Watch James Franco’s New Hart Crane Biopic (Or, Maybe, Don’t)

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 11 2012 2:21 PM

What’s Missing from James Franco’s New Hart Crane Biopic

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James Franco in October 2010.

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The Broken Tower, James Franco’s new movie (he wrote, directed, and stars) about the life of Hart Crane (best known for his epic poem about the Brooklyn Bridge), was released on Video on Demand and digital download yesterday. Brow Beat asked Evan Hughes, the author of Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, to weigh in.

James Franco has said that the life of Hart Crane lends itself to a movie, owing to its inherent drama and even melodrama. He is absolutely correct. The volatile gay poet played hard in the Roaring Twenties and burned out when the Thirties came, dying by suicide in 1932, at 32 years old. So step right up for New York in the Jazz Age, epic benders, artistic friendships with boldface names, love affairs, back-alley fights, and, finally, a suicide at sea. OK, so Crane also wrote really difficult poetry—leave that out of the pitch meeting.

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Sadly, however, the movie that Franco made from this material is incredibly dull. Having been drawn to the idea of making the fiction-film equivalent of Behind the Musiche cited the delightfully over-the-top VH1 show by name—Franco somewhere lost the courage of his middlebrow convictions. He has made what amounts to a pretentious student film, shot in a very un-VH1 black and white. The cinematography is self-consciously amateurish, which does not excuse it from being amateurish, and the film looks cheap, right down to the main titles and the credits (they appear to have been typed up in the fonts that came with iMovie). It’s a picture that wants to be artistic and artful and instead ends up artsy. (“For the film student who has everything, get him distribution.”)

The source material is Paul Mariani’s Crane biography, also called The Broken Tower, and Mariani, a professor at Boston College, worked closely with Franco on the adaptation, which premiered at the university last year. He even makes a cameo in the film as an older Alfred Stieglitz.

Franco has made a hash, though, of Mariani’s very good book. The movie, unlike the biography, consists of a series of biographical sketches, loosely structured after Crane’s (wonderful) multi-part poem Voyages, and the trouble starts right there. It feels as if Franco, finding no way to piece together the episodes he wanted to feature into a coherent narrative, just settled for a string of episodes with no coherent narrative.

Franco has remained faithful to the facts of Crane’s life (the few exceptions are very minor), but most viewers will have a hard time figuring out what those facts are—and why they have any significance. The protagonist jumps from place to place, often without explanation, and the skips forward in time often occur without badly needed allusions to what has happened in the intervening period. Crane finds himself in relationships that clearly matter greatly to him, especially with the great love of the poet’s life, a sailor named Emil Opffer Jr., played by Michael Shannon—but we don’t see the two meet, and Emil is never introduced in any other way, so the relationship doesn’t matter at all to us. If the character is even named, I missed it. Shannon, a terrific actor, doesn’t have much to do in the movie apart from a pretty graphic sex scene with Franco. (Franco also gives us a graphic encounter between Crane and a truck driver earlier on.)

Near the end, Franco’s Crane is suddenly smitten with a woman—and again we have no idea who she is, nor why or when Crane underwent this sexual sea change. The woman, it might have been interesting to know, was on the way to divorce but still married, and married, as it happens, to Malcolm Cowley, a very good friend of Crane’s and the literary editor of The New Republic. Crane and Peggy Cowley were both living in Mexico, and Malcolm had even asked Crane to take care of his wife while she was there. Even if the average viewer cares zero about The New Republic, he might care that this relationship, something of a back-stabber, became the talk of the literary town. When Crane committed suicide in Peggy’s company—he jumped off a ship during their return from Mexico to New York—it was a bit of a sticky business to explain why they were traveling together. Good stuff, right?

If Franco had really made a film that played up the juicy bits and cut out the boring stuff, it could have been great. But Franco leaves out, say, the Peggy Cowley story—and Crane’s friendship with young Walker Evans, and his hissy fit over being edited by upright Marianne Moore—and instead he gives us unbelievably long takes of Franco’s Crane carrying burlap sacks (a day job), walking through Paris, and riding a boat looking seasick. Faced with the knotty problem that Crane’s poems are all but impenetrable, Franco decides to show himself giving a poor reading of Crane’s work at truly deadening length.

The world will have to wait for Behind the Music: Hart Crane.

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