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Film Review: Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991; Directed by Joel Coen)

Like their later (greater) film Inside Llewin Davis, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink is a cinematic limerick about the failure of art, its dialogic rhyming and thematic repetitions containing dark ironies and unsettling truths. In 1941, the titular playwright-turned-frustrated-screenwriter, played by an intermittently dazed and frantic John Turturro and based on Depression-era Jewish-American dramatist Clifford Odets, pens an acclaimed New York City stage triumph of mid-century proletarian realism entitled Bare Ruined Choirs (it’s about fishmongers). Fink hopes fervently (but more than a little pompously) to express the struggle of the common man through his writing, but the high-art and upper-crust critical attention swirling around his play draws the attention of a Hollywood studio, which offers him a handsome salary to come to California and write for the movies.

Tasked to write the screenplay for a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery by the brash, eccentric, but maddeningly vague big talkers at Capitol Pictures (Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub, and Coens favourite Jon Polito), Fink holes up in the ramshackle Hotel Earle (’90s Coens regular Steve Buscemi has a small role as the oddball bellman, Chet – or, more accurately, Chet!), hoping its run-down environs will inspire his latest paean to the struggles of the common people (the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, working on his first of 12 Coens films, shoots the empty film-noir-ish lobby and its vanishing-point repetitious hallway to maximally emphasize Fink’s lonely solitude). Unfortunately, he becomes mired in persistent writer’s block, made all the worse by his lack of knowledge of wrestling (a trip to a studio screening room to familiarize himself with the B-movie genre is likewise unsuccessful, as he stares with anxious bafflement at endless, absurdist dailies of large sweaty men slamming each other into the mat).

Unable to progress beyond self-plagiarizing establishing images of Lower East Side tenements and fishmongers, Fink is bedevilled by a buzzing mosquito and cheap wallpaper peeling from the walls in the heat. Even a fortuitous encounter with the great Southern novelist W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, performing an eloquently prickly but tragically sad William Faulkner homage), also in Hollywood to write films, does little to get Fink’s artistic juices flowing. With Mayhew perpetually sunk in belligerent inebriation, Fink develops a romantic interest in the novelist’s “secretary” (actually his lover, caretaker, and secret ghostwriter) Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) instead.

Barton Fink’s more important relationship, however, is the casual but warm friendship he strikes up with his neighbour at the hotel, a talkative travelling insurance salesman named Charlies Meadows (John Goodman). They meet after Fink complains to Chet that Meadows is making too much noise next door, but the initial hint of hostility (which Fink would have proven wise to heed) dissolves into joviality and friendly drinks. Meadows’ acquaintance is ever poised tantalizingly close to lighting a fire under Fink’s guttering script. Indeed, it seems purpose-built to do so: Fink tells the salesman that he sees him as the embodiment of the noble, hard-working common man that stands at the centre of his aesthetic paradigm. But the Coens, typically, frustrates this expectation and thus traverse into the realm of dramatic irony. Fink blusters past Meadows’ offer of rich stories of everyday experience and even his potentially useful expertise as a former highschool wrestler (although Meadows obligingly pins Fink on the hotel room floor to demonstrate his acumen). He’s more interested in laying out the pretentious terms of his lofty mission to record working-class experience than listening and learning from a living embodiment of that experience.

Fink’s connection to Charlie Meadows proves to be of great utility when he becomes enmeshed in a messy murder scene, at least until that connection turns out to be the cause of the murder in the first place. The trauma of the experience jump-starts Fink’s script work, but it also culminates in a hellish, violent climax amidst the burning hotel. That it all proves for naught when the finished screenplay is rejected by the studio, who keep Fink trapped in his contract and unable to pursue any other writing work as a punishment for his failure, is a stinging closing irony entirely typical of the Coens.

Also entirely typical of the Coens is Barton Fink‘s moral and existential universe. Fink, to an extent, is punished for the arrogance of his artistic ideals, suffering through a literal crucible of fire at the hands of the unpredictable Meadows precisely because he brushed off the insight into real lived experience offered to him. Indeed, Fink’s path through the final act of the film takes on the metaphysical dimensions redolent of Dante’s Divine Comedy: emerging from the flames of the Earle, Fink is incarcerated in the purgatory of fruitless contractual servitude to Hollywood, but ends in the tempered paradise of a beach on the ocean with a beautiful woman (an image that hung above his writing desk in the decrepit hotel, offering him some tantalizing vision of bliss and escape, to say nothing of incipient sexual aspiration).

But the Coens’ moral spectrum is never so neat and just, even in twisted inversion. What Barton Fink – wide-eyed, puzzled, deluded observer of a mad world – encounters is not hard cosmic fairness but the life-shattering hammerstrokes of a dangerous and random universe, the absurd devastation of unfeeling coincidence. In his writing, he envisions a shining ideal of artistic balancing, the grinding despair of the forgotten proles (be they fishmongers or wrestlers) redeemed and elevated by the golden touch of the muses. This ambition of Fink’s is not only an ideal but a projection, too: producing great art, he can only hope, will also redeem the mundanity and lonesomeness of his own life. In Barton Fink, the quest for such redemption is not only frustrated but smashed to bits: by clashing literature (Mayhew’s novels, which if anything like his model Faulkner’s are likely Southern Gothic tragedies of a past of horrors twisted by the passage of time into horrid perversions), by the formulaic corporatized story factories of Hollywood, and ultimately most strenuously by the destructive, predatory chaos represented by Charlie Meadows (a.k.a. Karl “Madman” Mundt). In Barton Fink, art not only fails, it is foolish to even try to envision a world of truth.

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