L.A. Film Festival: James Franco back to the esoterica in another turn as a gay poet

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James Franco -- who seems to bounce between highbrow fare (“Howl”) and cheap, lowbrow antics (“Pineapple Express,” “Your Highness”) -- is back to the esoterica. Monday night at the L.A. Film Festival, the prolific actor, author and artiste premiered his latest project, “The Broken Tower,” a biopic about a notoriously obtuse poet.

Franco wrote, directed, produced and starred in the black-and-white film about Hart Crane, a tortured gay artist and son of a wealthy Cleveland businessman, who committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 32. Crane’s poetry was so difficult that even such renowned writers as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams said they couldn’t understand it.


Crane’s verse, which was largely influenced by Romantics such as Whitman and Poe, was heavy on metaphors, blank verses and homosexual innuendo. Both the greatest criticism and praise of his poetry concerns the “logic” of Crane’s metaphors; his poetry is so loaded with them that many readers (including Franco) could only appreciate and understand Crane’s poetry in bites.

“His poetry is difficult for me too,” Franco admitted during a discussion after the premier with Francisco Ricardo, a critic of new media and contemporary art and literature at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I couldn’t even tell you what half his stuff means. But what inspired me is his spirit and drive. He cared so much about his work, even when nobody else understood it.”

“You just stated your own repertoire,” Ricardo teased Franco.

Indeed, Franco’s decision to feature Crane isn’t so surprising if you’re familiar with Franco’s academic interests in literature (he studied English and creative writing at UCLA, graduated from Columbia’s MFA writing program, has taken classes at Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College and is pursuing a doctorate at Yale) and his more cerebral film work.

This is the third time Franco has played a gay character (after his roles in “Milk” and “Howl”), which seems likely to add to the frequent speculation about his sexual identity.

The 99-minute film captures Crane’s life in an unsettling stream of scenes of explicit sex, drunken rages, depressive lows and literary genius. The film’s title comes from Crane’s last publication, “The Broken Tower” (which he penned during his affair with a friend’s wife, his only heterosexual lover), and Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane.

The film cuts between one-second snippets and long, slow takes. In one scene, Crane reads his poetry out loud for a good 10 minutes in a library. Franco said that his goal was to film in a way that would “reflect the style of Crane’s writing,” and to let the audience “feel the texture” of his words.

“I knew there were two scenes that people will be talking about the most: the [sex] scene, and the poetry-reading scene,” Franco said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “The idea [for the reading scene] was to present the poetry in its pure, unadorned form, the way [Crane] would have wanted it.”

And just like the response Crane received, reception to Franco’s work was mixed. As the audience filed out of the theater, groans of “that was boring” were interspersed with the enthusiastic “I would totally watch that again.”

Franco acknowledged that his movie required patience and engagement from the audience (“Thank you for staying,” he joked right after the screening), but he was unapologetic about the way he chose to shoot the film.

“Crane said, ‘If I just have six good readers, that’s enough for me,’ ” Franco said.

For Franco, “The Broken Tower” was the film he had been waiting for somebody to make until he realized he was that person all along.

“There are many great filmmakers out there,” Franco said. “But I hope people with the same tastes as mine would enjoy it.”


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-- Sophia Lee