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8 stars

Barton Fink

Barton Fink

This is a pretty perplexing poster that has nothing to do with the film

dir: Joel Coen

1990

It’s hard not to view some of the films the Coen Brothers have been responsible for more as experiments than films. Their films thus far have generally been about films, on some level. Sure, they’ve got characters and plots and set pieces and crafty dialogue. But they are also almost always about Hollywood and movies.

I’m going to avoid rambling on about that theory too much, since I’m sure I’ve mentioned it at length in another Coen Brothers review found elsewhere on this illustrious site. All I will say is rarely is the link made so explicit as it is in Barton Fink, most of which is set in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s bright days prior to World War II.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright who’s hit the big time. His most recent play is the toast of Broadway. Somehow, this translates to him being snapped up by contract to Capitol Pictures, and shipped out to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter.

The head of the studio, an over excited Michael Lerner, continually praises both Fink and writers in general. He bellows out the phrase “The writer is KING at Capitol Pictures”, which is not likely to be true. Fink is told to write the script to a wrestling movie because he knows the poetry of the streets, which precludes him from working on westerns, biblical or any other kind of story.

The studio moves him into a hotel that, at first, looks pretty swanky. At least the lobby looks swanky. Chet (Steve Buscemi) is the ever helpful, and decidedly odd bellboy / concierge who seems to be the only staff member in this hellish hotel.

Fink’s room, over the course of the film, is in the process of decomposing before our very eyes. The walls themselves ooze a fetid liquid, and the wallpaper, looking like human skin overflowing with leprosy, sloughs off in sheets.

Fink tries to combat the decay with persistence and pins, to little avail. All the while, his progress before the typewriter is stunted before he’s barely begun. A rampant case of writer’s block has seized him by the balls and won’t let go.

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Bad Lieutenant

Bad Lieutenant

At least he gets to church every once in a while

dir: Abel Ferrara

1992

It’s tough loving a director who treats you so rough. Sure, some people are into that kind of thing, but I’m certainly not of the ‘Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ school of relationship maintenance.

Abel Ferrara is a director I’ve admired and, yes, loved for a very long time. Like most long term relationships, there are ups and downs, but this relationship has always had more downs than ups. For the few films of his that I have loved (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral), there have been so many of his that I’ve downright loathed (pretty much everything else he’s ever directed) that it makes you wonder if it’s all worth it.

Do you keep the love going because of a few great moments in the past, when there doesn’t look like there’s any future glory coming? Or do you regretfully realise it’s time to call it quits?

It depends on your personality, I guess, or how deep the love goes.

It is specifically because of how great Bad Lieutenant is that I persist in my love of Ferrara, and my hope that he will one day justify that love again with something new. At the very least, I can watch this on DVD again and remember how great the great times were.

Bad Lieutenant is an amazing, aggressive, transgressive experience. On paper, it sounds like a nightmare: a very corrupt, drug-using cop rambles around New York having ugly adventures and abuses people at random for an hour and a half. His drug use is so frequent that most of the film involves watching Harvey Keitel either: scoring drugs, using drugs, goofing off on the drugs, naked and goofing off on the drugs, or combinations thereof. But there is a tiny bit more going on.

Keitel throws himself into the role with gusto and absolute conviction; not so much looking like an actor playing a fucked up character, but more someone fucking themselves up diabolically for the role. He holds nothing back, keeps nothing in reserve, has no shame, no modesty to draw him back from the edge. He is the Bad Lieutenant.

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