James Franco’s New Movie: Tough Poetry, Graphic Sex

“It’s not ‘Pineapple Express,’” warns actor-director Franco when he introduces his Hart Crane biopic

On Monday night, a star who recently drew criticism for an awards-show performance drew a packed house to the L.A. Live complex, snarling traffic and complicating things for the Los Angeles Film Festival.

That would be Grammy spectacle Britney Spears, whose performance at the Staples Center started and ended at exactly the same time that LAFF was staging its own event with a star who drew pans for his recent gig hosting the Oscars.

That, of course, would be James Franco, who introduced a screening of his film "The Broken Tower" and then sat for a Q&A afterwards.

James FrancoBilled as "An Evening With James Franco," the event was by turns compelling and infuriating, and marked by the same stance that doomed Franco's listless hosting job at the Kodak Theater: a refusal to make an effort to engage the audience in any conventional ways.

(Photo by John M. Helleer/Getty Images)

"This is not 'Pineapple Express,'" said Franco at the beginning of his introduction of "The Broken Tower," a defiantly unconventional and impressionistic film about the tortured American poet Hart Crane.

"It’s a slow film on purpose," added Franco, who directed the movie and stars in it as Crane. "It's gonna take a little patience."

Judging by the restlessness in my section of the audience, "The Broken Tower" tested that patience in many viewers.

The film moves deliberately and cuts abruptly, and is more interested in long recitations and lengthy shots of Crane walking, writing, reading and staggering around than it is in sketching the details of the poet's life.

That life included demanding parents, suicide attempts, career troubles, a drinking problem, and  a string of gay relationships interrupted by one heterosexual liaison, all of it apparently inspiring his demanding but rapturous poetry.

As Franco himself pointed out, "The Broken Tower" also contains two scenes apt to stir up a lot of discussion. One is a 10-minute sequence in which the action stops and we stay on Crane's face as he reads the entirety of his long, thorny poem "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen."

The second is an oral sex scene between Crane and another man that at one point gets so explicit as to all but guarantee an NC-17 rating. (Though the scene is dimly lit, it clearly shows Franco performing oral sex on what is reportedly a prosthetic penis.)

"My guess is that the two scenes people will talk about the most are the blow job scene and the 10-minute poetry reading," Franco said, to laughter from the packed house at the Regal Cinemas.

The problem is that even with those two conversation-starting scenes, "The Broken Tower" is going to be a tough sit for many viewers. What starts out as slow, meditative, lyrical and impressionistic eventually becomes an endurance test of sorts — a brave, bold experiment that plays like something between an intellectual exercise and an aimless mess.

The 40-minute conversation with Franco that followed the screening was, at first, as frustrating as the film.

The actor hand-picked his interviewer: poet, theorist, art historian and Rhode Island School of Design professor Francisco Ricardo, who began his "interview" with seven minutes of fulsome praise: "I think the film is a masterpiece, and I can explain why," he said, comparing the screening to the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Firebird," at which he said the audience rioted. (He presumably meant Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," since the premiere audience by most accounts loved "The Firebird.")

Ricardo showed no sign of stopping until Franco jokingly interjected, "That's it: an evening with James Franco. Thanks for coming."  And even then, it took Ricardo a couple more minutes to get to his first question.

The Broken TowerWhen Franco finally got a chance to talk, he quoted W.H. Auden, said his film (right) was inspired by Godard's "My Life to Live" and by the Dardenne brothers, and mentioned that he's getting degrees in literature and in poetry.

He also said that making small, experimental films is "so much more fun" than working on mainstream commercial movies.

"Crane himself said, 'If I have just six good readers, that's enough for me,'" Franco noted, before admitting that his ambitions went a little further than that. "I don't want just six viewers, but I do know that this is not conventional entertainment."

He insisted, though, that the movie was made for "a reasonable price" that will enable it to make its money back — and that by making it for a small budget in black-and-white, he gave himself "a chance to be as pure as we can be, as genuine as we can be."

When asked by an audience member what drew him to Crane, Franco said it was "his spirit and his drive," and admitted that he didn't exactly grasp all the poetry at the heart of the movie he'd just shown.

"It's pretty difficult," he said of Crane's work. "It's difficult for me. We did that long, 10-minute reading, and I couldn't tell you what it means."

He shrugged. "But the idea wasn't to bore you, but to say, 'We're gonna give you the poem the way he gave it to them.'"