A Fresh Look Inside Barton Fink
Barton FinkWritten by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Directed by Joel CoenAlthough Orson Welles certainly absorbed some of the language of the cinema prior to making Citizen Kane, his greatest work proves that he largely followed his own advice: that filmmakers "should do movies innocently the way Adam named the animals the first day in the garden." He was only 25 years old when, after completing Kane, he referred to a movie set as "the greatest electric train set any little boy has ever had to play with." In style, Kane communicates the wide-eyed thrill of a newly forming artistic expressiveness perhaps more clearly than any other film, but it's also a wrenchingly personal warning of the loss of that innocence. Like most great personal movies, Kane reveals aspects of its maker's nature more fully than he could have realized.The Coen brothers were in their late twenties when their auspicious debut, the neo-noir Blood Simple, became a cult favorite in 1984. Since then, they have completed several revitalizing yet impersonal genre films including the screwball comedies Raising Arizona (1987) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1993), and one gangster film, Miller's Crossing (1990). They constitute evidence of precocious children enthralled with that "great train set."These are well-acted films that demonstrate a fine ear for vivid regional conversation, and one can sense the Coens pushing the performances into caricature. They're also well-constructed, though they are shot through with ostentatious transitions and exclamatory camera moves. It's not surprising that these directorial decisions have a way of breaking the spells the brothers seek to cast.Charges by some critics that their movies are soulless are not without some merit. These films are about the mastery of production, and so they do not transcend their genres except in the way a fast roller coaster eclipses a slower one. Unlike Welles and like so many young filmmakers today, the Coens are steeped in film culture and cynical about the value of movies with a message. In the Coens' garden all the animals already have names, and the pecking order among them has long ago been established.Fargo (1996), however, was a step in the right direction. Based on a true story, this snowbound, character-driven crime comedy has a more naturalistic style than any of their previous films. It also derives strength from Frances McDormand's Chief Gunderson, one of the few characters in the Coens' oeuvre not to be a pawn of their mercilessly cold manipulations. But it is still not their best picture.Though it took the top prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, Barton Fink is the one film in the Coens' body of work for which American audiences and critics saved most of their venom. Even those who liked it, and there were very few, found it mystifying. The only mystery, really, is how they found this film within them, and whether they will ever make anything that revealing again.While leaving the theater after the screening, I overheard a young man remark that it was "kinda like Sunset Boulevard on acid." Indeed, if Barton Fink belongs to any genre, it is to that one about Hollywood, but ultimately it is an unclassifiable picture, an animal awaiting a name. While both films track the moral decline of a Hollywood screenwriter, Billy Wilder's classic takes a literal approach, while Barton Fink starts out that way and then head-trips head-long into the title character's devoured and devouring mind, portraying his creative engine as a kind of amoral black hole. The portrait is so fully realized as to make the problem of the film's historical inaccuracies and its faulty biographical allusions fall away.The film boasts the seamless combination of consistently arresting transitions, the fluid, sometimes bizarre, camera moves of Roger Deakins, Dennis Gassner's exquisite production design, and Carter Burwell's eerily suspenseful music. The Coens also make effective use of sound effects to provide an overall aural atmosphere reminiscent of a David Lynch film. The performances in the movie once again have an outsized intensity. These stylistic trademarks, however, often seem arbitrary and self-conscious in their other movies. Here they are entirely in keeping with the surreal disintegration of Barton's point of view.In 1941 New York City, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) has just become "The Toast of Broadway." His high ideal is to create a new, living theater of, about, and for the common man. Though he disdains success, it's not long before he accepts a lucrative offer to write for Capitol Pictures in Hollywood. They cut to a beach where a powerful wave crashes on a huge rock, as though Barton's integrity has dissipated like water around an emerging writer's block as impenetrable as a pillar of stone.In Hollywood, Barton's suitcase literally sinks into his bed in the dark and creepy Hotel Earle. With a nod to The Shining's Outlook Hotel, it looks like a place where the dead might register for eternity, with impossibly long hallways and a feeling of indeterminate space. Air currents in the hall emit a low, steady, breathing drone -- trapped and fluctuating between rooms as though in the chambers of the mind. The room's wallpaper periodically peels, oozing a glue that looks more than a little like the pus dripping from his next-door neighbor's infected ear.That neighbor, an insurance salesman and quintessential common man named Charlie Meadows (played with good-old-boy charm and later with wild, demonic abandon by John Goodman), good-naturedly tries to help Barton conquer his writer's block, but Barton is much too busy expounding on the value of the common man and prattling about the pain writers encounter while exploring the life of the mind to stop and listen.The Coens have described Barton as "a horrible creature." Even so, the intense Turturro is magnetic in the role as he satirizes the noble, tormented artist whose degree of pain is supposedly a barometer for the value of his art. Moreover, he believably captures the claustrophobic desperation of a man whose mental infrastructure is collapsing.As the pressure mounts on Barton to complete a wrestling script assigned by the studio chief (Michael Lerner doing a frightening portrayal of a hysterical Hollywood despot), he seeks help from a crude, boozing novelist on the downside of his career named W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney). Barton is outraged to find out that Mayhew's personal secretary and lover Audrey (Judy Davis) has written some of his scripts and his last two novels. It seems integrity is lacking even in the highest artistic circles. Of course, this doesn't stop Barton from begging Audrey to help him with his own script.The proceedings turn sinister when Barton discovers a body in his room, and Charlie decides to take a trip. "Things are getting all balled up at the head office," Charlie says as he entrusts Barton with a package -- a box just large enough to contain a human head. When the police come around looking for a killer named Madman Mundt, it finally dawns on Barton that Charlie is not at all what he seems.At this point it begins to look like the Coens' film is not at all what it seems, either. They never make it clear who committed the murder; though Charlie is the obvious choice, the murder and even Charlie himself seem to be extensions of Barton's need to unstop his creative block. For all his talk about the value of the common man, Barton remains insulated from meaningful friendships and family. He doesn't care about the brutally murdered person in his room; he's only concerned with how it affects him -- how it affects his ability to create.Rather than pull the film back onto a literal track, the Coens pull us inside the runaway creative engine in Barton's mind as the film moves almost fully into allegorical surrealism. Barton picks up a Bible in his room and turns to the book of Daniel and reads, "...if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces." It's a reference to the unstopping of Barton's creative block which is catalyzed by a murder and simultaneously illustrated by a subsequent violent rampage. Charlie comes back, shotgun in hand, flanked by flames in the hotel's hallway, and screaming, "I'll show you the life of the mind!" The sequence discribes the function of an impersonal, internal engine that consumes its creative energy regardless of the reasons, and disgorges its creative energy regardless of the consequences. There's a reason why Charlie has the room next door: he's one chamber over in the mind of Barton Fink. When Barton's writer's block dissolves, there's no stopping Charlie; he goes on a rampage, and when it's all over, Charlie says to Barton, "I'll be right next door whenever you need me."Barton Fink is a pessimistic vision of the artist in a world where the promise of glitz and gold are nearly impossible to resist. It not only charges the money-men -- the studio chiefs and producers -- with moral bankruptcy, but also exposes the dark, powerful whirlpools that can swallow the soul of the artist just as easily. Above all, Barton Fink can be read as the conscience of the Coen brothers' other films -- a kind of unconscious confession of the ruthless amorality of artists who observe, devour, and digest the world for the purpose of disgorging their art. It's a confession that for the artist, as for anyone else in this world, the animals in the garden are there for the taking.