Friday, April 25, 2014
"The Broken Tower": A biography of poet Hart Crane, acted and directed by James Franco
James Franco directs, writes (using Paul Mariani’s book) and acts the subject role of American poet Harold Hart Crane in the biography “The Broken Tower”, a title of one of Crane’ssmaller works.
I recall in that lost semester in the fall of 1961 at William and Mary, when we read T. S. Elliot “The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock” and wrote themes about it, that the instructor (an Austalian chap who I think was gay) mentioned Crane. Maybe we did read something in that class.
Crane (1899-1932) is best known for “The Bridge” and “White Buildings” and a concept called “the logic of metaphor”.
The film, shot largely in black and white, depicts the pain of his life, split into little episodes called “Voyages”, traveling between Cleveland, New York, Cuba, Mexico and Paris. He had often worked as a copyeditor for advertisers but found adjusting to the discipline of the workplace difficult. He found that it created a conflict with his getting his writing projects done. He tended to depend on the generosity of friends, especially when living in New York, including Brooklyn Heights. That was a common practice among people in the East Village when I was living in New York City from 1974-1978.
There’s a scene about an hour into the film where Crane has dinner with a lawyer who says, “You have shown you can write. But what good does that do you?” Crane is begging for an entry level job as a stock boy. “I can’t do anything else” Crane says, and then makes an angry wisecrack about being expected to sell toothpaste. (Donald Trump started out “The Apprentice” by having his fledglings sell lemonade.) The lawyer says “but every man must make his mark on the world”, I guess by hucksterizing other people’s stuff. I remember being told in a 2002 interview myself “We give you the words.” No you don’t.
The lawyer mentions that his mother will die, and that he should spend his inheritance wisely. But then Crane gets a letter saying his father had mortgage debts and that Crane will get nothing. These were the early years of the Great Depression. That eventually leads to Crane’s suicide by jumping off a ship into the ocean. Drowning would be a horrible way to go. (Sebastian Junger had explained that in a chapter of his book “The Perfect Storm”.)
The film as a few scenes where Crane reads aloud or recites his poems. Often the camera stops and goes black and moves then to another scene.
Crane was gay, and just semi-closeted, in a world where homosexuality doesn’t seem to have been as controversial as it would become later (during the years of McCarthyism). He did have a relationship with one woman, though. In the film, he looks handsome, with his mustache, and smooth, and sometimes surprisingly assertive.
Today, it is common for young artists (gay or not) to be able to make a living with their craft, because of technology. I was in the situation where I did support myself as an “individual contributor” in information technology, which created its own universe of issues. With advancing Internet technology, when I finally wrote a book, I did not need to “male money” from my art to become known for it. That is a very double-edged matter indeed. But this opportunity was not possible in Crane’s time. He did associate with writers, like O’Neill, more established than he was.
Having inherited an estate and being at age 70, I also perceive another connection to Crane's situation. I realize I am "lucky" and wonder if I could pursue my art if I had to use it to provide for other people. This is about a lot more than marriage.
This film, distributed by Focus World, is said to have been a “student” film by Franco as he earned an MFA.
The film can be rented from Netflix on DVD or instant play.