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An actor and an author in search of Hart Crane
Two years ago, Boston College University Professor of English Paul Mariani received a message from actor James Franco’s agent. Franco, a rising star in Hollywood, wanted to talk about making a movie based on Mariani’s 1999 biography, The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane. Mariani passed the inquiry to his literary agent, who cautioned that such deals—”optioning” the movie rights to a story—rarely result in a finished film.
“I really didn’t know much about James,” Mariani recalls. He could have asked one of his students for details of Franco’s career—from his role in the short-lived 1999 television series Freaks and Geeks to later work in three Spider-Man movies (2002, 2004, 2007), Flyboys (2006), and Pineapple Express, a 2008 comedy-adventure in which Franco co-stars with Seth Rogen.
Mariani arranged his own private Franco film festival. He watched Franco’s portrayal of James Dean in a 2001 made-for-television movie. He was impressed. “Then I saw a few of the other films, which I wasn’t too excited about, you know, like Spider-Man and Flyboys. But the James Dean piece, I said, this guy’s a real actor.” And when he saw Franco’s portrayal of the poet Allen Ginsberg in the 2010 movie Howl, he was sold. “I couldn’t believe just how well James had Allen’s voice down,” he says. “He’d gotten the gestures, the mannerisms of a younger Ginsberg.”
The agents continued to negotiate, but Mariani recalls thinking, “I’m going to do it anyway. I just trust this guy. I’m enjoying this.”
Cut to the present: It’s early evening, Friday, April 15, and the University’s Robsham Theater is packed with 500 students who won an online Boston College lottery for tickets to a preview of The Broken Tower, the film that Franco wrote in consultation with Mariani. (Franco also directed the 90-minute movie and stars as Crane.) The lights dim slightly, and Franco enters through a side door. He waves, looking bemused, and the crowd erupts in applause.
He’s wearing jeans, a leather jacket over his untucked plaid shirt, and white leather shoes. He joins Mariani on stage, and they give brief introductions to the film, which, according to Franco, is not quite, but nearly, completed. Mariani notes that Crane’s poetry was famously dense and difficult. Franco says, “I warn you, this is not Pineapple Express.”
That turns out to be the understatement of the event. Shot in black-and-white, the slow-paced movie includes one especially long scene (10 minutes) of Crane reading a poem to an uncomprehending on-screen audience. And there is no Hollywood ending. Crane, born in 1899, was the son of a prosperous Cleveland businessman who had no patience for his son’s desire to be a poet. His parents’ marriage was miserable and operatic, and Crane first left Ohio when he was 17, as the marriage was ending. He struggled as a writer, leading a peripatetic life plagued by alcoholism and volatile homosexual relationships. In 1932, at age 32, he committed suicide by jumping off a steamship during a return trip to New York from Mexico.
When the lights came up, Franco and Mariani took questions from the audience. One student, a young man in glasses, asked each to talk about “how you first came across Crane’s poetry and why it spoke to you.”
Mariani, who has written biographies of other poets—Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, and, most recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins—said he started reading Crane’s work about 40 years ago “and was puzzled by it, I think like most people, but also drawn to it. And I noticed as I spoke to different poets that they all went through a phase with Hart Crane. There was a period when they were obsessed, or deeply absorbed, by the figure and the poetry of Hart Crane.”
Franco told of being on a set in New Orleans about seven years ago. “I was reading all the time—compensating for not finishing my English degree at UCLA. . . . I started reading Harold Bloom. . . . And Bloom said in the introduction to [a collection of Crane's] poems that you’ll better understand them if you read Paul Mariani’s book.” While Franco was studying film directing at New York University in 2009, he decided to make a movie about the poet.
Soon afterward, Mariani met Franco in New York. They walked around Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, the professor pointing out places where Crane had lived and worked. Crane’s most famous poem is The Bridge, a book-length work inspired by his view of the Brooklyn Bridge from an apartment near the East River, and as they walked across the bridge, Mariani looked up at the cables and said, “Look at the way the wires cross. Those are ‘the choiring strings’ Hart Crane talks about.” Over the next year, and into the fall of 2010, when filming began, Mariani provided Franco with additional research on period details. Mariani even had a cameo role in the movie, portraying the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Questions from several students elicited from Franco the range of influences on his filmmaking. The two movies he had in mind while making The Broken Tower, he said, were My Life to Live (1962) by Jean Luc Godard, and I Am Cuba, by Mikhail Kalatozov, a low-budget but lush 1964 film shot on location with handheld cameras.
Citing the many scenes in his film where Crane is shown simply walking, Franco said, “The idea was to be in his space and move with him and make it feel both intense and also opaque at times, because that is what his poetry is like.” Crane himself once admitted in an essay that his poetry was difficult, Franco said, noting that the poet had asserted, “I’m writing in a certain way so that people will be reading in a different way.”
“My hope,” said Franco, “is maybe you experience the movie in a slightly different way because of the way it’s presented.”
The final question was posed by Morgan Healey ’13. Observing that Crane had struggled to find an “affirmative” vision for his art, she asked Franco, “What are those modern-day affirmations for you?”
Franco said he thinks about “what art is for.” “One of the main things it can do is bring people together with a deep understanding, and really tell us who we are, how we live, and what we’re doing.”
Asked later for her reaction to the film, Healey said she admired the way Franco combined the artfulness of black-and-white filmmaking with Crane’s poetic craft. “It’s like art, twofold,” she said.
Sean Meehan ’11 had a similar impression. “I think it’s a visual tone poem,” he said. “It’s evocative of that kind of abstract poetry.”
Riley Madincea ’11 was struck by how much interest Franco’s celebrity generated. Considering the crowd of 500 (approximately 2,000 students had entered the lottery for tickets), he said, “maybe 90 percent of them were here just to see James Franco. Whatever—he exposes people to arts or events they wouldn’t usually go to. I think that’s a great initiative. If it takes A-list celebrities to do that, it takes A-list celebrities.”
Indeed, Franco was immediately surrounded by a crush of students as he left the stage. He patiently signed autographs and posed for cell phone photos for more than 20 minutes. Franco and Mariani eventually made their way to the Hillside Café, where they joined a couple of dozen faculty members and other invitees at a celebratory reception.
Mariani is currently at work on a biography of the poet Wallace Stevens. Franco, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Yale, was asked about his next projects. He mentioned a “prequel” to The Wizard of Oz, and a film adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. With the lives of Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane brought to film, Franco was asked, why not Walt Whitman? “The thing about Hart Crane is, he had a very dramatic life and that works for cinema a little better,” he said. He paused. “But I’m working on Whitman.” How so? “I’ve been studying him. I’ve studied Whitman with Michael Warner at Yale. So he’s on my mind, yeah.”
Dave Denison is a Boston-based writer.
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