51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joel Coen

FEATURING: , , Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work of many contradictions: it’s an intricately written script about a scriptwriter who can’t write; it mercilessly mocks its hero, and at the same time deeply empathizes with his torment; it’s a movie without an ending, which turns out to be the perfect ending.  Constructed around the idea of writer’s block, it’s one of the most original and inspired movies ever made.

Barton Fink should be understood as an expressionist work, a movie where portraying the mental state of the protagonist is more important than the actual details of the plot.  The script deliberately puts the viewer into a misleading mindset by playing out its first half as a straightforward Hollywood satire, then turns the tables on the audience when one character’s unexplained death seemingly turns the film into a mystery.  And a mystery it is, though not the sort of mystery with a solution that moviegoers intentionally flock to theaters to see.  The mystery here is, for lack of a more precise term, metaphysical.  What happened to Audrey?  Who is Charlie?  What is in the box?  Viewers who demand definite and certain answers to these questions will have to look to their own imaginations.  They will not get help from the Coens’ movie.

The movie does proffer a likely answer to all three of those questions, and that answer is: “something horrible.”  Does it matter what?  Does knowing the exact height and weight of the boogeyman in the closet make it any less scary?  Although the mysterious events of the denouement are sometimes impossible, and always unresolved, they are perfectly externalized reflections of Barton’s mind.  He is mired in a nightmare of his own lack-of-making: he can’t create, he’s consumed with doubts and thinks that he may be a hack, that maybe he only had one story in him and it’s out.  His self-identity as a writer is threatened, and he senses doom coming with his approaching deadline.  He has locked himself inside, as he says, the “life of the mind,” and “there’s no road map for that territory, and exploring it can be painful.”  These words are spoken early in his writing career, and Barton’s being pretentious and grandiose when he preaches about the necessity of pain to the artist, but the suffering he romanticizes will be made less ridiculous when it materializes as a nightmare inside the creepy Hotel Earle.

Approaching Barton Fink as an allegory, while too tempting for many to resist, doesn’t work either, although that won’t stop those who aren’t used to seeing intentional ambiguity in a movie from imposing an unnecessary rationalism on the script.  Broad symbolism is apparent, and important, but it only tells a small part of the tale.  The most obvious symbol is Charlie, Barton’s next door neighbor at the Hotel Earle, who represents “the common man.”  Barton, who pictures himself as the champion of the working stiff and wants to create a “theater of the common man,” is actually a stuffy intellectual who has almost nothing in common with the class he hopes to uplift.  At the triumphant wrap party for his proletarian play “Bare Ruined Choirs,” Barton celebrates only with other people in dressed in tuxes and evening gowns.  He’s initially disdainful of the idea of working for Hollywood, never seeming to consider that it’s the big screen, not the Broadway stage, where common man gets most of his stories.  When a real-life common man barges into his room in the fleshy person of Charlie (a masterful John Goodman) and offers him a drink, Barton feels only a mixture of fight and annoyance.  Eventually he warms up to Charlie, after the insurance salesman pays him a few patronizing compliments, but he’s not interested in listening to this common man.  Three times in their initial conversation Charlie offers to “tell him some stories”; each time Barton interrupts the salesman to continue his lecture on how he’s striving to create stories that will explore the life of average, everyday people just struggling to make it in this world.

Barton’s pompous defense of the common man in theory, coupled with his condescension to the common man who’s sitting on his own bed, is funny and ironic.  It demonstrates dramatically how he’s cut off from his own inspiration.  It also feeds into a viable interpretation of the movie as a parable about the failure of leftist/socialist intellectuals, who theorized about the proletariat more than understood them, to stop the rise of fascism in Germany.  There are several references to World War II and the approaching Holocaust in the film, which begins in 1941 a few weeks before Pearl Harbor.  At the end of the movie, studio mogul Lipnik is drafted to fight the “little yellow bastards.”  Two detectives have names which evoke the Axis powers.  Most tellingly, one character incongruously mutters the phrase, “heil Hitler.”  Barton, the wimpy intellectual, is impotent to stop the madness growing around him.

That interpretation is sustainable and ripe for the plucking, but it hardly addresses the heart of what’s tormenting Barton—that blank piece of paper in his Underwood typewriter staring back at him.  And it almost certainly doesn’t address the heart of what bothers the Coens, either.  If the conflict between Barton and Charlie symbolizes the ascension of the Nazis, then I suspect its equally true that, to the Coens, the rise of fascism itself represents something else, something more personal.

Unlike Barton, the Coens aren’t much interested in the class struggle or in using their art as a political platform; they aren’t enslaved to realism, social or otherwise, and discard it as an unwanted restriction whenever it gets in the way of the story they want to tell.  In fact, the movie could be read more as an aesthetic, rather than a political, indictment of the Finks of the world.  Barton grandstands that his art is important because it’s political and because it helps his fellow man, while avoiding plumbing the painful and messy depths of the human soul.  W.P. Mayhew, the writer Barton originally admires but comes to despise, is equally creatively constipated as the novice; the difference seems to be that the older writer’s alcoholism arises out of a real, rather than a theoretical, torment.

The Coens tightly pack lots of elements into the box that is Barton Fink.  The movie is almost impossibly stuffed full of recurring details to seize upon.  There’s the eerie atmosphere of the Hotel Earle, with its cataleptic elevator operator and ominously deserted hallways.  There’s hints of Barton’s sexual repression, seen in the spermlike paste which leaks off the peeling hotel wallpaper and the way he grimaces when Charlie shows him the naked lady on the underside of his tie.  There’s the broad comic relief of the Hollywood satire, with paunchy movie moguls talking out of both sides of their motormouths.  There are the indications that the Hotel Earle is hell itself.  There’s the fact that the little that we hear of the script Barton finally manages to write in a burst of inspiration, which he calls his best work, seems to repeat the wording of his play almost verbatim.  There’s the mystery of the significance of the picture of the girl reclining by the ocean Barton keeps staring it.  There’s the curious fact that the script inevitably refers to the movies as “pictures,” never by any other word.  There’s the fun of counting the number of times characters say the word “head.”  There’s that mysterious box Charlie gives Barton to hold onto when he leaves town.

“What’s in the box?,” Barton is asked at the end of the film.  Were this any other film, we could trust the hints that we had been given, and say that we know with certainty what’s in that box.  In this movie, we can’t quite be sure.  Like Barton, I don’t know what’s in the box.  Like Barton, I’m not so sure I want to know.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gnomic, claustrophobic, hallucinatory, just plain weird, it is the kind of movie critics can soak up thousands of words analyzing and cinephiles can soak up at least three espressos arguing their way through… [the Coens] dreamlike realization of their script, though often imagistically striking, deliberately subverts their message and all too often alienates the viewer.”–Richard Schickel, Time (contemporaneous)

“…a middling ability to ape the moods and stylistic mannerisms of Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch…  basically a midnight-movie gross-out in Sunday-afternoon art-house clothing.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

“The surrealistic writer’s block scenes, in which Barton silently watches wallpaper peel and its paste ooze, are particularly memorable–imagine ERASERHEAD in color. Ultimately, however, the look, sound and feel of this macabre comedy fail to support any coherent theme.”–TV Guide

IMDB LINK: Barton Fink (1991)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

At the Movies – Siskel and Ebert’s contemporaneous “two thumbs up” review from their television show

000_Barton Fink – fascinating multimedia presentation of Barton Fink, which draws connections between various motifs in the film and raises more questions than answers

Barton Fink at “You Know, For Kids” – basic information and trivia on the film from a Coen brothers fansite; poke around under the categories “scripts,” “multimedia,” and “reviews” for more Barton Fink goodies

“Barton Fink” – excellent excerpt from “Nietzsche: The Darkness of Life,” the Barton Fink chapter of Jorn K. Bramann’s “Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies,” suggesting that the movie reflects the irrational nature of art described in Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”

Coen Brothers Want John Turturro to Get Old for “Barton Fink” Sequel, “Old Fink” – Adam Rosenberg of MTV reports on the possibility of a Fink II

DVD INFO: Barton Fink took a shamefully long time to arrive on DVD, but in 2003 20th Century corrected the oversight with a one disc edition (buy). Extras are sparse: there are only trailers, a stills gallery, and eight inconsequential deleted scenes (the Coens don’t do commentaries, and in fact appear to be philosophically opposed to them).

An excellent way to acquire the movie is to spend a few dollars more to get the five-disc “The Coen Brothers Movie Collection” set (buy), which also includes Blood Simple, the nearly weird comedy Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and Fargo. All are excellent movies.

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Deacon Lowdown.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

2 thoughts on “51. BARTON FINK (1991)”

  1. A great movie and a perfect review!

    I have a feeling that the box is a kind of a Pandora box, though the movie is done as a postmodernist interpretation of the Daniel Book, the Coens might have thought about the continuation of the story or just gave us a hint.

    If we recollect the sounds from the Charlie room, we hear that Charlie was crying as if he was suffering. Probably the box is full of evidences, and he decided to get rid of them not to be permanently reminded of the crimes he had committed. Though this may seem as a very simple explanation…

    I liked immensely John Turturro’s performance bearing in mind him in Miller’s Crossing.

  2. Kang, who lost much of his eyebrows because of the disease, has faced less discrimination than those with more serious physical deformities. But even after he was cured of the disease, he said that he was required to be sterilized before he could marry another former leprosy sufferer in the late 1950s.

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