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James Franco’s next poet

22 June 2011
Published in Culture, Fiori
by Giovanni Biglino

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” is the legendary opening line. Following its publication and the trial for obscenity, Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl became – and still is today – the symbol of the beat generation and of a new form. The homonymous movie, which was scarcely shown and received fairly quietly in the UK, is visually compelling, mixing black and white lyrical shots with animations. Alongside fellow beat authors Kerouac and Cassidy and lover Peter Orlowsky, his voice not really narrating the movie but accompanying it (now reading triumphantly, now responding calmly to the interviewer), Ginsberg was masterfully played by James Franco.

Franco, 33, can swing between arthouse and commercial with great ease and has not been limiting himself to being “just” an actor (and a very successful one). He is known for his famous interpretation of James Dean, movies such as 127 hours and Milk, blockbusters like Spiderman or the forthcoming The planet of apes prequel, art exhibitions at the Gagosian gallery, working on a PhD, studying design and creative writing, publishing a collection of short stories, and soon realising an EP. Overall, he has shown a great creative hunger, including a strong literary ambition. While it was reassuring to hear him humbly (?) confess in an interview with Charlie Rose at Brown University that he “did not intend to write Ulysses”, his involvement with literature and writing adds an interesting layer to his interpretations.

In fact, he has now tackled the character of another poet, the complex Hart Crane. Crane (1899-1932) was heir to a Cleveland fortune and a poet in 1920s New York City. Author of White buildings (1926) and The bridge (1930), known for the difficulty of his style, Crane was admired by the likes of Allen Tate, E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams, and influenced later generations of poets, including Allen Ginsberg. James Franco was so fascinated by the character that not only he interpreted Hart Crane, but he also wrote, directed and produced the biopic.

The movie, shot entirely in black and white, is titled The broken tower, from one of Crane’s last poems inspired by his only known heterosexual affair with a friend’s wife, Peggy Cowley, who joined him in Mexico in 1932 where he was on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Returning from Mexico, Crane committed suicide jumping overboard the steamship that was bringing him back to New York. He drowned in the Gulf of Mexico. The broken tower is also the title of Crane’s biography, published in 1999 by Paul Mariani, who worked with James Franco on the movie.

Presented last Monday at the Los Angeles Film Festival, The broken tower received mixed reviews, which was predictable. We now await the release of the movie.

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