By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 21, 2011 at 5:44AM
"This is a slow film on purpose," James Franco told an audience at the downtown Los Angeles premiere of "The Broken Tower," the new movie he recently directed about the life and work of poet Hart Crane. "This is not 'Pineapple Express.'" In fact, "The Broken Tower," which begins with Crane's early efforts to get noticed and concludes with his 1932 suicide, exists at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from "Pineapple Express" and other likeminded popular entertainments. Echoing the redundant debate launched by an article in The New York Times magazine several weeks ago about the difficulty of one writer to appreciate "slow-moving, meditative" cinema," Franco obviously knew precisely how alienating his new work would seem.
But even while "The Broken Tower" requires active engagement rather than passivity, that doesn't mean it's worth the effort. Using Paul Mariani's biography "The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane" as a basis, Franco's narrative moves along as a succession of scenes, shot in a scrappy, handheld style nimbly lifted from early Godard, that's meant to represent Crane's creative process. Like much of the increasingly crowded, self-made genre made up of Franco's output, "The Broken Tower" is predominantly a cerebral exercise in experimental analysis.
Shot on video in black-and-white by Christina Voros (who also photographed Franco's superior "Saturday Night" documentary), the movie stars Franco himself as the mustachioed Crane, a gay romantic living through the jazz age but mostly trapped in his own head. Using Paul Mariani's "The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane" as a basis, "The Broken Tower" shows Crane speaking dreamily about his desire to do T.S. Eliot one better and write a sprawling poem that presents "a new cultural synthesis of our terms and values as Americans." Franco uses a chapter-based structure, with a dozen or so "voyages" acting as titles for each new section, a decision that borrows the name of a Crane poem published in his first volume of work, "White Buildings." Franco tracks Crane from New York City to Mexico, the place where he traveled for a few years before committing suicide on the boat ride home in 1932.
Despite the "voyages," however, "Broken Tower" feels stationary, repeating the same motifs and attitudes ad infinitum until the credits finally roll. Notwithstanding cameos from Franco friends and colleagues, including Michael Shannon in the fleeting role of a sailor, the movie has the qualities of an unfinished thesis project, more document of discovery than cinematic achievement. Regardless of what Franco thinks, it's not slowness that holds it down, but rather its overly ponderous nature, a trait only truly appealing to those with the same existing appreciation for Crane that Franco has.
Acknowledging as much, Franco invited media scholar Francisco Ricardo to moderate the post-screening discussion, a keen validation of the work and Franco's desire to make it. An avowed Franco fan, Ricardo called the movie "a masterpiece" and blasted the general public for considering the actor's vast body of work--ranging from acting to directing to writing to theater and installations and whatever else he wants--for treating this prolific activity as "simple."
This was not the first time Ricardo mounted such a defense. While "The Broken Tower" screening was billed as a world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Ricardo reveals in a detailed blog post that it actually showed for the first time at a much earlier date for students and faculty at Boston College. At the later screening, Ricardo offered a meandering defense of both the movie and its director, but his written work establishes his point of view more carefully. Having seen the movie in Boston, Ricardo wrote back in April that Franco's latest head-spinner
operates in the medium of film but it is not primarily a motion picture, nor can one fairly place it in the convenience classification of 'character study'--these objectivist, externalizing terms prevent us from understanding the work that we must perform in order to observe a soul that is deeply poetic, personal and paladin…the film is not to be viewed as much as navigated, one must be in it, for its method is less that of a visual panegyric than that of the existential problem set that philosophy has set out for us, inviting us to take the red pill, but also offering the blue so that, when the 'the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe what you want to believe.' This was not an existential option for Hart crane…This work falls outside of typical genres; if there were one established category, it would be called phenomenological film.
This is, in fact, an established category in film theory often used to discuss work designed to translate a subjective experience into something tangible and self-aware. There are more advanced examples of this idea put into action, such as the visionary image-making of avant-garde legend Stan Brakhage. "The Broken Tower" doesn't travel to such abstract places. The grungier younger brother to "Howl," in which Franco played Allan Ginsberg and animations were used to represent the Beat poet's verse, the Crane story contains a skit-based structure that one could potentially use to create a more thorough investigation into his life.
Instead, the movie lingers in his frustrations--with unemployment, his homosexuality, his disputes with publishers--in a style dominated by ongoing detachment. Of course, that's the same critique many pundits leveled at Franco for his notorious Academy Awards performance. Franco tends to look perpetually distracted, which is a reasonable state for somebody overloaded with Hollywood and non-Hollywood gigs alike, not to mention doctoral research at Yale. Beyond that, however, his relentless work ethic is a premeditated act, according to apologists like Ricardo, who writes that Franco
...has for several quiet decades turned on the nourishment of several simultaneous directions, and all--visual art, literature and poetry, and modeling and film acting--should be seen through the same interpretive lens, despite having thus far received wholly different degrees of public attention…Franco, whose literary work appears with still too-precious-little of the critical interrogation that another author would receive, remains nonetheless engaged in the world of letters as author, as student, and as a colleague to many other authors.
Ricardo expresses a desire to value the Franco phenomenon by proclaiming its diverse nature as an end unto itself. This line of thinking makes it hard to critique individual aspects of Franco's canon because it argues that the synthesis of it validates his accomplishment. Not so! Some Franco is better than all Franco combined. I truly enjoyed his "My Own Private River" installation, among other, more conventional entries in his filmography. And, yes, that includes his zany performance as a Jewish drug dealer in "The Pineapple Express."
"The Broken Tower" unquestionably represents lesser Franco, a smart and ambitious project that nevertheless lacks emotional connectivity and suffers from prosaic qualities: Instead of making Crane's world come to life, Franco weighs it down with lengthy scenes in which he recites verses to befuddled audiences, along with fleetingly graphic sex scenes and conversations with his friends, family and lovers about exactly what he wants for himself.
What he wants, however, is a creative ideal that he can't possibly have. "The Broken Tower" opens with a telling quote from Crane: "Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably fluid as always." Franco appears eager to explore Crane's magical perception of language, most memorably by showing the poet repeating the word "Naugahyde" in a number of strange and comical voices, even sticking out his tongue and unleashing a beastly growl. (His affinity for Marina Abramovic's performance art is particularly apparent here.)
Franco obviously relates to the vanity that defined Crane's attempts to get noticed. "We all know life is a dance of death, but we can still make something of it," he says at one point. In a very short period of time, Franco has made many things of it. If the solipsistic technique behind "The Broken Tower" says anything autobiographical about its director, it has to do with the struggle to try something different. The trouble is that, in setting himself apart, Franco has become incredibly familiar to all of us.
criticWIRE grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Franco brand will help find an audience for the movie it might otherwise never receive, but that audience will be small. A midsize distributor might be willing to give it a shot at limited release, but its best reception will continue to be colleges and festivals, especially when Franco attends.