Sunday, February 24, 2013

James Franco, The Broken Tower

James Franco’s Hart Crane biopic, The Broken Tower (2011), has been criticized for all the usual reasons that people criticize abstract art of any kind — it’s supposedly disjointed, meandering, pretentious; in short, too “arty.”  Having finally watched it, I have to say I agree with some of this, but instead of seeing these as negatives, see most of these criticisms, these supposed weaknesses, as strengths instead.  Yes, it’s disjointed and somewhat non-linear.  But more often than not, I prefer that.  Most of the time, for me, plot comes off as contrived.  The film follows the basic trajectory of Crane’s life (as rendered in the Paul Mariani biography), but it is not given the over-dramatized treatment of most Hollywood biopics, thankfully.  Instead we get incidents or moments rendered beautifully (in black and white, except for one signal scene of Crane in Notre Dame cathedral — did Franco perhaps get the idea from another great overlooked film, Coppola’s Rumble Fish, which is mostly b&w but turns to color at the end?).  Okay, there was one lingering shot of the back of Franco’s head that made me laugh a bit, but on the whole the camera work is powerful and well handled.  The film unfolds episodically (in segments titled “Voyages”), but the emphasis is always visual rather than narrative.  Or rather, the narrative exists simply in the juxtaposition of the images.

There is also lots of talking and lots of poetry reading.  Critics have asserted that the film isn’t quite carried on the strength of Crane’s words being intoned by Franco.  For example, Stephen Holden writes, “despite earnest attempts, Mr. Franco can’t bring the fervency of Crane’s poetry to life in the extensive recitations.”  But I would say that this does indeed make a very strong contribution in the film.  The sense that I got from the scene of Crane reading “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” in some wood-paneled room maybe was something like what it might have been to actually be there.  Poetry readings can be dull, sure, but if Hart Crane is reading it’s going to be a different story, and Franco did a pretty good job at being Crane, I think.  This scene forces the viewer to become a listener, to hear Crane’s words, to tune into the poem itself.

In fact, it made me go and grab my copy of Crane’s Collected Poems and later read along to other poems while the film was still playing (doubly difficult as I didn’t want to miss the visual images before me on the screen).  Hearing the lines of “The Bridge” being read in juxtaposition with Christina Voros’s cinematography was amazing — to “see” Franco’s vision of the poem (the “Proem” specifically, I should say), whether or not it accords exactly with my initial sense of the poem, was something of a revelation.  Similarly, the scenes of Crane composing “The Broken Tower” on a typewriter in a lonely room were handled just as well.  In many places, Crane simply walks endlessly, by himself.  Forget about story — this is more important.  Since watching the film, I’ve had the Collected Poems lying around and have been dipping into them again.  If this film can do that, with a sense of like-mindedness and sympathy imparted to the viewer (rather than, say, a sense of needing a corrective), then it has more than accomplished its purpose.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Keith Gaustad, High Art & Love Poems

I know Keith Gaustad, and I also blurbed his recent chapbook High Art & Love Poems (Broken Bird Press/The Conium Review, 2012).   So I guess this isn’t a review, really, but I just wanted to say a few things about the book anyway.  My blurb reads, “Keith Gaustad’s poems are concise, deliberate in diction, at times terse — they are, as Pound would put it, ‘free from emotional slither.’ Yet there is deep feeling here, which emerges side by side with Gaustad’s subtle sense of satire.”  There is even more to his work, though.  As satire, it is often funny, and many of the poems turn on wordplay and puns.  The book’s title obliquely references James Liddy’s Art Is Not for Grownups, which, as Brian Arkins writes in his introduction to Liddy’s Collected Poems, is “the volume of Liddy that most obviously employs wit…. Here the target … include[s] literary pieties of various kinds.”  And so it is for Gaustad, whose first section in High Art & Love Poems is titled “The Poet Warrior” and begins with the quip, “I’m not afraid of paper cuts.”

Where the aforementioned Liddy collection is composed of short epigrammatical pieces, Gaustad gives us lyrics of a page, two pages, some even three pages in length.  The book’s structure of five sections seems to add up to a narrative of sorts, and the poet has told me that this is a conscious echo of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, each separate section representing a stage of artistic and/or personal development.  Gaustad, however, is not Irish like Joyce (though he was a student of Liddy’s and shares his idiosyncratic Catholicism).  Instead, he is Wisconsin German, living and writing in the poetry mecca of Milwaukee.  His satire, his own irony, works against the hipster irony that one encounters in any such American city. 

In “Philosopher’s House Party,” for example, he writes of “The men in the kitchen from the city with beer in their / beards” while in “Apollo the Cubist and Paul and Saul” he charges, “Post Modern lovers / you / never seem to fall off your horses.”  Many of these poems reflect a struggle with alienation and the desire for some sort of communal feeling.  Their speakers are alternately appalled by people’s displays of vapidity or posturing, and galvanized into seeking out a semblance of meaning, whatever that could be (here I’m reminded of the singer Jonathan Richman of the band the Modern Lovers [emphasis mine]).  He is serious about this.  Thus, his work will no doubt be rejected by about three-quarters or more of all current poetry outlets, since jokey, quirky, prosey stuff is what’s in now — there’s a difference between serious joking, which is what Gaustad does, and quirky/silly, if that makes sense.

Perhaps this chapbook’s subject matter is nothing more than the struggle to become a serious person in a hipster world.  But then, isn’t this similar to Stephen Dedalus’s struggle, only in a vastly different context?  And the poetry that springs from it here is both unique and strong.  Of that same struggle, Gaustad has also written to me, “maybe I’ll get lucky and leave that behind with the book.”  High Art & Love Poems is overtly what it is — a poet’s first book well-composed, a well-structured short collection.  It is a substantial book (that is, it has substance), though, setting the stage for what one can only hope will be a substantial, ongoing career.  Incidentally, it features cover art by the great Milwaukee painter Kyle Fitzpatrick, one of my favorite contemporary artists.

($9.95 from the link above, 37 pages including Gaustad’s humorous bio note, perfect-bound)