Barton Fink (1991)
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi, Richard Portnow, Christopher Murney
Barton Fink was Joel and Ethan Coens’ fourth film, written at a breakneck pace while they were still struggling with Miller’s Crossing and released only a year later. The screenplay might have been knocked out in three weeks, but it ended up being one of the Coen Brothers’ trickiest and most layered of narratives, going on to win them the Palme d’Or and Best Director at Cannes, and gain three Academy Award nominations. Most critics loved it, but many audience members were left bemused. How does it play 30 years down the line?
The film opens with an image of uninspiring, brown, Art Deco patterned wallpaper, then the camera travels downwards to the bustle and tangled pulleys of the backstage area at a theatre, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) watching the performance nervously from the wings. Following a rapturous critical reception for his play, Barton is the toast of New York and is invited to Hollywood to bring a little of his magic to the silver screen, taking up residence in a dilapidated hotel and steadily losing his grip on reality in the process.
Turturro as Barton is a classic film portrayal of a writer character; inspired but coiled and awkward in any setting where he is forced to converse with more than one other person. “A writer writes from his gut – his gut tells him what’s good and what’s merely adequate”.
A lot of playwrights were lured to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, including Clifford Odets (Barton’s reported real-world basis who wrote films such as Sweet Smell of Success) in the heyday of the studio film. Most were looking for the stability a steady flow of cash would bring more than artistic liberation. Barton trades his dream of creating “a real living theatre, of and about, and for the common man” for the promise of success in the movies. Barton goes to Hollywood to turn his acclaim on the stage into success in the cinema. He has got a couple of minders to keep him on track (Tony Shalhoub and Jon Polito) and a studio benefactor, powerful producer Jack Lipnik (Michael Lerner), who is all-accommodating and full of praise and bear hugs until he can’t meet his new boss’s high but vague demands. Inevitably, writing a crowd-pleasing boxing movie doesn’t go smoothly for Barton.
Barton Fink has quite a lot in common with The Shining, especially in terms of its atmosphere. There may not be any literal ghosts in its corridors but the Earle is in many ways just as unappealing of a place to stay while staring at your mockingly bare typewriter as the Overlook was. Everything in the hotel seems designed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable, a little ill-at-ease. The reception bell that rings out slightly too long; Chet the bell hop’s (Steve Buscemi) dusty uniform; the zombified elevator operator; the way you can almost smell the mound in the carpets and feel the oppressive heat that melts the wallpaper paste.
John Goodman has never been quite as terrifying as he his playing totally-not-Satan insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. He is first announced off-screen by a noise coming through Barton’s wall that disturbingly is like an uncontrollable laugh and a hysterical sob in equal measure. Of course his neighbour soon comes a-knocking, though some early awkwardness is quickly bypassed by Charlie’s disarming affability and the bottle of whiskey he offers to share. “If you don’t mind me asking?” soon becomes a catchphrase of Charlie’s, as does “I could tell you some stories”, though with Barton on one of his self-righteous rants, he doesn’t usually get to.
On the rare occasion we do leave the hotel, the film loses a bit of focus and intention. Barton strikes up a suspiciously fast friendship with Judy Davis as the mistress/secretary of a famous novelist (John Mahoney) seemingly just to set up a couple of twists later on. Later Barton goes to a dance and starts a fight with some sailors and then a couple of cops straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel (Richard Portnow and Christopher Murney) show up and begin to suspect Barton of illicit activity, like his unravelling mind and writer’s block weren’t tension enough for this film.
“You don’t listen” is the biggest lesson to take away from Barton Fink, a story about writing stories. Barton is ultimately a hypocrite, claiming to be an agent of social change and bringing working-class stories to the masses but loving the sound of his own words far more than actually taking in what’s around him, or genuinely portraying other people’s varied lived experiences. He’s a narcissist masquerading as a man of the people.
Barton Fink is a film that will take at least three viewings to come close to decode. The heaven and hell imagery especially in the final act is one thing, but other motifs peppered throughout are far more elliptical and vague in their meaning, undoubtedly intentionally so – and what was it with films of the 90s and boxes with mysterious, likely gruesome contents? However difficult it can be to penetrate at times, the oppressive atmosphere, pitch-perfect performances (especially from Turturro and Goodman) and the mundane-beautiful look of the thing (this was Roger Deakins’ first of many collaborations with the Coens as DP) will keep you uncomfortably enraptured. The Coens could tell you some stories, and with Barton Fink they certainly keep you on your toes.