Boldly approaching the celebrity biopic subgenre with a combination of awkwardly sincere formal ambition and totally crap executive ability, writer/director/actor James Franco’s The Broken Tower is now available on DVD from Entertainment One. Broken Tower deserves points for avoiding a bland, straightforward treatment of the artist’s life and personal struggles, but its attempts to be expressionistic aren’t focused or skillful enough to really counteract the clichés it eschews.
True to its title, Franco’s film fragmentedly depicts the artistic fervor and defiantly urban surroundings of star-crossed American poet Hart Crane. A tortured alcoholic and closeted homosexual rejected by his wealthy family for refusing to commit to their snooty upper-crust lifestyle, Crane ultimately committed suicide at age 32, convinced that his creative ambitions had been a failure. Broken Tower offers a series of vignettes from Crane’s life, arranged in roughly chronological order, and separated by intertitles into loosely constructed “stanzas.”
Broken Tower strives to be lyrical and impressionistic, but Franco’s deliberately jerky and disjointed presentation is unfortunately so aimless and amateurishly conceived that the film has difficulty achieving any kind of real identification from the viewer, either narrative or textural. Franco explains in the disc’s special features that he wanted to avoid “psychologizing” Crane or reducing the events of his life to cannon fodder for a boring, nostalgic trek through rose-tinted vintage New York. The director’s fundamental instincts about the movie’s structure are probably correct, but the sloppy pseudo-experimental techniques he opts for aren’t compelling or evocative enough to compensate for his rejection of the formal status quo. The movie’s full of abrupt cuts and haphazard framing, but none of those decisions feel conscious or loaded with meaning – they just feel like sloppy mistakes.
The most exciting parts of the film, weirdly, are the ones where Franco reads Crane’s poetry out loud, sometimes on-screen, and other times in voiceover punctuated by shots of snazzy New York architecture or irreverent drunken carousing. These sequences at least speak well to The Broken Tower’s subject by displaying the quality of the poet’s work itself – it’s a shame the rest of the film isn’t up to the task of elaborating on it more meaningfully.
E-One’s disc is less sparse than usual, and includes some deleted scenes from the film, and real-time Skype interviews conducted by Franco with an array of college lit professors about the film’s subject. There’s also a commentary track featuring Franco and the film’s producer and cinematographer. The movie itself, to be fair, might be more exciting for people already familiar with Crane, like a series of fleeting, speculative snapshots. Viewed outside an established biographical context, however, it’s difficult to appreciate.