film response: The Broken Tower

The Broken Tower
Directed by James Franco

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Described almost universally as the film in which polymath actor and artist James Franco fellates a prosthetic penis — can we just call it what it is? A dildo — The Broken Tower is  more than that.

It’s an experimental biopic of queer poet Hart Crane.

It’s a poetry reading. It’s a film set to poetry.

It’s a defense of the artistic life, a paean to the modern.

It’s a gorgeous and arresting filmed-in-black-and-white throwback to and update on the queer cinema of the 90s. It’s a lot better than Tom Kalin’s Swoon, or gregg araki’s The Living End, for instance.

It’s unfashionable in so many ways, in other words, not least in how it manages to displace its own star from its center. That may be its singular, if tangential achievement in a media culture dominated passively by The Metrosexual.

James Franco, a movie star among other things, despite starring and directing his own script here, instead focuses on the gay men of the past in a way that gay men of the present rarely do, and he does it so seriously, consistently and intelligently that speculation on his own orientation becomes rather beside the point. And when he takes his shirt off, which is rarely, the shot isn’t going to be about his abs, but about the body and the bodies of work of the gay men that interest him. So that blowjob gains an additional level of meaning.

His embodiment of Allen Ginsberg in Howl is an obvious example of his interests but it’s really his sex scenes with Michael Shannon in The Broken Tower, in which he makes central the power of Crane’s search for erotic fulfillment, its relationship to his work — the subject of Crane’s greatest poem, the Brooklyn Bridge, looms in the background — and also its threat to the social order. Franco says that Crane’s sexual appetite and the objects of his desires roiled his straight friends quite a bit.

Less successfully but equally provocatively,  in Feast of Stephen, a short he made at NYU, his camera identifies explicitly with the queer eye, turning a young gay boy’s bashing into a sexual fantasy, replete with full frontal nudity of teen boys. Bouncing, slo-mo, full-frontal nudity. That one he dedicated to Kenneth Anger.

We’ll see what happens when he does gay porn.

James Franco is the anti-Tom Cruise. He’s kind of the anti-Bruce Weber, as well. He’s a model of a different way to handle stardom and depict beauty.

So, yeah, he’s a tonic to me and my hero.

Buy The Broken Tower on Amazon.
Based on the biography, The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani.

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