James Franco Brings Hart Crane to the Big Screen

Hart Crane and James Franco

By Peter Monaghan

Although the American poet Hart Crane hugely impressed his poetic contemporaries and has influenced poets ever since, he still seems an unlikely subject for a modern feature film.

And yet Crane, who led a troubled life and died in 1932 at the age of 32 after jumping from a ship off the coast of Florida, is the subject of The Broken Tower, which will make its world premiere on April 15 at Boston College.

The director James Franco chose that venue because he based his 90-minute feature film on a biography of Crane by Paul Mariani, a professor of English at the institution, and a poet himself.

Franco, who turns 33 on April 19, has directed before and his acting experience is extensive. His most recent film role was the lead in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, still in theaters; among his previous major roles was in Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster, Spider-Man, as the superhero’s best friend.

While on a film set in 2002, Franco learned of Mariani’s biography of Crane, The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999). The collection of Crane’s poetry that Franco was reading contained an introduction by the renowned literary critic Harold Bloom that recommended Mariani’s well-received study. Reviewers had agreed; one, in Washington Post Book World, had praised it as “a compelling chronicle of artistic triumph and private ruin.”

From his home in Western Massachusetts, Mariani says that Franco has since told him that when he read Mariani’s book, he said to himself “’I’ll turn it into a movie when I’m ready.’”

The collaboration began when, two years ago, Franco’s agent in Los Angeles got in touch with Mariani to say that Franco wanted to know how to acquire rights to use the book. “I passed him on to my agent,” says Mariani. But then he heard nothing, for many months, and wondered whether Franco and his associates had decided that it would be difficult to capture on film a figure as complex and torrid as Crane, and at the same time make his stature evident to modern viewers who would know little about him, and in most cases would struggle to understand his difficult poetry.

Mariani had long thought Crane’s story would make for compelling cinema, “because his life was filled with so many roaring-boy, 1920s figures, and he was a lost visionary, himself.

“And, I wrote my book as almost like a novel and it’s an exciting life.”

In his book, Mariani described Crane as “brilliant, complex, and obscure.” A Cleveland native for whom New York was an artistic and personal Mecca, Crane was, among homosexuals of his day, no wilting flower, but aggressive when it came to seeking out companions among sailors and other men. Such activities rather frightened his friends in poetry, says Mariani.

Still, Crane’s poetry outlived him. His influence on many successor poets has in part derived from his status as a poète maudit—accursed poet—in the vein of Arthur Rimbaud or Jean Genet: headlong, intense, and self-destructive. “Crane is difficult, but there is something compelling about him,” says Mariani. “He was really a late High Romantic. For comparison, someone like John Keats comes to mind.”

Fearing the film project might wither on the vine, Mariani eventually got in touch with Franco’s agent to say that if the actor really was interested in making a film, Mariani would like to speak with him. A long telephone conversation between the critic and the actor followed. Soon Franco traveled to New York to meet Mariani. “He flew in on a red-eye, arriving at 6:30 in the morning, and then we talked for two and a half hours about poetry—about Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell,” says Mariani. The actor said he’d like Mariani to come with him on a tour of scenes from Crane’s life, such as an apartment where he had resided in Brooklyn. “We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, together,” says Mariani—it had inspired Crane’s long and best-known poem, The Bridge, of 1930. “He had sunglasses on, but a lot of people recognized him, anyway.”

Over many months, Franco addressed scores of emails to Mariani, asking for details of Crane’s life that often sent Mariani in search of information that even a biographer would not know, such as what a particular bartender in a particular Paris bar that Crane frequented look like. When filming began, Franco often asked Mariani to be on set with him, and even to play a small speaking part in the movie, as photographer and artist Alfred Stieglitz.

Mariani says he was quickly impressed by Franco’s commitment to the project, and by his capabilities for it. “He’s an intellectual,” Mariani says. Franco completed a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, with a concentration in creative writing, and for his honors thesis wrote a novel under the supervision of acclaimed novelist Mona Simpson. Franco has since studied in Columbia University’s graduate writing program, New York University’s graduate filmmaking program, and Brooklyn College’s fiction-writing program, all at the same time. He received his Columbia master’s in fine arts in 2010. “Now he’s going for a PhD in English at Yale,” says Mariani. “He just started six months ago, and if his dissertation is anything in poetry I’d love to help him out. My feeling is it’ll be about poetry.” (Rumor has it that Franco will also attend the Rhode Island School of Design.)

Paul Mariani

In The Broken Tower, which is set in the 1920s and shot in and around New York City, Franco plays Crane, while Michael Shannon appears as Emil Opffer, a ship’s purser who became Crane’s most significant partner. The film’s title, and that of Mariani’s biography, is taken from Crane’s The Broken Tower, which appeared after his death and is seen as an autobiographical work informed by the poet’s only heterosexual relationship.

Mariani says of the most recent of two interim versions of the film that he saw earlier this month: “It’s in black and white and consists of what James calls 12 voyages, or segments of Hart Crane’s life—interlocked thematically and visually—with James reading long stretches of Crane’s poems.” Most are from “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen.” Mariani says: “He has made a film about Hart Crane, the visionary, but also about the hard life of Hart Crane, as a gay man—not just gay, but a wolf, really, going after sailors. And also his heavy drinking, despondency, and proneness to suicide.”

One scene particularly struck him, says Mariani: “It’s a beautiful sequence cutting from a dynamic stasis of a Stieglitz photo to a scene from a Charles Chaplin film. Crane looks at it and says ‘It’s me; that’s me; I have to keep a smile on my face, even while I’m looking for a kitten in a garbage can.’”

Mariani says Franco told him that he had decided to present the film’s premiere at Boston College to pay him back for the assistance he provided. “He told me, ‘I want only you and me up there on the stage.’” After the film shows, Mariani will answer questions from the audience about Crane’s life, while Franco will talk about turning a literary study into a film.

Mariani’s brush with the movie world does not seem to have distracted him from his ongoing writing about the lives of poets. He has published 16 books, including five biographies and six volumes of poetry. Those have brought him fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry in 2009. He has made a specialty of writing about troubled poets—not just Crane, but also two “confessional” American poets, Robert Lowell, a manic depressive, and John Berryman, like Crane a suicide. He also wrote about the esoteric 19th-century English poet-priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, for whom fame came after the end of a life of poetic obscurity and personal distress, as well as about Crane’s contemporary, William Carlos Williams—a doctor, and much stabler.

In that healthier vein, Mariani is now working on a life of the most towering of American poets, Wallace Stevens, who held a day job as a senior insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. The challenge of doing that is akin to the task that Franco faced in making a film of Crane, he says: “How then do you work with interiority like Stevens’s? How do you get it on the page—the excitement of a mind as it transforms his reality with his imagination to form a new poetic space?”

While answering such questions regarding Stevens will keep Mariani busy for at least a couple more years, he says his involvement in Franco’s film does now afford him some reflected fame among his students, for whom Franco appears to hold greater cachet than any of Mariani’s poetic subjects. They have, he says, made clear to him that they now think he is way cooler than they used to. “It has been everything from disbelief to mild interest to bedazzlement,” he says. “It’s been fun watching those reactions not only from undergraduates to graduates, but even my colleagues.”

(James Franco photo by Flickr user Nick Step. Paul Mariani photo at Web site of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.)

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