America, says Charlie Citrine in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is proud of its dead poets. Especially the mad ones: the bridge-leapers, the drink-guzzlers, the pill-snackers. Robert Lowell thought everyone was tired of his turmoil, but he obviously wasn’t thinking ahead to the possibilities he and his fellow scribblers presented to the movie business. You can only imagine the film gurus and movie execs surveying the poetscape of the twentieth century with nods of excited approval, foaming about their mouths. Drink, adultery, jealousy, madness, suicide: who knew poets led such cinematic lives!
Alas, a problem arises, and that problem is essentially this: even the maddest poets weren’t mad all the time. There must have been some down time, some humdrum non-time; quotidian moments spent at the shop or on the can. There must have been, one imagines, some work being done. This ultimately is the great limitation of movies about poets: the excitement of poetry is internal, not external. Watching someone write a poem is not an inherently interesting thing to behold (Believe me, I’ve seen it). Watching someone write a poem, in fact, is pretty boring.
Thus we don’t bother with Factotum (2005), Bent Hamer’s adaptation of Bukowski’s 1975 novel of the same name, for those rare moments where the Bukowskian alter-ego (played by Matt Dillon) is seen writing (those moments, indeed, serve merely as intermissions to the film’s main attraction: 90 minutes of drinking, fighting and fucking). Nor do we bother much with Sylvia Plath the poet in Sylvia, Christine Jeff’s 2003 biopic starring — who else? — Gwyneth Paltrow. Oh sure, we get the occasional stanza, the stray, half-uttered verse. We even see Sylvia failing to write a poem. But in the main what we see is Sylvia Plath being married to Ted Hughes — a cinematic spectacle in and of itself, what with all the romance, sex and jealousy going on.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), which starred James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, is easily the best film about poetry I’ve ever seen. It managed to weave the story of the poem’s obscenity trial, Ginsberg’s famous Six Gallery reading, and various moments in the life of its author in the ‘40s and ‘50s into a nonlinear narrative that is literary criticism, biopic and poetic adaptation all at once. Because Franco reads the entire poem aloud throughout the film, Howl was like a multi-media performance; an interpretive staging of a work of poetry that is also a commentary on that poetry.
Which is why I was so excited to see James Franco’s film about Hart Crane, The Broken Tower, written, directed and acted out by Franco himself. As a subject Crane is a no-brainer: he dabbles in pills; he uses his typewriter as a trampoline; he gives a well-executed blowjob to a guy in a truck. All of this we see, all of this we witness, and we are much obliged. But Franco is clearly interested in Crane the poet as much as Crane the man, and much of The Broken Tower depicts Crane trying to reconcile his poetic ambitions with the anti-poetic realities of Depression-era America. Franco wants The Broken Tower to bridge our interest in Crane’s life with Crane’s poetry. The film is chapter-structured after Crane’s long poem Voyages, focusing on what is or ought to be several key moments in the life of the author. The problem is that the movie is too obsessed with its self-consciously amateurish camera angles, its eccentric editing and its black-and-white color, to bother with anything as trivial as, you know, context. Near the end the gay Crane is suddenly sleeping with a woman in Mexico. That woman is supposed to be Peggy Cowley, wife of New Republic editor and critic Malcolm Cowley, with whom Crane had a scandalous affair in the early 1930s. But I guess I should have already known that.
Do these narrative gaps exist because Franco wants the movie to foreground the poetry? If that’s the case he hasn’t succeeded. In spite of the admirable sensitivity to Crane’s writing (we witness the gradual fruition of Crane’s long poem about the Brooklyn Bridge), the movie commits the almost unavoidable fallacy of conflating the poetry with the life. Crane’s verse thrums like audible subtitles, like a soundtrack to the author’s self-destructive life. Fair enough: Crane’s struggles with homosexuality, poverty, and madness obviously influenced his writing, and vice versa. But life is short and art is long, and The Broken Tower only tells us half the story. What it leaves out, what poetry and popcorn always fail to conspire to show us, is what comes after; when the poet becomes his admirers and is (take it away, Wystan) “scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections; / To find his happiness in another kind of wood / And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.”