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.

To match that ball-squeezing metaphor, Fink’s kinky (as in, intensely curly, as opposed to sexually naughty) hair stands straight up, perched atop a huge set of round, black glasses calculated to make him look quite odd and owlish. He looks and acts like a bit of a freak at the best of times. The makers especially like putting him in this strange pose (both right at the film’s start as he’s watching his play, and when he’s watching the dailies from a wrestling picture), where he’s cinched up as if he’s has a stroke on one side of his body, hand clenched, as if he’s about to complain about something. It’s a great oddball role, and probably one of the high points of Turturro’s career.

Out of nowhere appears an overly friendly guy from the room adjacent, Charlie (John Goodman in all his sweaty glory). He’s after a bit of a chat and some company, and he tries to share a joke and a drink with the snobby writer, who looks down on him. At first, Barton is reluctant to engage with him, but once he gets on his hobby horse about how in touch he is with the common folk, the salt of the earth and the lumpenproles of the land, he comes to like Charlie, despite the fact that he keeps cutting him off and actually ignoring what he’s trying to say.

Barton sees himself as living the life of the mind, as a creator who wrestles brilliant ideas into existence, and as a friend to the proletariat whose plight he champions and attempts to shepherd into the light with his writing.

Of course, he’s completely deluded. And, he’s still not writing. That writer’s block is a bitch, isn’t it?

To help him, a motormouth producer from the studio (Tony Shalhoub) gets him to speak to a great writer and respected screenwriter, William P Mayhew (John Mahoney), who is based on William Faulkner. Since he’s based on William Faulkner, if that august name means nothing to you, it means he is a Southerner, and he gets rip-roaring drunk.

Mayhew’s secretary and lover Audrey (Judy Davis) takes pity on poor Barton (he’s not poor, he’s just an arsehole) and humours him with her time, and eventually a little more. Fink idolises Mayhew at first, especially for his best selling book Nebuchadnezzar, but doesn’t let that admiration get in the way of cutting the great author’s lunch.

Often we see Barton sitting at his desk, staring at a postcard-type picture of a pretty girl sitting on the beach, with one hand shielding her eyes as she looks out to see the sea. We don’t quite know what’s going on in his head when he looks at the image. At other times Barton becomes agitated because he hears the sounds of sex coming from nearby, or what sounds like sex. As well as the hell of writer’s block, Fink clearly suffers from sexual frustration as well. What a killer combination.

There’s a really strange scene where Charlie offers to show Barton a wrestling hold, and gets on his hands and knees, peering back excitedly over his shoulder. It is the most bizarre thing and has this strange sexual vibe to it. Only the Cohens…

Goodman especially is great in this film as the put-upon but cheery insurance salesman. Before everything goes of the rails, he is down to earth and chummy, chatting about the vagaries of existence and the cruel ways of the world. When he speaks of the way indifferent people can be so mean, he seems genuinely hurt by a world he’s just doing his best to get by in. He and Fink develop, against all signs to the contrary, something of a friendship. When Barton gets into big trouble with someone in his bed who shouldn’t be there, or at least in the state she’s in, Charlie’s happy to help out.

Praising Goodman shouldn’t take away anything from Turturro, who is great with a difficult part. He’s too odd to be sympathetic, and an arrogant prig, but he is interesting to watch, like that guy I used to see at my local supermarket who used to wear a homemade Nazi SS uniform.

There’s how the film looks and sounds, and then there’s how it really is. There is something clearly metaphorical about what’s going on, but it plays out literally as well. The oddity and strangeness that would typify and eventually swamp the efforts of David Lynch seem to be present here as well, though it’s not as absurd. But Barton’s time in this place, whether Hollywood or the Earle Hotel, is especially Dante’s Inferno kind of stuff.

When it goes off the rails, due to Charlie’s efforts (though we won’t know the magnitude of it until later), it really goes off the goddamn rails. It leads to an incredible sequence that caps off Fink’s stay at the Earle Hotel, and contains the most jaw-dropping Hitler reference I’ve ever seen in any film. It veers between being outright shocking and almost a parody. It’s pretty funny.

John Goodman running down a burning corridor, holding a shotgun, screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind,” has to be one of my favourite film scenes in the history of me watching films, and the history of people making films.

It’s a very odd experience, beginning to end. An influence on the brother’s Cohen for the feel of the flick included Polanski’s The Tenant, and the influence is pretty clear. They also go out of their way to make the Hollywood of yesteryear look credible, but then have the story go in such an unpredictable direction that you wonder whether a) the story is playing out in someone’s mind, b) it’s really hell, and these are the souls of the damned, as the fundamentalist Christians would have you believe is true of all Hollywood’s denizens, or c) it’s just some kooky shit thrown together for a laugh.

I don’t think it’s any of the three, but this was made at a time when the Cohens were still pushing their own boundaries as filmmakers, when four great flicks in a row (this, Blood Simple first, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing following) meant they were on top of the world (with fanboys and fangirls, and the critics at least). Their recent lacklustre crap (which for me started with The Man Who Wasn’t There) doesn’t make me hate them at all, but when I watch stuff like Fink and Miller’s I’m reminded of how great they used to be.

Barton Fink isn’t a lot of things. It’s not as funny as The Big Lebowski (it’s not a comedy), not as dramatically potent as Miller’s Crossing, not as charming as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it’s still a very strong flick about the maddening frustration of writer’s block, the horrors of the old Hollywood studio system, and the hell that is other people.

8 times I won’t be showing anyone the life of the mind out of 10

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“I’'m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I'm a creator! I am a creator!” – you keep telling yourself that, Barton Fink.

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