16 Apr

Opening the Matrix of the Heart in James Franco’s “The Broken Tower”


What is it like to stand at the juncture of four directions, four different dimensions of openness, in a single place? At any moment of our being, we are in fact, definably at a north-south-east-west juncture, but what I am pointing to is not a geography of site but of being. One of these dimensions of openness is that of a creative work’s medium, which in the discussion I am about to embark upon, is that of the poem, transmodally crossing over to that of film. Another openness is that of the work as what stands behind, before, beneath, and beyond its possible medium. In the poem, this openness is indispensable, for to think poetically is to move away from the form of the poetic work and into the vastness of human experience which, through reflection, funnels into its language. A third dimension emerges from the artist, whose inner world seeks an intersection with an expressive order such that each can enrich — that is, transform without diminishing — the other. The fourth dimension of openness is the indeterminate state with which we as readers, listeners, viewers, participants, come to the coalescence of the first three. This is what happens in the presence of a transmodal work, which in the case I am coming to, involves a film of a poet moving toward a poem, and in whose performance, an actor crafts an overarching space that accommodates all four of these dimensions, these senses, these commitments to creative openness on all counts.


The work in question, about to be released, is a biopic of the poet Hart Crane, directed by and starring James Franco. The Broken Tower operates in the medium of film, but it is not primarily a motion picture, nor can one fairly place it in the convenient classification of “character study” — these objectivist, externalizing terms prevent us from understanding the work that we must perform in order to observe a soul that is deeply poetic, personal, and palladian. The film is not be viewed as much as navigated, one must be in it, for its method is less that of a visual panegyric than that of the existential problem set that philosophy has set out for us, inviting us to take the red pill, but also offering the blue so that, to quote another palliative escape, when “the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”. This was not an existential option for Hart Crane, the nuanced soul whose life and super-complex poetry are the subject of this narrative, correspondingly realized with long, slow shots, in black and white, with timing that breathes like a monk in prayer — an experience rendered more starkly by the lack of all music except for a recurrent short set of passages sung by a small choir and the tortuously unceasing refrain of Ravel’s Bolero. This work falls outside of typical genres; if there were one  established category, it would be called  phenomenological film.

Perhaps the role of yet a third medium, between poem and film, should be acknowledged here. Lost in the cult of personality, there stands behind the entertainment icon of James Franco a literary intellect that is too conveniently easy to overlook, for to conceive of this possible proficiency is to do yet additional work in the problem of understanding this question of multiple dimensions of openness. The archetypal identity of the star, the entertainment figure, requires a crucial coherence — even some simplicity — in order to operate feasibly, to cut through swirling oceans of attention-getting projects and products that sustain the culture industry. But that constitutes, like the variety of roles that Franco plays, only a partial view into a person with much greater energy than what any screen performance calls for. To understand the possibility of multiple talents, it is only necessary to imagine a proportionally equal degree of curiosity, love, and dedication to nourish each of them, and modernity’s late stage of anxiety and stress is perhaps only a reflection of the fact that many of us have been forced into the development of multiple talents that do not have pecuniary or other rewards, but whose execution is continually required in various interfaces to social life. Franco’s project has for several quiet decades turned on the nourishment of several simultaneous directions, and all — visual art, literature and poetry, and modeling and film acting — should be seen through the same interpretive lens, despite their having thus far received wholly different degrees of public attention. How can one validly separate, for example, the influence that Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho bore on the retrospection of Franco’s identity formation, with its subsequent chronicle in the fictions of his book, Palo Alto Stories; in that film’s highly conceptual non-narrative remake in Franco’s own My Own Private River, and even in the energy to which this struggle against the loss of a soul characterizes the present performance as Hart Crane? And so, the authorial James Franco, whose literary work appears with still too-precious-little of the critical interrogation that another author would receive, remains nonetheless engaged in the world of letters as author, as student, as reader, and as colleague to many other authors.


As a foundation to The Broken Tower, one of these links connects directly to Paul Mariani, whose biography of Hart Crane performs several kinds of analyses that no other work on Crane so thoroughly provides. The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), for example, examines to a greater degree than any extant monograph the strained relationship between the poet and his parents, whose own dispositions provide much in the way of fuel for emotional estrangement in young Hart. But Mariani exposes the resistance with which other poets, no less a figure than William Carlos Williams, had to come to acknowledge Crane’s greatness, even as many had dismissed his retrograde move to the Orphic, to the metaphysically hopeful, as the last Romantic, encircled by acolytes of the modernist nihilism that Eliot had darkly established. For his part, Crane’s own sensitivity could give in to loss — and did — but this surrender never subsumed poetry to the service of despair. Mariani’s work, the model of sensitive scholarship with a keen eye for the diligently researched detail, reads with the lively rhythm of an avuncular conversation with Paul himself. As his colleague and friend, Franco finds in Mariani what we should all determine there as well – a role for the supportive authority figure in our own world. Franco’s bow to this literal turn is to provide in The Broken Tower a role for Mariani, who, for someone who has given the portrait of Crane such lucid exposure, also appears in the film — appropriately cast as Alfred Stieglitz. The role is as knowledgeably played as the book is written, and Franco’s project — as one navigating the intersecting dimensions of openness — is not lost on Mariani’s considerable care — and patience – with his own multiple talents. And no less apposite to the normative concerns of the film, Mariani’s own professional domain, Boston College, has long been the ideal academic environment for developing the kind of social and moral engagement that is, as with Crane’s own vision, a sustained response to  — and against — the world’s perhaps diminishing commitment to hope. Even for any healthy skeptic, it is obvious that, if generosity of spirit is at a premium today, it certainly is not with Mariani, or with B.C. And the film provides a meaning-making conceptual juncture, having received its world-premiere at Boston College, thanks to coordination with Hallie G. Sammartino’s highly progressive Office of Marketing Communications.


How does one perform the life and work of a man whose power and sensibility both made his work timeless and yet destroyed his life prematurely? There is an alluring tension between the kind, neurotic fragility of Hart Crane, such as he was, and the inexplicable power of James Franco’s animal magnetism, something that reminds one of a different film with similar intentions — but posing a much less ambitious challenge — A Beautiful Mind, where the outsized Russell Crowe performs a kind of physionomic miracle in successfully scaling his brawny aura down to the meek absentmindedness of the schizophrenic mathematical genius John Nash. Schizophrenia is not something that has touched most people’s lives, and Nash’s mathematical reasoning is scarcely depicted, being the enemy of the film’s tension — the disintegration of one’s world in the face of overpowering mental illness. However, there are in Nash’s life many points of sanity that countervail the mental demons. There is, for example, the courageously unwavering presence of his wife, portrayed by Jennifer Connelly as the incarnation of loyalty without hope of reward or respite as she bears witness to the surreal decline of a highly ordered mind. There is also a woven world of professional and collegial support for Nash in the form of governmental and academic recognition, as he becomes selected for everything from secret cryptological projects to the Nobel Prize in Economics. Nash benefited from a career graced with the kind of renown that comes when the world listens to one’s work and thus finds in it an understanding of important problems. And that listening is what translates great ideas into great accomplishments, the former is what one gives to the world; the latter is what the world gives back. Few forms of existential dialogue can be more important to the struggling, gifted soul whose life demands extended dedication to its work so as to continue evolving.

But in Crane’s life, this balance between adversity and support is simply not available. This is the challenge that Franco confronts, and into which he immerses us. As we know to be true of so many poets, Crane’s craft emerges out of the shadows of a life that, while underpowered, is nevertheless fueled by the triumph of celebration of love, in its gaze at the world, at once critical as it is of the anemic sleep with which most of us carry on, and simultaneously joyous with vigil gratitude at the intimate closeness of another by whose love we are nourished. Crane’s method in this is to use language itself as the driving wedge into awareness, but not the kind of poetic language that we might imagine — something splayed out like a landscape painting and in which the viewer’s position is readily affixed and comfortably fitted for the reception of evocative harmonies. No. Crane’s linguistic approach at first seems evocative, but on second reading, or third listening, proves instead provocative. The abstractness of the descriptions, the droll but syncopated march of the rhythm, the sentences that distend like a sprawling techno-metropolis, all operate first to elicit confusion, but are to be parsed in the imperative, as a “Charge!” clarion call to reposition oneself, or rather, to find one’s vantage in the world picture not as viewer but as thinker, as someone ethically commissioned to embrace the extraordinary complexity that erupts between the timeless pull of human love and the doldrums of the contemporary attitude that negates it. Each poem is a kind of “Why?” unflinchingly pointed right at this asymmetry, felt almost as conversations with a higher being, rather than as elegies lamenting something dead.

And getting there is not without difficulty for the poet himself. Caught within the lingering inscrutability of Crane’s work, one is tempted to imagine these difficult verses as easily thrown together as an exquisite corpse-like exercise in randomization — such is the infuriation with which the reader struggles to get to the other side of its initial engagement. But Crane’s tenacious sensitivity to a single word, clinging for its concealed meaning as if the poet were about to drop off the edge of the Universe, is depicted with playful exasperation in one solo scene giving us Franco’s wrestling with a fistful of Naugahyde, struggling toward that place between its undeniable material presence and its vinyl-like failure to deliver on the organic promise.

We are not left wondering, then, about Crane’s desperation against the pathetic apoplexy of a workaday world; he is, in the noblest irony possible, imprisoned within the most anti-poetic jobs possible, from the humiliation of lowly sack-carrying clerk for his father’s business to the hypnotic stultification of the proverbial day job championing the message that will sell toothpaste and thereby save the world from tooth decay. His heart in a vice grip, the poet, on his own, without partnership, home, support of family, or many lasting friends, can only love and create, yet never compromising to shorten the conscious distance between the height of his writing and our reluctance to soar. He medicates with the usual panoply of libations for self-destruction, but alone, alone, all alone, and without even a tormentor for company, we witness the emptiness of time and the superabundance of emotional wellsprings slowly galvanizing his inevitable exit from the impossibility of success. He brings the world his gift, and the world never consecrates it into accomplishment, such is the prophetically minor key in which his poetry knows it can be played.


Of course, The Broken Tower is in so many ways not difficult, but so direct in its truth to the problem of living with dignity and reflection. A short, compact poem, the work spans three facts in the way that it mirrors the institution of God; the constitution of the human body, standing straight up and ringing out to be heard; and the destitution of faith, given that a place such as this need be built at all, since it cannot be nourished fully in the collective heart’s imagination. Many attributions have been made to its meaning; I can offer one that points to James Franco’s own emphasis on the internal sojourn of the poet, beyond social, romantic, or contemporary contexts — the film, we must remember, is an existential work. And so the poem sets sail with a call exactly as Crane’s own, for our heightened and transformative sensitivity, asking rhetorically if we can be so obtuse as to have overlooked all resonance between one’s own enunciation and the cosmos of otherness:

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?

Here is the unflinching insistence — as if it could not be repeated more explicitly and still remain poetry — on the distance between the lofty ideal, escaping with fleeting mystery, and their dagger-like trace singing the language to which the poet is beholden, and thereby we to him, for he serves as interlocutor, the echoes of the bells in this allegory are left here in the plains of the earthly dominion, for the poet to gather:

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

But Crane’s poetry is more than a subjective appraisal, his is a complete picture of the response to the dystopian Waste Land of T.S. Eliot, who stands as his photo-negative. And with not a little irony: Eliot’s nihilistic canticles to the lost spirit of the modern world can scarcely be read without an equally resounding echo of his own success as renowned colossus of American literature. Crane, by complete inversion, is the modern-day Whitman. Modest of means, singing of hope, propitiating all that is human without repulsion or bias, he presents himself, no gender or other category limiting his embrace, and offers a hopeful but unmet hand and heart:

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

And in this, his final published poem, Crane shares, as did Whitman, a backward glance o’er travel’d roads, paying for our sleep with what, as the coin of poetry, he could — a great measure of heart and language — even if misunderstood, neglected, until only death could give his work the strength that the world had denied him:

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope – cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) -or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-

The Christ-like crucifixion now ready, Crane’s stage is now set for the final transcendence, where surrender from the world’s slaughters of denial finds restoration by repeating the motif of the crumbling physical, only this time in lasting spirit:

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip
Of pebbles, – visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

And the bridge-like fulcrum between the mundane and the immaterial is, in the final stanza, unsealed and bracketed by the physical object in the first line — the heart — and the ideal of its production in the last — love:

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eye
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

It is this very unsealing in the distant but homologous horizon of conscious being that opens out to the poetic spaces that Crane explores with such courage, portrayed by Franco with the kind of sensual surrender, recondite solitude, and existential estrangement that cannot be called acting in any theatrical way. And so it is that in films like Franco’s here, one should self-prepare before walking in, there is much from personal experience that we can naturally use to resonate to many of the depictions we see in Crane’s life, but Crane was also a struggling poet,openly gay at a time when the film shows the painful toll that was just as openly meted out for this. He was not openly sensitive, except to his friends; he waited out the world, but the world never came. And so, we must come to the film with more to bring than the expectation of passive entertainment, we are meant to bring, as to Crane’s poetry, what his contemporary day did not bring him. And we can choose whether to travel with him retrospectively, or to sit back and sit out the work of this alchemical unsealing, in which one kind of tower becomes another, and where the four dimensions of openness converge exactly where it matters to them and to the necessity of our full engagement:  the matrix of the heart. Can any place be more important? This confluence amounts to required media for required viewing, required reflecting — and required being.

One Comment

  1. 1
    Larry Jenkins
    June 23, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Your insightful critique of Crane- and Franco’s performance in “The Broken Tower” is really appreciated. It is the deeply spiritual person, who experiences on a regual or intermittent basis, the four diffrent dimensions of openness who can appreciate the subtlety of a Franco performance or any Franco act of creation.