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.

No comments: