Actor James Franco visited Hopkins Friday afternoon to introduce a film he made about the modernist American poet Hart Crane and participate in a question and answer session with Hopkins professor and noted Hart Crane scholar, John Irwin.
My colleague, Jess Blumberg, and I attended, and I wanted to jot down my impressions of the event before it recedes too far into memory. Jess will present her take on things in the April issue's "Charm City Chatter" column—so be on the look out for that!
We filed into Shriver Hall, which was packed with students (predominantly girls), past tables out front promoting professor Irwin's new book on Crane, Hart Crane's Poetry: "Appollinaire lived in Paris, I live in Cleveland, Ohio".
Professor Irwin didn't seem at all irked to have to share the stage with a 30-something actor, but my heart broke for him a little bit when Franco induced screaming in the crowd simply by ambling in to take his seat. Irwin has been studying Crane for most of his life, published four books of literary criticism, plus volumes of his own poetry, and he has to play second fiddle to a guy most famous for playing a good-natured pothead? That is the power of celebrity.
To give Franco his due though, he is far from a Kardashian. First of all, he's a good actor, and he's already won a Golden Globe and been nominated for an Oscar. Then, in his late 20s, he decided to go back to school, finish his undergrad degree at UCLA and then got his MFA from Columbia. He is currently pursuing his PhD at Yale. In the fall, he taught a class about adapting poetry to film at NYU and, in 2010, published a volume of short stories called Palo Alto: Stories. He's not stupid, is what I am saying. And although most of the questions were directed to him, he had the good grace to pivot and defer to Irwin on the questions dealing most directly with Crane's work.
The film itself is called The Broken Tower, after one of Crane's most famous poems. It was made as part of his master's thesis and Franco wrote, directed, edited, and starred in the film. Apparently, Franco didn't want to act in the film and tried to get other actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Dano to play Crane, but niether wanted to do it. The result is—I think, anyway—largely what you'd expect from an academic student film. It's black and white. It is episodic, rather than a traditional narrative. There are lots of lingering shots of Franco's Crane staring inscutably off into the distance, and, yes, poetry is read and recited at length. Crane, a tortured artist if ever there was one, had an interesting and dramatic life, but I reached my limit about an hour into the film. Unfortunately for me, at that point, there was still about an hour left to go.
But I made it, and the question and answer session proved enlightening with Franco talking at length about his conscious decision to make an "obtuse movie." "I might bore the audience a little bit," he admitted, "but I will be true to the subject and giving the poetry out." Irwin, for his part, was eloquent when discussing Crane's poetic legacy: "The Bridge [Crane's landmark, epic poem] is the best long-form poem written in the 20th century in the English language—and it's not the best by a little bit; it's the best by a lot."
Well, alright then.
But, again, it was Franco—not Irwin or even Crane—that had drawn most attendees, and he probably got off the most memorable line of the event when he said, "If anybody has the urge to ask me to go smoke pot with them after this—I can't."
Here's a link to some professional paparazzi pictures of Franco leaving Hopkins to go catch his train at Penn Station after the event.
[Images: James Franco with JHU professors John Irwin and Linda DeLibero; credit: Will Kirk]