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A Few Impressions

James Franco Shares a Letter About Hart Crane

James Franco shares a letter he wrote to Alan Williamson of Warren Wilson College while he was working on his film, 'The Broken Tower,' which is about the poet Hart Crane and his poetry.
March 21, 2014, 5:19pm

In honor of the fact that I'm living in Brooklyn while I perform in my Broadway debut, Of Mice and Men, I thought I would share an old letter I wrote to Alan Williamson, my former poetry teacher at Warren Wilson College. Alan is an enthusiast of the great poet Hart Crane and a great poet in his own right. Around 2010 he helped me develop The Broken Tower, my film about the poet Hart Crane. It shows some of the things I considered while making a film about poetry, and how these different mediums could be brought together.

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Dear Alan,

I have been thinking about the Crane movie a bunch since the last packet, in particular the incorporation of the poems “To Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Broken Tower.” I think that theses will help structure the movie and provide a more solid center and end to the film. Where much of the film can be poetic without the use of poetry, the “poetry” of the images as images, I think these two poems—important poems in Crane’s life and important to Crane—will, in the best scenario, and if used right, give the film some more substance and more of Crane’s poetic voice.

In my head they also seem to fit nicely in the chronology of Crane’s life: “To Brooklyn Bridge” was written when he was about 27, I think, probably at the peak of his poetic powers, when he was really acquiring his distinct voice, and before he really started going downhill. Is this right? Anyway, thematically at least, it will fit perfectly in the center of the film. I think you are right about the trip to the island in the film; it could probably use a little more of something, anything.

I guess he wrote “To Brooklyn Bridge” while he was at the Isle of Pines, so if it was portrayed that way it might be an interesting way to have him thinking back to New York (and Emile?). Are you suggesting that Emile is involved in the poem? I don’t know if I can see him in there, but I will look closer in a second. Or it could be incorporated into a New York section of the film. [Eventually Michael Shannon played Crane’s lover, Emile to my Crane. PS: You only do ONE take when you ask Michael Shannon to make out with you naked on film.]

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The other main consideration about incorporating this poem into the film is how it is presented. The other poems in the film are presented in ways that work differently from I think this poem would, or at least different from the way I’m thinking about using it. “North Labrador” is used at the beginning of the film almost as if it is a narrator’s voice. Or as if it is Hart’s voice commenting on the images that are presented in conjunction with the voice-over: Hart taking the powders and wandering in the field at night. In this context the text of the poem is aiding the images rather than having the images sculpted to the text. I think this makes the reading of the poem more of a psychological interpretation, as if the emotions that the character is experiencing in the images on screen are what are informing the writing of such a poem.

I don’t ever want the incorporations of the poems in the film to feel too psychological or biographical, because I worry that that approach will diminish the poems and detract from their poetically suggestive strength. But I think that the use of the images that are there are both linked thematically to the poem (loneliness, despair, loss of parents, isolation, searching for connections, feeling trapped, feeling suicidal, feeling like things are futile, and also feeling in awe of great powers) but are also far enough away from the literal images that the juxtaposition of the images on screen with the audio of the poem won't feel like a one-to-one, limiting, biographical interpretation of the poem. The land of ice is not portrayed in the movie images, but like you said, there is a connection to the mother who appears at this moment in the filmic images.

But the evocation of the mother is so subtle in the poem itself (one would have to read pretty deeply into the text and Crane’s biography to place the mother into the text of the poem) that the juxtaposition of the audible text and the visual image of the mother makes the connection more explicit, without hitting on it too hard. It is not as if the juxtaposition says that the land of ice is the mother, but the conjunction of the poem with the image of the mother makes an emotional connection between the two things, and also a connection to how Hart is feeling at that moment. I think an emotional link like this is nebulous enough that it pulls the elements together (Hart, his mother, his feelings about himself and her, and how he expresses himself) without making the connections precisely literal. It also presents Crane’s own text, so that his way of processing his feelings is shown. But like any writer, his work is larger than his life. His poems can’t be reduced to any one incident in his lived life, but the kinds of experiences that added up to the person that he was can help color a poem, to give it other shades than it would have if only read.

But the incorporation of poetic texts into film is always difficult. Poems are generally denser than filmic texts, and they usually take more time and a different kind of concentration from the normal pace films allow for. Poems are a different mode of expression, and if not incorporated in the right way, they will become impenetrable blocks of text that are not digested like the rest of the film: Not only will they stand out and call attention to themselves, but they won’t be understood. If done right, however, they can give a more complex commentary on the story. They can give a sense of the character that couldn’t be achieved in any other way. In a movie about an artist, they are his work, manifested without any mediation, but because they are accompanied by cinematic images that they didn’t have on the printed page (much like music is accompanied by new imagery in music videos), new metaphors and connections are made.

One of the reasons I chose “North Labrador” and “Voyages I” for the beginning and the end of the film is because they are easier to comprehend at the initial hearing. They don’t demand the same degree of attention that “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen" requires for comprehension. But they also seem more akin to the emotions that are being depicted at the beginning and the end. They summarize in an amorphous and poetic way everything that Hart may be feeling in those scenes; they inform the scenes. “North Labrador” also seems to fit at the beginning because it is an early poem and because it seems to address feelings that Crane had when he was younger. [My brother Davy eventually played the younger version of Hart Crane in the film and wandered through a cow patch on drugs while this poem was read in voice-over.] “Voyages I” is not one of his late poems, but it contains many of his recurrent motifs and themes: the sea, harsh experience, isolation, alienation, hidden pain. But both poems use diction and syntax that are easy to follow, and therefore I think that I can use them in the places that I use them and expect people to be able to comprehend their meaning, and the connections to the images and the greater commentary they have on Crane’s whole journey, without being reductive.

Peace,
James