Title: Barton Fink (1991)
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: John Torturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub
Ask anybody who writes for a living and they’ll tell you, writing can be a noble, rewarding and even cathartic affair, but most of all, it can also be hell. In Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers captured this sentiment perfectly by telling the story of Barton Fink, a playwright who writes stories about “the common man”, the working stiff, Barton wants to be a voice for them. The good thing is that Barton’s plays are getting rave reviews; he’s finally getting a taste of success, of recognition. It’s at this same time that a Hollywood mogul offers Barton a job “writing for the pictures” paying him a thousand dollars a week. Barton accepts the job offer because he sees it as a way of making money that can later allow him to write more plays, not because he is thrilled at the idea of writing movies. So off Barton Fink goes to Hollywood. He stays at Hotel Earl, a name that sounds a lot like Hotel Hell, which I’m sure was the Coen’s direct intention. This is hell for Barton, because it’s where he intends to write his first screenplay, it’s where he intends to escape into the “life of the mind”. And so starts Barton Fink, a film that portrays Hollywood as a place filled with wound up, greedy and downright crazy people, a place that is not as glamorous as some might think.
So that’s the premise for Barton Fink, a film that’s a double edged sword because it’s both about the struggles of a writer and the hectic life of a Hollywood mogul, so it’s both a film about writing and about filmmaking. The life of the writer is covered by the character of Barton Fink, a character attempting to write his first screenplay. We follow him right down to that intimate moment when the writer sits in front of his type writer trying to write that first sentence, that first original thought, that first spark of an idea that will get that screenplay going. Barton Fink really goes into that mental struggle one must go through in order to write a story. This struggle has been addressed in many films about writing like Naked Lunch (1991) and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), it’s a common thing that writers go through: how to get started, where to begin. At times Barton just stares at the blank page, unable to type a single thing. Every little thing distracts him, he tries to write and a fly buzzes by. He tries to type and his neighbor comes knocking at the door. He tries to write and the wallpaper is peeling off the walls. When he does write, he writes about the same themes he’d write in his theater plays, he writes about “the fishmongers”, the working class; an interesting way in which the Coen’s point out how sometimes, all throughout their body of work, writers and filmmakers end up talking about the same themes repeatedly. So be ready for a film that analyses the nature of writing and as a result, is a very brainy, complex film.
On the Hollywood filmmaking side of things we get to see Barton meet film producers, which are portrayed as a hectic bunch, always speaking at lightning fast pace, which perfectly captures the way Hollywood moguls think, always trying to be one step ahead of what’s hot, what’s in, always trying to stab each other’s backs first. If you know anything about Hollywood, then you know what a wrestling match it can be to write a film with some depth to it and then finding someone willing to fund it. 90 percent of the time, all Hollywood cares about is making the next Transformers movie. There’s always that fight between the brainy writer and the money hungry producer. In Barton Fink Hollywood is a stampeding train looking for someone to ram and if this film is any indication, it’s the brainy, poetic writers artistic integrity that is on its tracks. Even though they’ll tell you they love you “kiss this man’s shoe!” in reality, they don’t want you to write a sad, fruity picture. As soon as he arrives to Hollywood Barton meets Jack Lipnick, a Hollywood producer who says he is where he is because he is meaner and louder than anyone else in town. Lipnick (which by the way sounds like “limp dick” and I’m sure this was intentional) wants Barton to write a film about wrestling in order to make a quick buck, but Barton doesn’t want to write a silly b-movie . In accordance with the persona of a writer, Barton is a more cerebral kind of guy, so Barton is confronted with a conundrum: should he write a commercial film about wrestling? A film that follows a formula? Or can he turn this would be film into a commentary on the struggles of the common man? I enjoy how the film explores these ideas, this dichotomy: to make an intelligent film that can actually say something about life or to make a meaningless film that says nothing?
As is the case with practically any Coen Brothers film, the cast is top notch. On Barton Fink we have two great actors who take up a big part of the screen time and these are John Torturro and John Goodman, two actors whom the Coen brothers continually work with. These two characters are at the crux of what this film is about. On the one hand we have Torturro playing Barton as the brainy writer who struggles with his own mind; he is continually asking perfection of himself. ”Shouldn’t your first duty be to your gift?” He is a writer determined to do something worthwhile, sometime that matters. Though at the same time he comes off as a hypocritical character, at times advocating for the common man, but then not even listening to the stories that he might have to say, one could say that Burton sees himself as superior to the common man. He sees himself as more refined, than the common man. Then on the other hand we have Goodman playing Charlie Meadows, a guy who in the eyes of Barton represents the common man that he wants to write so much about. In a way, one feeds off the other. For example, Charlie enjoys talking with Barton because he’s an intelligent individual who always has something insightful to say. In Charlie’s eyes, Barton is not an idiotic sheep in the heard. To Charlie, Barton is special and he admires him for that. Barton tells Charlie things like “the life of the mind…there’s no road map for that territory…and exploring it can be painful” and Charlie just eats it up. For Barton, Charlie is the complete opposite. To Barton, Charlie is the quintessential common man, working for the system as an Insurance Salesman; a sheep in the heard, slaving away to have a little money with which to eat and drink his nights away. But boy, could he tell Barton some stories; unfortunately, most of the time Barton won’t listen to his stories, he just talks about himself. But they continually meet, bouncing off their musings on life. Their encounters lead to a very unexpected place.
An interesting aspect of Barton Fink is that it is a film filled with many symbolisms and possible interpretations; it speaks about many things at the same time. Ultimately, Barton Fink will end up meaning different things to different people, much like a David Lynch film. Actually, visually speaking this film has many homage’s to Lynch’s own Eraserhead (1977), starting with John Torturro’s crazy hairdo. Multiple interpretations aside, at heart, more than anything, the film expresses the frustrations involved with artistic compromise. The film itself has a very somber mood to it, very film noir, very dark…we get the feeling that Hotel Earl is indeed hell. Every character that stays in Hotel Earl is always dripping in sweat. The heat and humidity are extremely palpable here. “Sometimes it gets so hot I want to crawl right out of my skin” says Charlie at one point. One of the many interpretations for this film is that Hotel Earl is hell and that John Goodman’s character can be representative of either fascism, Satan or a figment of Barton’s own mind, take your pick! I’ve also read that since Barton lives “the life of the mind” that Charlie represents his physical side? There’s even another take on the film that says that Barton’s hotel room represents his mind and that everything that happens in the hotel is representative of what’s going on inside his head! So just be ready for a movie that’s open to various interpretations. All these wild interpretations make sense, especially when we take in consideration that the film takes a turn towards the surreal side of things.
It should be noted that Barton Fink came to be as result of the Coen’s suffering from writers block while writing the screenplay for Miller’s Crossing (1990). You see, writing Miller’s Crossing proved to be such a daunting task for the brothers that they took a break from it; a hiatus so to speak. Now, the Coen’s being such gifted writers, their hiatus involved writing another masterpiece, which ended up being Barton Fink, a film that won critical acclaim and numerous awards at the Cannes Film Festival! It’s a very special film that I place next to Sunset Blvd. (1950), Adaptation (2002) and Ed Wood (1994) as some of the best films about filmmaking out there. If you enjoy writing and would like to see all your struggles to get that script, book or play off the ground represented in a film, then do yourself a favor and check this excellent film out, the common man will be here when you get back.
Rating: 5 out of 5