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by Eric Kohn
June 21, 2011 5:44 AM
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LAFF REVIEW | "The Broken Tower" Is Lesser Franco, But James Franco Apologists Think Otherwise

James Franco in "The Broken Tower."

"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.

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4 Comments

  • Cary | January 14, 2012 6:30 AMReply

    Well, I wanted to enjoy or be fulfilled by this: I like Franco and Crane and applaud the effort to bring any kind of film about a poet to screen. But Franco simply fails to be believable in this as Crane. The performance is flat. Slow is fine if I believe the performance, but I didn't. One reviewer said something about it seeming like "playing dress up," and that is the effect for me.

    Either Franco got too close to his material and took it too seriously or the exact opposite, but the result was ineffective at delivering a graspable presentation of Crane. His poetry readings were pedantic and annoying, over stressed. I think this film in some ways perhaps reflects the problems of the same person being the scholar/author/actor/director--I think having someone able to step outside those roles and provide feedback during the production might have helped. Maybe he should have let someone else direct and/or act.

    I'm not sure the episodic segment delivery, which presents like chapters in an academic text, was the right choice. By breaking up the narrative arc, he further diminishes Crane's development as a character. It is an interesting intellectual exercise to attempt to present a film so it becomes more like the experience of reading a book (if that was intentional), but an essential truth is that a film is not a book, and there are inherent benefits of the format lost in so doing (and benefits of an in-hand text are not available in a film). Perhaps this will be less of an issue in the DVD release, where like a book pages can be turned back to, some poured over for longer time, notes taken, but in a linear and visual film presentation, these choices neglect certain strengths of the medium while suffering from weaknesses & the sacrifices to narrative arc made by the episodic breaks accentuates this.

    I hope Franco keeps trying though, because I do think his heart is in the right place (pun intended), and he is a special talent who can and hopefully will continue to bring material to the screen that others ignore.

  • herbert katz | June 24, 2011 12:56 PMReply

    Like the first commenter I believe this review should be read carefully because it expresses the difficulties of delivering a message to the emotions while trying to satisfy a research objective. as this films shows, the combination usually leads to deficiencies in the message.
    Good work Eric.

  • Orville | June 24, 2011 3:54 AMReply

    I think James Franco is refreshing it is nice to see a young Hollywood star actually make a movie because he wanted Hart Crane's poetry to reach a wider audience. It seems to me that people in the media have a problem with James because he's actually a scholar and not just an actor. I think it is wonderful that James has dedicated himself to his post secondary education.

    I also sense the reviewer seems a bit homophobic. So what if the Broken Tower had graphic sex scenes? I have seen movies with explicit scenes of heterosexuality and people don't complain about that. I haven't seen the Broken Tower yet but I do hope it will be released in Toronto?

  • Francisco Ricardo | June 22, 2011 9:55 AMReply

    This is a heartfelt critique, and one that should -- as with Franco's film -- be seen/read more than once, as I have. The critic's assertion that the mode of reception for the movie entails "active engagement rather than passivity" is true, and that is perhaps the major distinction between Franco's work as a Hollywood actor and his own directorial work which is an antithetical reaction against the constraints of commercial culture industry. If Franco creates a different kind of film for a different kind of experience, perhaps it also calls for a different kind of critical quest. The critic came halfway there -- he acknowledges that "The Broken Tower" represents a different kind of filmic project but concludes that this "doesn’t mean it’s worth the effort". What "worth the effort" means points to what what payoff the critic is looking for as the end of this effort: *Why* is it not worth the effort? Is there a critical refusal to see this work from within its own poetic phenomenology? Evidently so, since the critic's mention that he "enjoyed" the My Own Private River installation at Gagosian Gallery, a verb that suggests that the operative attitude -- enjoyment -- places him in the classic mode of entertainment critic, one exercising passive (read "impatient") entertainment, sitting back and attempting to enjoy film. We will return to the limits of "enjoyment" below.

    The critic mentions me as "an avowed Franco fan, Ricardo called the movie “a masterpiece” and blasted the general public for considering the actor’s vast body of work". I certainly did not blast the audience or anyone else. I did express my appreciation to the present viewers prior to the discussion of where the film's aesthetic compass was pointing. That discussion was three quarters of an hour, and was designed to clarify that enjoyment is *not* an aim in the film. As with Duchamp's readymade as a class of object that inspired a century of contemporary art but which cannot be understood on its own, the aesthetic of some films, too, must to be explained to a larger public. This is not a comment against or a detriment to culture, it is a corrective to the vacuum of conceptual engagement that the entertainment industry has fashioned by creating work that is gauged purely on merits of visual immediacy, of what happens within the work and how it must never be related to subsequent viewing of the work. But the apparently too-elusive sentiment behind some creative work is seems fleeting because it exceeds the temporal and structural conditions of its physical medium, and recognizing this, there are many kinds of project that do not attend to "enjoyment" as the sole criterion for artistic creation. If, to the critic, the film appears to "lack emotional connectivity and suffers from prosaic qualities", it is because Crane's own psychological profile, and his writing, was precisely traced by these qualities. Franco's film should be positioned in contrast to, rather than in comparison with "Tom and Viv" on the life of T.S. Eliot -- a pure period piece -- or Minelli's "Lust for Life" on the life of van Gogh, which casts the brawny Kirk Douglas in the role of a painter who in real life was quite frail. These films are excellent forms of entertainment and commercial successes - they can be "enjoyed". But they are not phenomenological films, they are Hollywood productions, and the critical stance should do more than claim its acknowledgement of that difference without shifting its own position to enter Franco's work, as also applies to the work of many other complex directors.

    That is why, after the film, I specifically mentioned that some works deposit meaning in subsequent viewings. The work might then reveal itself to be less something about enjoyment than fulfillment. But that is not terrain that can be reached from the safety of any critical remove. Everyone has work to do here transcending conventional -- which is to say "literal" -- notions of enjoyment. Not many critics will give a film the right to reach for that. I do.