12 May 2012 | manxman-1
Valiant attempt to capture a problematical character
The Broken Tower is the type of movie one generally sees at minor film festivals and thence disappears into the darkness, never to be seen again. Having said that, one should never dismiss such honorable efforts simply because there is no vast audience for a film that has no special effects, extra terrestrials, car chases or gunplay (which would exclude most European movies.) Oh and yes, it's in black and white and concerns Hart Crane, a gay poet in the 1920's who killed himself at thirty two.
James Franco wrote and directed this movie, which comes across as an experimental film from a student still with much to learn. (Not knocking it, merely an observation, which is open to argument.) What the movie lacks most of all is an introduction to the many people whom Crane came into contact with during his life (from literary and social critic Waldo Frank - HUGE in his observations on American Society, to writer Malcolm Cowley and his painter-wife Peggy (Crane's only heterosexual love affair), painter Georgia O'Keefe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, introducing Crane to Literary New York in the shape of Eugene O'Neill.) And other major influences in his life, Caresse and Harry Crosby (publishers of the Black Sun Press in Paris, who first brought recognition to William Burroughs, James Joyce etc, whose works were considered too obscene to be published in America.) WHERE is the scene where Harry Crosby (nephew of J.P. Morgan) considered the model for the Great Gatsby and the acknowledged epitome of drug-fueled extravagance and irresponsible behaviour in the 1920's, murders his mistress and kills himself while Hart is obliviously having dinner with Caresse? And what about Emil Opffer, Crane's one great love, for whom he wrote the suite of poems VOYAGES, which drop into the movie with flat readings, completely unbolstered by imaginative visuals? Nothing about Opffer's background, his family's flight from assassination in Denmark or Opffer's own experiences during World War 1. And what about Crane's mother's mental instability, her rejection of him for his homosexuality and threats to expose his sexual preferences to his father? And the meeting between Crane and Federico Garcia Lorca in 1929? Two doomed poets, both homosexual, totally unalike but both critical of American Society in the 1920's, although Crane's love for his country was absolute and eternal.
The Broken Tower does illustrate the difficulties of Crane's poetry, which in his own words is described as "A jazz roof garden method, evolved from a pseudo-symphonic construction, of an abstract beauty that has not been done before in the English language. A kind of metaphysical quotidian combination". (Wow!) At the time Crane's poetry was more appreciated outside of the United States than within. (The London Times: "Mr Crane reveals a profound originality in lines of arresting and luminous quality", whereas in the New York Saturday Review, "Mr. Crane rapes language under the impression he is paying it the highest compliment".) Poet Marianne Moore, who printed some of Crane's earliest poems, found them so impenetrable that she rewrote them without Crane's permission, an act of betrayal that devastated him.
What Crane was aiming for with his poetry was an Elizabethan accent on the American scene, drawn from the example of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but rejecting Eliot's whole-hearted pessimism. Crane believed in America as the bridge to the future through mechanisation and he tried to infuse this in his poetry. What he ended up with was a mass of images that were so dense in their construction that the uninitiated reader would find them impossible to navigate. Crane believed in starting the journey for the reader, but forcing them to complete it on their own, which inevitably led to a great deal of frustration.
The Broken Tower is divided into various "Voyages", supposedly designed to illustrate the major events in Crane's life, drawing ever closer to his suicide. These are introduced by cue cards. For example "Hart Crane goes to Cuba" -- and we see him taking a long, long walk down a street somewhere. Or "Hart Crane goes to Mexico" -- and we see him singing in a bar with a Mexican guitarist. The pivotal moments in his life simply fail to materialize. While his alcoholism and poverty are well documented, and figure in the movie, so many other incidents are missing. The fact that he left America when the Great Depression hit, the fact that he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled him to live in Mexico during this period, but was threatened with withdrawal due to his erratic behaviour and public intoxication, is nowhere to be seen.
Another screenplay, entitled HART CRANE, written in 2008, can be found on www.simplyscripts.com and covers all the main incidents in Crane's life. Unfortunately, while it might be of interest to anyone seeking a fuller and more coherent version of Crane's life, it is unlikely ever to see the light of day due to the release of The Broken Tower.
Summing up, James Franco deserves kudos for having tackled such a difficult and uncommercial subject. Certainly an original interpretation of a problematical character, the chasms that exist between each "Voyage" and the lack of depth in the main character (due to the absence of any interaction with the main movers and shakers in his life) make it highly unlikely that this movie will have any lasting effect or figure in any revival. However, if this movie interests anyone enough to seek out Crane's poetry, then that is everything one can wish for -- and grateful thanks to James Franco for that.