers in the frustration of disputes with publishers. Over and over again we see him getting rejected. He makes phone calls sharing lines he’s just written.
Perhaps the frustration that the film lingers in the most is that of homosexuality. At first you may think that Franco is overly concerned with depicting Crane’s sexual activities, ranging from making out with a random man in the library to performing oral sex on a partner in a car. Crane was open about his sexuality with everyone it seems, except his parents. They, as some of us might be, would be uncomfortable with it. Even unaccepting. As the movie unfolds, it becomes very clear the frustration it causes Crane.
We want there to be a resolution with all of these frustrations, yet history tells us there is none.
But Crane tries to find peace in the midst of frustrations. While he talks a good talk about being an individual and being modern, he struggles to be himself. Early in the film, Crane tells a friend, “We all know life is a dance of death. But we can still make something of it.” This is Crane’s tug of war. He is not at peace with himself.
While in Paris, Crane visits the Notre Dame Cathedral. Here are the lone color scenes in the film. The color looks as if it has been hand tinted and it almost appears like a delusion. Crane is looking up the entire time he is in the Cathedral, much like he does in an earlier scene when he stands on the Brooklyn Bridge alone, looking up to the skies. It is almost as if he is searching high for the peace that passes all understanding. For the peace that will end the tug-of-war. The color does not last long. It is almost as if once inside the Cathedral, our vision is no longer black and white—this or that, right or wrong—but with a plethora of ways to see. Commentary perhaps on society in the early 20th century.
In the Cathedral, the choral sounds of a Latin chorus can be heard. The only sound during the only color scene. The chorus is “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”
O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown:
how pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!
It is here in the Paris cathedral that we begin to fully appreciate Crane’s tug-of-war. He is wounded, covered in grief and shame. He feels as if he is weighted down, unable to get back up again. There is anguish and there is scorn. The two people he loves the most—his divorced parents—he cannot be authentic with. How does one survive all this?
When Crane leaves Notre Dame, the film goes back to black-and-white video and stays there until the end. There is no more color. There is no more hope. As the film progresses, Crane seems to find himself pulling farther and farther away from reality. The death of his father sends him into a rage, stomping on his typewriter. He begins a relationship with a married woman who eerily resembles his mother. He would eventually jump off a boat, ending his life and his tug-of-war.
This is, no doubt, an art film. We are reminded from the very beginning that Franco is an academic and a film student. There is a wealth of great symbolism. In addition to Franco reciting Crane’s poetry matched with Crane’s actions, the film is littered with images and sounds of water. Rough water. Smooth water. Water being the symbol (and foreshadowing) of Crane’s death.
The DVD extras include a featurette exploring Hart Crane titled “Hart Crane: An Exegesis” in which Franco conducts a number of interviews with various literary scholars about the life and work of Crane. It is very well done and worth watching to shed some light on this not-well-known poet. It also includes a commentary with Franco and other filmmakers.