Hart Crane sure liked to walk around. If there’s an image you’re going to take away from The Broken Tower, James Franco’s take on the modernist poet, it’s Crane (Franco) stalking about New York, or Paris, or Cuba, or Mexico, searching for…something. Artistic inspiration? Psychic respite? A lay from one of the sailors with whom he found fleeting erotic connection? The camera bobs behind him patiently, recording every step while refusing to speculate on the would-be destination of Crane’s multiple, solitary sojourns. Franco deserves credit for attempting to understand Crane’s interior life by focusing on such interstitial moments. Too often, though, The Broken Tower simply leaves us locked out of Crane’s subjective landscape, mistaking furrowed-brow earnestness for insight.
Crane’s demons occupy center stage here, to the point of blocking out the intelligence and literary verve that allowed him to translate his tortured personal life into such influential works as “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” and his epic poem The Bridge, an optimistic response to the dim worldview found of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s poetry is far from ignored. Though he largely composes the film out of brief snatches and sidelong glances, Franco devotes more than 10 uninterrupted minutes to the poet’s early-career reading in New York. Various works can be heard throughout The Broken Tower, often used in voiceover to stitch together disparate shots of Crane’s nomadic existence. These glimpses of Crane’s gifts largely take a backseat to scenes of disillusionment, anger, and anomie: bitter arguments with his industrialist father; drunken revelry collapsing into hung-over gloom. Even his tender relationship with sailor Emile (Michael Shannon) becomes marred by Crane’s emotional inexpressiveness. Franco is hardly the first to underline to disconnect between an artist’s professional triumphs and private failings. Without a stronger sense of how Crane’s rage and depression fed his poetry, however, the film’s portrait becomes curiously bifurcated. There’s little to do besides luxuriate in the film’s black-and-white moodiness, with Crane’s stormy temperament and transatlantic wanderings edging uncomfortably close to doomed-artist romanticism.
It’s easy enough to dismiss The Broken Tower as calculated and self-indulgent on its director’s part. His fingers quite publicly placed in several higher-education pies, Franco has self-consciously fashioned himself as a winking polyglot rebel, mixing high-profile studio gigs with forays into literary fiction, academia, and low-budget filmmaking. He’s also positioned himself on the edge of celebrity masculinity, courting homoerotic projects and projecting a general fascination with queer art and culture. What better way to solidify both public personae than playing a gay, doomed, early-20th-century poet? (He’s certainly willing to suck a prosthetic dick for his art.) Call it what you like: dilettantism, attention-whoring, overreach. I understand the Franco backlash without really feeling it. To me, there’s something undeniably fascinating about his aesthetic obsessions, which seem to link pastness, queerness, and literariness into some vague nexus of artistic purity. The Broken Tower doesn’t say much of note about any of these things. It’s tonally flat and a little too impressed with its own elliptical construction. (Did we really need those chapter headings, which muddle the immediacy of DP Christina Voros’s black-and-white cinematography with studied listings of the plot points that will occur in the subsequent segment?) Yet there’s something about Franco’s desire to escape the straitjacket of the biopic’s pat psychologizing and greatest-hits structure that makes his film feel at least honest in its missteps. Those walking sequences become paradigmatic of The Broken Tower as a whole: admirable in their willingness to leave well-trodden paths, but unsure of what one does afterward.