• My second dissatisfaction with the movie is the way it makes such a fetish of its own ambiguity. I don’t believe that every film needs to explain its underlying architecture to viewers, but I like to believe that it has an underlying architecture, and in the case of Barton Fink, I remain skeptical. I’ve seen a variety of overlapping interpretations of the movie: that Charlie is Barton’s sublimated id; that the entire Hollywood segment is a fantasy and Barton never in fact leaves New York; that the film is an elaborate metaphor for the Holocaust, etc., etc. And while each of these meshes with certain of the movie’s elements, none seem to fit it fully. It may be that there is a truly persuasive explanation out there, but if so, I haven’t come across it. (I’m thinking here of something that unlocks the film the way Diane=Betty unlocks Mulholland Drive or Tony-Got-Whacked unlocks the finale of The Sopranos—or even, for that matter, the way the symbolic meaning of Tom Reagan’s hat seems to cohere throughout Miller’s Crossing.) I can’t shake the sense that the Coens just grabbed a number of compelling ideas and images—the Hollywood satire, the evil doppleganger, the ominously decrepit hotel, etc.—and crammed them together in ways that have no particular internal logic. (For their part, the Coens don’t seem to dispute this, often commenting on how quickly they wrote the script and how there’s nothing further to “get” than what’s onscreen.) Again, it’s not that I think every film needs to have some ultimate explanation. But it’d be nice if one such as this, so densely packed with references and hinting so heavily of Deeper Meaning, added up to something more than the sum of its (frequently fascinating) parts. Failing that, it might at least try to be a little less dour.
• That’s my feeling, in any case. But I know a great many sharp Coens fans who hold Barton Fink in high esteem. So on their behalf I invited my friend and colleague James Parker, whose Atlantic magazine column it has been my profound pleasure to edit for the last three years, to write a few words on behalf of Fink fans everywhere. Over to you, James.
Thank you, Chris, esteemed editor-enricher and eye of my apple. I think I love this movie for the exact reasons you don’t—in other words, for the quantity of inverted malice and coiled writerly self-loathing in it. For the disgust. The undoing of the illusions and pretensions of Barton Fink, the dismantling of his vanity, is so thorough it’s almost poignant—but not quite, because it is just, and because you sense that his fishy little writer’s ego will survive this reckoning and slither on somehow. Maybe he’ll even write something sincere/worthwhile, down the line... And it’s not a story about the coarseness of Hollywood, or rather it is, but not only, because Hollywood’s coarseness is matched and possibly exceeded here by the coarseness of Barton’s self-regard, his whole tribune-of-the-working-man, cry-of-the-fishmongers trip. “Wrestling pictures,” the movies about wrestling that the studio puts him to work on, are his initiation into reality in this respect. They are ghastly, traumatic, sweaty. Hollywood wants “that Barton Fink feeling” from him and of course it’s the one thing he can’t produce.
I love his state of fear and bewilderment and blockage, the paradoxical energy of it—because it takes a lot of energy to stymie the unconscious, which will always have its way in the end. Barton sort of extrudes his own paralysis, it comes spooling and slurping out uncontrollably, turning the world around him into a phantasmagoria. It maroons him in the horror hotel with its Shining echoes—although it seems submerged or subaqueous, this hotel, not the Overlook but the Underlook maybe—the weird noises, and the weird bellboy (“Chet!”) who pings around like a punctuation error or a rogue noun, and the muffled weeping on the other side of the wall—which is Charlie, his soon-to-be friend, magnanimous everyman psycho-killer insurance salesman. Everything seeps—Charlie’s infected ear, that semen-like glue-stuff revealed by the peeling, drooping wallpaper—and yet everything sort of boils, too. “I’ll show you the life of the mind!”
As for the destroyed genius W.P. Mayhew, I think he’s superb. “I give mah honey love and she repays me in the basest coin there is... Pity.” Vomiting like a lion. Mopping himself delicately with his handkerchief. Wandering under the magnolias with his empty bottle, singing “Old Black Joe.” Roaring in the back of the bungalow—Where’s mah honey?—in fires of drunkenness, sounding like Gibby Haynes in the Butthole Surfers’ “Lady Sniff”: Boy, bring me mah bacon! I find myself serenely untroubled by the Faulkneroid elements in his character—to me they seem grand and symbolic and universal.
What does it all mean? Well, I don’t know. The thing with the woman in the picture, and then finding her on the beach—no idea, really. But the movie hangs together for me as an evocation of blockage, madness, and the inhumanity of the Muse. And that’ll do nicely.
See, that’s the problem with inviting a gifted writer to rebut you: He winds up convincing you that you’re wrong—or, in this case, almost convincing you. I didn’t spend much space on the mood and texture of Barton Fink, which James captures marvelously and which, I agree, are the film’s most indelible qualities. As for Barton himself, Mayhew, and the movie’s ultimate indeterminateness—well, we’ll agree to disagree. But rest assured that if I invite in any other sparring partners over the course of this exercise, I will take care to choose ones who are substantially less persuasive.