The Broken Tower: The Case For James Franco's Feature-Directing Breakthrough

The film: The Broken Tower (2011), available on DVD via Focus World

Why it's an Inessential Essential: Straight out of New York University's Tisch School for the Arts, actor-turned-aspiring filmmaker James Franco helmed, starred in and adapted The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane, Paul Mariani's biography of the titular turn-of-the-century poet. Franco's moving film — his first feature as a director to be commercially released — depicts Crane (played by Franco, of course) as a frustrated artist striving for an avant-garde artistic ideal that he would never fully realize.

Crane, an alcoholic bisexual (one of whose conquests is played by Michael Shannon!) committed suicide at the age of 32 before he was able to complete The Bridge, his epic post-modern poem about, well, everything. Franco's version of Crane identifies his style as a response to T.S. Eliot's poems. He tells a friend that his poems are similarly reliant on free association, though Crane's poems are considerably more hopeful than Eliot's are.

While Franco's public persona suggests that he has become unfocused and uninterested in his own celebrity, The Broken Tower proves that, along with the probably never-to-be-released-on-DVD My Own Private River (a companion film to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho that Franco and Van Sant exhaustively assembled from unused Idaho footage), Franco has made good use of his time and talent. For example, it's apparent that Franco heavily researched Crane's world, though his film exhibits that knowledge in a rather modest way; The Broken Tower's narrative is, after all, mostly composed of dialogue-light long takes where Crane struggles to become inspired while having sex, getting drunk and taking long walks. But the period Crane lived in and the way it directly influenced how he experienced his creative frustrations and ecstasies is also vividly depicted in Franco's film, too.

How the DVD/Blu Makes the Case for the Film: Franco, cinematographer Christina Voros and The Broken Tower producer Vince Jolivette contribute an enlightening audio commentary. Franco's rambling (though never boring or ignorant) narration takes some getting used to, but his enthusiasm about his subject and research comes through — particularly in conversation with Jolivette about making exterior scenes period-specific or with Voros about shooting in the cathedral at Notre Dame. It's easy to pigeonhole Franco as a know-nothing art-house movie brat. But if you listen to him talk for a little bit, he does come off as well-read in an impressive and unpretentious way.

Other Interesting Trivia: Elsewhere on the commentary, Franco cites Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr as a key influence on The Broken Tower's use of long takes. This is especially striking since Franco also mentioned Tarr as a guiding influence when he recently presented My Own Private River at Lincoln Center's screening of that film. In River, Franco emulated Tarr's unique style of anti-kinetic storytelling because he was trying to edit the film as Gus Van Sant — who has also cited Tarr as a source of latter-day inspiration — might have cut it in 2011. But with The Broken Tower, Franco has taken his own footage and shot it with the intention of pacing a completely new film in a style similar to Tarr's. Franco's Tarr love proves how badly he wants to be taken seriously. With a little luck, he'll get the respect he deserves.

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Simon Abrams is a NY-based freelance film critic whose work has been featured in outlets like The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture and Esquire. Additionally, some people like his writing, which he collects at Extended Cut.