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John Lundberg

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James Franco Brings Another Poet to the Big Screen

Posted: 06/19/11 03:55 PM ET

Although relatively new to the movie business, James Franco has established himself a leading ambassador for great literature on the big screen. Last year, he earned good reviews for his performance as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, and he's now taking on the role of American poet Hart Crane in The Broken Tower (based on a Paul Mariani biography), which premieres Monday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

The Broken Tower, which Franco also produced and directed, is billed as a stream-of-consciousness look at the early years of Crane's life, which were marked by periods of mania and depression, heavy drinking and some serious sailor chasing (Crane was openly homosexual). A furiously talented but tortured poet, Crane is best known for his landmark book The Bridge, which he wrote while still in his twenties. At the time, Crane lived in an apartment that overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge, and found his inspiration (and his metaphors) just outside his window.

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him

But Crane's poetry wasn't well received during his lifetime, and at the age of 32 he committed suicide by jumping off a boat into the Gulf of Mexico. He was on his way back from Mexico to New York to look for a desk job.

If you're familiar with Crane's work, he might strike you as an odd choice for a biopic, as he's a notoriously difficult poet. And Franco is well aware of this, having studied Crane's poetics extensively in graduate school. In a piece for Vanity Fair he wrote of Crane's work, "Nobody got it. People still don't get it, at least not without effort." But he told New York Magazine that Crane's life story inspired him to make the film regardless:

"There are other great writers and artists who produced great art, but they didn't all have the most interesting lives. It's like VH1's Behind the Music: You don't want the boring man, you want the man who did all the drugs and had a big crash."

That isn't to say that Crane's poetry doesn't play a role in the film. Text from some of his poems is reportedly woven into the movie, and his poetic style should be apparent in the movie's feel. Franco told Poetry magazine he tried to recreate the texture of Crane's poetry in the film -- to find a cinematic equivalent to Crane's ecstatic, symbolic style.

If anyone can pull off that intriguing and difficult task, perhaps it's Franco. While at NYU's film school, he turned three contemporary poems into short films: Anthony Hecht's "The Feast of Stephen," Frank Bidart's "Herbert White," and Spencer Reece's "The Clerk's Tale." I, for one, am looking forward to finding out.

What's next for Franco? He is reportedly in talks to write and direct a screen adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as well as Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.