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BARTON FINK (1991)
There is no doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are extremely intelligent filmmakers. However, most of their films, although quirky or strange, are quite accessible at first viewing, and not to the detriment of the films’ depth and layering appreciable on subsequent viewings. Barton Fink is a departure from other Coen brothers movies in that, over the course of the picture, it becomes progressively less accessible. The effect is unhappily frustrating.
In this film, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) rises quickly to fame when his production, a leftist story about the plight and nobility of the “common man,” hits big in 1941’s New York City. Barton fancies himself an intellectual who wants to “make a difference in the world” and thereby initially refuses to go out to cheap and uncultured Hollywood to write for the movies. Soon enough, however, he capitulates, succumbing to the allure of promised riches. Barton checks into the art-deco Hotel Earle, not a first-class establishment, but one that may keep him closer to the “common man.” More obvious than the décor in the lobby and spare rooms are the huge shafts of light that slant in through the windows. When “Chet!,” the friendly but somewhat eerie bellboy (Steve Buscemi) welcomes Mr. Fink to Los Angeles, it’s as if he’s welcoming him into the Twilight Zone.
Loudmouth studio executive Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) hires Barton to write a simple B-picture wrestling flick, which Barton takes on with an intellectual’s obsessive neurosis. He’s never written a wrestling picture. He’s not familiar with the genre. How to begin? He has writer’s block. On the advice of amped-up producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub), he consults famous writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney.) Mayhew (modeled after William Faulkner) is not only a celebrated novelist and southern gentlemen, but also a gloriously undignified drunkard.
Despite this motley array of acquaintances, Barton is alone in Los Angeles. He seems to be held captive by a truly bizarre hotel that quite literally melts around him. Studio executives, other writers, even the hotel elevator operator all seem to have a deficiency prohibiting them from relating to Barton at his level. He yearns to write about the “common man” but he exiles himself by dismissing everyone he encounters. His only friend is the graciously enigmatic Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Charlie, who introduces himself as a traveling salesman, oozes “common man” in a very real sense. His belly hangs out, he sweats, even his infected ear drips. Charlie offers the answer to Barton’s lack of inspiration with his unending offers to tell him stories, but all Barton can do is wave him off and complain about being an intellectual subject to the tortuous “life of the mind.” We come to find that there is much more to Charlie, and perhaps Barton, than we may have expected.
Through the beginning and middle of the movie, I was captivated and amused by Barton’s misadventures. The performances by John Turturro and John Goodman are outstanding. Turturro plays the self-absorbed, suffering intellectual in every word he utters, every gesture he makes. Goodman plays the most gracious, likeable guy in the universe and then turns it all on its head to dizzying effect. The interplay between the two actors is nothing short of classic. Judy Davis as Audrey, Mayhew’s “personal secretary,” Lerner, Mahoney, Shaloub, and Buscemi all offer performances worthy of mention. The cinematography of Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo) is gorgeous, telling us so much with light and shadows and with simple camera movements that we feel, as the viewer, like a character in the story.
Barton Fink is loaded with symbolism, hidden meanings, and suggestion; there’s anti-Semitism, Nazism, homosexuality, Marxism, McCarthyism, elitism, all sorts of -isms. Was this film the Coen’s take on Dante’s Inferno, the Holocaust, the dangers of Hollywood, some combination thereof? The problem, I suspect, is not a lack of content, but the construction. Barton Fink has an ending that is so much more startlingly surreal than the rest of the film that it stops making sense, and therefore feels like no ending at all. Gary Marshall once said “Sometimes when you go out there, you find nobody’s out there with you.” The first time I saw Barton Fink, I felt like I had gone somewhere, but for the life of me I had no idea where I had gone.
Barton Fink is a good movie that could have been a very good movie. I think that, unfortunately, the Coens may have succumbed to an overdose of what Jack Lipnick called “that Barton Fink feeling.” They may have set out to write a great story, but gotten so wrapped up in their own intellectualization of that story, that they forgot about you and me, the poor old common man.
Copyright © 2007 Ivan Velasco, Jr.