Tag Archives: Writer

CAPSULE: SCREAMPLAY (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Rufus B. Seder

FEATURING: Rufus B. Seder, , Katy Bolger

PLOT: Young Edgar Allen comes to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and settles in at a fleabag motel; he incorporates his revenge fantasies into his murder-mystery screenplay, but finds that the killings he writes about occur in real life.

Still from Screamplay (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oddball tongue-in-cheek horror melodrama, but there’s nothing tremendously weird about it.

COMMENTS: In his introduction to the DVD edition of Screamplay, calls Rufus B. Seder the “ of Tromaville.” While that’s more than a bit of a stretch, it’s true that this classic horror homage, distributed (but not made) by Troma just before they stumbled onto the lucrative Toxic Avenger formula, is extremely highbrow by the company’s gore-comedy standards. Aside from the minuscule budget, it’s unlike anything else in their catalog. It’s far enough outside the mainstream that George “Sins of the Fleshapoids” Kuchar took on a rare acting role outside of his own productions (he’s wonderfully sleazy here as the heavy).

The story is simple: a series of murders among the dregs of Hollywood—would-be writers, actresses, agents, and producers—holed up in a low-rent motel are linked to a script being churned out by an eager but naive young screenwriter. The style, however, is more impressive. Rufus B. Seder’s influences are obvious: from the Expressionistic shadows of Nosferatu to the cheap B-movies of the 30s and 40s that vainly but valiantly tried to exploit that atmosphere (there’s even a sly nod to Plan 9 from Outer Space when a cop absentmindedly scratches his face with his revolver). Most of the time Screamplay looks like a 30s period piece you might catch on the Late Late Show, complete with a scratchy public domain quality transfer, but there are moments that would not be out of place in a Guy Maddin movie—or an early draft of Barton Fink as done by a poverty row studio. Seder’s performance seems to be at least partially modeled on Bill Woods’ wild-eyed mugging in Maniac—his innocent expression darkens and his eyes turn insane at the drop of a plot point. The ganja-inspired hallucination with a pair of murderous hands appearing in a cloud of pot-smoke also recalls ‘s maniacal epic.

The sets are very basic, but with overdramatic lighting, they achieve a melodramatic budget Expressionism. The blocky motel stairs leading to nowhere reach a minimalist sort of Surrealism, as does the police station set—basically just a raised podium reading “Hollywood Police Dept.,” flanked by Greek pillars with light bulbs on top. The story is set in no time in particular; the style recalls the 1930s, naturally, but occasional anachronisms like a roller-skating transvestite mugger add another layer of absurdity. Overall, it’s an impressive triumph of style over budget. Still, unless you’re obsessed with 20s and 30s horror, I wouldn’t recommend rushing out and trying to find Screamplay; but, if you do, I’d be willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.

Rufus B. Seder never made another movie after this one; he went into the production of holographic murals instead (examples of his work are included as a special feature on the DVD). It’s a shame, because Seder has clear talent and may have been able to make a truly great weird movie down the line had he stuck with it. He seems to have gotten movies out of his system with this project, but at least he found a niche for his creative impulses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…possibly the best Troma movie you’ve never heard of… with very few exceptions, [it] would feel right at home on a double bill with the classics from the twenties, thirties, and forties it so lovingly homages.”–James Lasome, Horrorfreak News (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ShaneWreck,” who characterized it as “[a] bizarre, expressionistic satire on Hollywood.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter

FEATURING: , Julie Carmen, ,

PLOT: An insurance investigator investigates the disappearance of a bestselling horror novelist whose books have the power to drive men mad.

Still from n the Mouth of Madness (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the Mouth of Madness has an ahead-of-its-time, and slightly weird, premise, but the movie’s execution doesn’t live up to the promise of the insane scenario.

COMMENTS: A throng of maddening ideas writhe within In the Mouth of Madness. A horror writer whose books turn susceptible readers into psychopaths. A New England town, not marked on the map, inhabited by characters and places from the writer’s fictional stories. A world where the insane gradually come to outnumber the sane, and mental asylums become a refuge from the madness of the world outside. These elements conspire to make Madness an intriguing proposition, but unfortunately the movie sports an equal number of gaffes that keep it from reaching its potential. Madness‘s initial budget of 15 million was cut by more than two-thirds, which perhaps explains some of the unevenness on display. Some of the special effects, especially the ones devised by Industrial Light and Magic such as the sequence where Prochnow peels his face apart and it turns into the ripped pages of a novel, are up to 1990’s snuff. But some of the non-scary rubber makeup effects belong in a movie from a decade earlier; for example, a scene where a circus contortionist wears a mask meant to convince us she’s another character is more likely to elicit chuckles than shudders. The acting, too, is all over the map in terms of quality. The first speaking part goes to a bow-tied asylum administrator whose campy, overly-precise delivery doesn’t inspire much confidence going in. Sam Neill is fine here as the somewhat bland hero, Prochnow has the proper face for the otherworldly novelist, and it’s nice to see Charlton Heston in a small role as a publisher (he probably enjoyed working with Carpenter for a couple of afternoons in the kind of a low-stress cameo accomplished actors can afford to indulge in the twilight of their careers). Julie Carmen is wooden as the female lead, however, and shares little chemistry with Neill; her character serves little purpose and the movie may have benefited if she’d been cut out. Despite having an original premise, the script leans on horror cliches too often, with jump scares, a “fake wake” dream sequence, and an expository wraparound that doesn’t make a lot of story sense (who does the doctor who’s interviewing Neill’s character work for, why is he interested in this patient, and what exactly is he trying to learn?) Given those drawbacks, which are the kinds of flaws that usually sink mid-budget horror attempts, it’s a testament to the strength of the ideas here and to Carpenter’s direction that the movie does manage to keep our interest–and has even become a cult item in some people’s minds. Although the name of the novelist—Sutter Cane—is a blatant sound-alike for Stephen King, the style of horror here (both in this story and in Cane’s fictional universes) is more reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, with its emphasis on insanity brought about by forbidden knowledge and on unseen, indescribable monsters from other worlds who seek to invade ours. (The movie’s title even suggests Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness”). Those addicted to Lovecraft’s influential style of occult horror—a universe where the Old Gods slumber uneasily, waiting to be awakened by foolish mortals so they can assume their rightful dominion over our world—will appreciate this occasionally clever tribute to the perverse imagination of “the gentleman from Providence.”

In the Mouth of Madness is a pioneering example of meta-horror, by which I mean not just a horror movie that is “self-aware” (as in a parody) but in which the nature and craft of diabolical literature itself plays an essential part in the story. Another example from the very same year of 1994 was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in which actors from the Nightmare on Elm Street series find that the fictional creation Freddy Kruger is clawing his way into the real world. The best recent iteration of this interesting mini-genre is last year’s The Cabin in the Woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…confusing, weird, and not very involving.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kevin, who argued that Madness is “the best of John Carpenter’s 90s films, and the weirdest in his catalogue.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FRANZ KAFKA’S IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1993)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A tormented Franz Kafka struggles to complete the first line of his story “The Metamorphosis,” and the constant interruptions by wandering vendors and loud neighbors don’t help.

Still from Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, as promised, a legitimately Kafkaesque story, but with a cheesy Frank Capra twist at the end that is horrifying because of its complete tonal incompatibility. This beautifully written, acted and shot comic nightmare would be a shoo-in for a list of the greatest short weird films of all time. It’s perfect at a compact 22-minutes: could Peter Capaldi carry off this grimly hilarious mood through feature length, or would it become repetitive and oppressive? On the other hand, at one-fourth the length of an average Certified Weird movie, shouldn’t it be required to be four times as weird to qualify for the List?

COMMENTS: Writers find writer’s block to be the most horrific condition they can conceive of (see also Barton Fink), and although readers may not be able to directly identify with the existential dread emanating off a blank page, writers attack the notion with such fervor that they convince the viewer of the existential torment of white space. Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds at conveying the clammy pallor of the nervous artist’s soul through bitter comedy, both subtle and obvious. In the “obvious” bin goes Kafka’s rejected imaginary scenarios about what gigantic forms his fictional protagonist, Gregor Samsa, might be transformed into (e.g., a kangaroo). At other times, however, the atmosphere of anxiety Kafka finds himself breathing is so thick and melodramatic, with shadowy blue lighting and an ominous orchestra and strangers with intense stares and precise enunciation, that the paranoia plays as a parody. And even as we giggle uneasily, we wonder if the danger to Kafka is serious and real: a creepy door-to-door vendor fencing knives and scissors keeps hanging around his door, looking for his “little friend” who has disappeared…  The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction

The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction are so confident and forceful that it makes you queasy to think of the many wonderful films he never directed. There’s a deliberately slanted Cabinet of Dr. Caligari quality to Kafka’s apartment block, and shots and scenes naturally evoke The Trial. Although the short could have been structured as nothing more than a series of insane gags, the script makes it flow from one incident to the next, with characters weaving in and out of the short tale and everything connecting by the end. This mini-masterpiece of alienation carefully walks that same line between fantasy and reality, dream and nightmare, that its namesake trod, but with an added dash of dry British wit.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life tied for the 1995 Best Live Action Short Film Oscar with Peggy Rajski’s Trevor—the Academy just couldn’t let a weird film have the spotlight to itself. It’s available on a Vanguard DVD entitled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life… and Other Strange Tales together with three other comic shorts. None of the others are exceptionally strange. Seven Gates features two squabbling brothers returning to their elderly parents home for Christmas, while Mr. McAllister’s Cigarette Holder is a Southern Gothic period piece (shot in sepia) about a field hand and his albino girlfriend. The best of the rest is The Deal, written by standup comic Lewis Black, which satirizes the macho posturing of capitalism’s movers and shakers, who begin by plotting world domination but end up admiring each others’ designer testicles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has all the dreamlike menace of Kafka’s writing, while the story-line sends it up shamelessly… [a] midget gem of post-modern cinema.”–Alison Dalzell, Edinburgh University Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who called it “a wonderful short Kafkian movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Yony Leyser

FEATURING: Peter Weller, Amiri Bakara, Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, Allen Ginsberg (footage), Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gus van Sant, Andy Warhol (footage), John Waters

PLOT:  A portrait of the life of the literary outlaw told through archival footage, rare home

Still from William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)

movies, and interviews with friends, admirers and followers.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its subject is weird, but despite the brief avant-garde sequences used as buffers between the praising heads, its method isn’t.

COMMENTS:  With his quick wit, cadaverous features, and patrician drawl, William S. Burroughs projected a mighty persona.  His writings were full of ironic distance, parody and outlandish stream-of-consciousness surrealism, only occasionally punctured by confessional.  The romantic myth that grew up about him—the artist tormented by guilt, addiction, and public ostracism, who strikes back at society by rejecting all forms of authority—was so powerful that it became far more influential than his actual writings.  The subtitle of this documentary—A Man Within—suggests that we may get a peek under that dapper three-piece armor Burroughs wore in public and see the real, naked man underneath.  Yony Leyser’s freshman documentary is partially successful at that task; he gives us unprecedented access to Burroughs’ home movies (showing him as an old man smoking a joint before going out to fire a shotgun) and reminiscences from those closest to him, including several former lovers.  The portrait that emerges is of a man who may have suffered as much from loneliness as from drugs and remorse; the man we see here has difficulty forming relationships with men he’s attracted to, and prefers to seek the companionship of street hustlers and boys too young and foolish to break his heart.  Topics covered, in jumbled order, include Burroughs’ upper class upbringing; his role as godfather of the Beats; his homosexuality and his refusal to join the “gay mainstream;” his lifelong relationship with heroin; his love of snakes and guns; the accidental killing of Joan Vollmer Continue reading CAPSULE: WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN (2010)

CAPSULE: GENTLEMEN BRONCOS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jared Hess

FEATURING: Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell, Halley Feiffer, Jennifer Coolidge, Hector Jimenez

PLOT:  A pretentious pulp fantasy icon who’s run out of ideas steals a home-schooled teen writer’s sci-fi epic, “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years,” and positions it to be his next bestseller; meanwhile, the original author has sold the property to a team of his nerdy peers who are making it into a YouTube-quality adaptation.

Still from Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Weirder than expected and funnier than its reputation suggests, Gentlemen Broncos falls just short of a general recommendation, and just short of being weird enough to be considered for the List.  You may want to take a flyer on this uneven but sporadically hilarious spoof of sci-fi nerdom, though; the beyond-offbeat tone is sure to alienate many, but if you can connect with it you may come away with a peculiar affection for this messy film, the kind of devotion an owner gives a particularly ugly dog.

COMMENTS: Gentlemen Broncos is a movie with three different tonal layers, which sometimes conflict, but ensure that the movie remains stylistically unpredictable and never gets boring.  The base tone —which might be styled “nerd grotesque”—takes some getting used to; in fact, you’re going to have to work to meet the movie halfway on it. Jared Hess creates a world as seen through the eyes of a frightened adolescent: everyone young Benjamin encounters is uncomfortably strange, every social interaction awkward and fraught with the danger of humiliation. It’s as if every character in the film is some variation of Napoleon Dynamite. His role models include a nightgown-designing mom who supplements her income by selling homemade popcorn balls and a Church-appointed Big Brother with an incontinent albino python and a perpetually stoned expression framed by permed blond ringlets.  His peers are fellow maladjusted home-schooled youths: when he first meets the scheming Tabatha, she fleeces him for half his meal allowance, then cozies up to him by sitting next to him on the bus and letting him give her a squishy hand massage.  Even stranger is Lonnie, the creepiest kid on the block, a no-budget movie mogul whose flamboyant air of artistic superiority could have been hilarious if not for the freakish dental prosthetic he wears that stretches his mouth into a permanent Mr. Sardonicus death mask.  This base layer, a suburban universe inhabited by nothing but oddball losers makes for an uncomfortable, subtly nightmarish viewing experience, in the mold of a gentler and geekier John Waters.

Dr. Ronald Chevalier introduces another dimension to the film. The self-important sci-fi idol and general tool, obsessed with American Indian spirituality and breastfeeding, is shrewdly and purposefully characterized by Jemaine Clement.  He speaks with a carefully affected accent that suggests Ivy League superiority without having any actual geographic significance, and answers his omnipresent blackberry headset with a self-important “Chevalier” that makes you want to smack him.  The scene where he pompously lectures aspiring teen writers on the importance of providing characters with “magical” names is a pinpoint piece of character-assassination comedy.  If the entire movie had been made out of scenes like that, Gentlemen Broncos would be acknowledged as a satirical masterpiece.

These two layers—the uncomfortably quirky and the sharply sardonic—exist uneasily together, but the wild cards, and the segments of most interest to fans of the weird, are in the third layer, the dramatizations of the “Yeast Lords” adventure. The saga involves the mysterious properties of yeast (which look like cow patties and allow a Yeast Lord to fly), stolen gonads, clones, cyclopses with ray guns, and flying reindeer mounted with rocket launchers. We see three iterations of the tale scattered throughout the film: Benjamin’s original concept (with a manly Sam Rockwell as the hero) and Chevalier’s plagiarized version (he changes the protagonist into a “tranny” in an Edgar Winter wig, also portrayed by Rockwell, in a weak attempt to hide the story’s origins), as well as the amateur film adaptation by Lonnie, who doctors the script and casts himself as the female lead. Outrageously cheap CGI is used to achieve the flying and pink puke spewing effects, adding another layer of parody to the already tongue-in-cheek proceedings.  There’s brilliantly absurd dialogue throughout: “we’re investigating ways to strengthen the military—your gonad is being used for research,” “take me to your yeast factory!,” and Chevalier’s memorable couplet (from an alien lullaby) “within my breast meat there is a famine/No more sweets in the mammary cannon.” Without the “Yeast Lords” scenes, Gentlemen Broncos would be a highly peculiar mix of over-quirkiness and pulp fiction satire; scattering these histrionic playlets throughout turns the movie into something meriting the designation “weird.”

On the strength of Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite and the less-successful but still profitable Nacho Libre, Broncos received a generous $10 million budget and was scheduled for a limited release by Fox Searchlight.  The film was savaged by critics and shunned by audiences; its opening weekend was a disaster, netting just over $100,000 theatrically.  The movie was far too weird for mainstream filmgoers, but it stands to improve its performance on home video and could even develop a small cult following. Extreme weird movie trivia: Robin Ballard (star of the Certified Weird Elevator Movie) has a bit role in Broncos as a “female assistant.” Further trivia: the movie is set in a fictional Utah town called “Saltair.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a finely deranged, sillyhearted satire… the aesthetic is followed through to the end by the filmmaker, who’s fixated on whatever weirdness he can devour.”–Brian Orndorf, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS [STORIE DI ORDINARIA FOLLIA] (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Marco Ferreri

FEATURING: Ben Gazarra, Ornella Muti

PLOT: Alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Serking (a pseudonym for Charles Bukowski, on

Still from Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

whose stories the film is based) drinks, writes poetry, has bizarre sex with a small harem of loose women, and finally falls in love with a beautiful but self-destructive prostitute.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Though no movie where a barstool patron calmly inserts a giant safety pin through her cheeks can be said to be unweird, Tales doesn’t go over-the-top in weirdness, and doesn’t compensate with exceptional insight or drama.

COMMENTS: Tales of Ordinary Madness’ greatest asset is the fact that it recreates the feeling of sitting on a bar stool listening to a charming, plastered braggart tell tall tales pulled from a head full of hazy, half-remembered adventures.  The first sequence illustrates the method.  Bleary eyed, brown-bagged bottle in hand, a bored Serking stumbles out of a poetry reading and discovers a runaway nymphette has set up a makeshift bedroom, complete with clothesline hung with her dainties, in an antechamber of the deserted performance hall.  “Are you real?” he asks as a prelude to pedophilic seduction. She answers in the affirmative, but we have our doubts—even though she seemingly leaves him a pair of panties and takes a bus ticket.  That’s not even the most improbable of the soused author’s sexcapades, which include stalking a woman who later claims she likes to be raped, having a beautiful call girl pay him for sex so he will ruin her for her clients, and trying to re-enter the womb with the help of a game, dumpy housewife.  Each vignette has the feeling of something that might have happened, but not quite in the way it’s told to us. When Serking gets his break and is sent to the writer’s big leagues, the paid fellowship gig involves sitting in an office cubicle in a literary assembly line under the sickly green glow of a fluorescent tube.  Throughout the film, we see Serking engaging in some increasingly odd adventure that passes out before it gets too strange. He then wakes up alone, as if he’s sobered up and reality has reset itself.  Besides boozing and womanizing, Serking occasionally writes poetry, although it can turn Sam Spade-ish: “Los Angeles… some call it Lost Angels.  Me, I was just another one of the lost, back where I belonged…” Ben Gazarra goes all-in for the role, and a less committed performance might have wrecked the film.  With a winning smile beneath a ragged beard, he delivers his street poetry in a boozy, bemused baritone that conveys more hard-earned wisdom than is actually contained in the naive romanticism of the script.  Exotic Ornella Muti is more luminous and intoxicating than the glow of a neon beer sign in a dim bar, and the series of increasingly shocking body mutilations she goes through penetrate the heart far more than Serking’s doggerel.  The movie’s principal problem is its unreflecting over-eagerness to buy into the “tragic artist drowns his sorrows in a river of pleasure” mythology.  The portrait is of a young male poet’s fondest fantasy: be fashionably sad, drink all day, bang out a few sentimental lines every now and then, and beautiful women will throw themselves at you.  The layer of grime necessary to cut the glare of the glamor is missing: Gazarra is too healthy, too vital, too clear headed, too able to shrug off the whiskey and get an erection whenever he needs one.  He only vomits once.  But perhaps that’s all part of the movie’s “it really happened, but not quite the way I’m telling it now” stylistics.

Charles Bukowski’s life was also the subject of a more conventional and accessible film, Barfly (1987), with scruffy Mickey Rourke looking more beaten down and low-rent than Gazarra’s relatively presentable portrayal.  More recently, Matt Damon tackled a Bukowskiesque figure in Factotum (2005).  Bukowski himself reportedly did not like Tales, and some critics complain that this reverent work misses out on the writer’s subtlety and undercurrent of irony.  I suspect, to the contrary, that the movie captures the Bukowski project too perfectly.  Like a lesser William S. Burroughs, this is an artist whose literary reputation comes from his tormented persona rather than from his actual writings.  This narcissistic artistic fantasy, where warts are redrawn as beauty marks and paraded as badges of authenticity, makes Bukowski’s personal mythologizing look too transparent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere inside its unworkable blend of pretension and pornography, there’s a serious film about art and sexual abandon struggling to get out… concentrates solely on the lurid aspects of Mr. Bukowski’s writing and exaggerates these so greatly that all else is lost.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

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: , , , 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 Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)