30 Years of Coens: Barton Fink

In which I am finally, inevitably, disappointed

Working Title Films

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing.)

Notes on Barton Fink (1991)

• Readers of my previous posts will be aware that I was a big fan of Blood Simple, a still bigger fan of Raising Arizona, and perhaps the biggest fan of Miller’s Crossing ever to live. I was, in other words, bound to be sorely disappointed with the Coens at some point, and that point turned out to be Barton Fink. It’s a movie that I admire in many ways, but one that nonetheless frustrates me a great deal. I’ll return to the sources of this frustration in a bit—and invite a special guest to rebut them—but first a few more general observations.

• The Coens famously wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink in less than a month while taking a break from the script for Miller’s Crossing, on which they’d gotten stuck. Yes, to overcome their writers’ block (though they prefer not to use the term), they wrote a surrealist horror movie about a screenwriter suffering from writer’s block. Barton Fink (played by John Turturro and loosely but conspicuously based on playwright Clifford Odets) is the toast of the New York theater world for his latest play about the proletariat and for his desire to create “a new living theater, of and about the common man.” But when a Hollywood studio offers him a thousand dollars a week to write for the pictures, his agent persuades him to move West, and into an encroaching madness that may or may not exist outside of his mind. The most genre-bending of all the Coens’ films, Barton Fink is also a form of extended inside joke: an art film that makes merciless fun of the pretensions of art films. Cannes rewarded the movie with so many awards (Palme d’Or, Best Director, and Best Actor) that the festival subsequently decided to alter its rules to prevent such sweeps. Were they in on the joke, or the butts of it?

• Noteworthy, as usual, is the film’s extreme technical mastery—particularly remarkable given that the Coens were operating without their principal collaborator, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who had decamped to make his own directorial debut with The Addams Family. In his place, they hired Roger Deakins, who has gone on to have one of the most extraordinary careers in cinema. He has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards for cinematography (five of them for his work on Coens films), without yet winning a single one—perhaps the greatest ongoing oversight at the Oscars. It’s possible that in 2007 he lost by splitting his own vote, as he was nominated for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (The two films were, not entirely coincidentally, my top two for the year.) Miraculously, Deakins’s collaboration with the Coens—he would work on ten more of their films after Barton Fink—proved to be even more successful than Sonnenfeld’s had been.

• The most famous shot in the film is a wonderful twofer: As Barton and Audrey (Judy Davis) get busy in the bedroom, the camera leaves them and wanders into the adjacent bathroom, where it plunges, snakelike, down the sink drain and into the pipes. It’s both an ingenious reminder of Charlie’s earlier claim that he hears everything that goes on in the hotel through the pipes, and a wicked updating of the classic “train goes into a tunnel” cinematic metaphor for sexual intercourse.

• The original working title for Miller’s Crossing—the script from which the Coens had taken a break to write Barton Fink—was “The Bighead,” a reference to that movie’s cunning protagonist, Tom Reagan. But the title would have far better suited Barton Fink. It’s a thoroughly apt description of the film’s lead character on multiple levels (his intellect, his self-regard, his towering hairdo). Moreover, as a film Barton Fink is as obsessed with heads—what’s in them and what they may be in—as Miller’s Crossing was with hats. The word “head” appears dozens of times in the film before homicidal maniac Charlie (John Goodman) leaves Barton the box that presumably contains that sole remaining part of his brief paramour Audrey.

• Mosquitoes are among the distractions that plague an unraveling Barton in his hotel room (also distracting: the concurrently unraveling wallpaper). Hilariously, the Coens say that, before filming began, they were contacted by an animal-rights group that had seen a copy of the script and was concerned with how the mosquitoes in question would be treated during filming.

• So, why did Barton Fink leave me cold? I think there are two principal reasons. The first is the film’s pitiless treatment of pretty much every one of its characters. I am not remotely in the camp that views the Coens as technically adept nihilists who feel little or no compassion for their characters. Barton Fink, however—along with their later, and in meaningful ways related, film A Serious Man—seems almost to have been offered up as a witness for the prosecution. Turturro’s character is manifestly unlikable in almost every way: sanctimonious, patronizing, hypocritical, and utterly devoid of self-awareness. W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, playing a character based—again, loosely—on William Faulkner) is a hypersexual drunkard who brutally mistreats Audrey, the lover/assistant who is by now writing most of his work for him. (That both characters are grotesque caricatures of actual writers seems particularly ungenerous, as if the Coens are trying to get back at some high-school English teacher whose syllabus they did not appreciate.) Audrey and Hollywood lackey Lou Breeze (Jon Polito) are in their differing ways receptacles for near-infinite abuse. Studio executives Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), while both tremendously amusing, are one-note bullies. The cops who eventually show up looking for Charlie are malignant anti-Semites … and on down the list. The only character in the film who is even modestly appealing is Goodman’s serial-murdering Charlie Meadows. Yes, this is of course another of the central jokes of the film. But it’s one that grows tired over the course of so many scenes of unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly. (Readers can remind me of this sentence in a couple of weeks, when I explain my fondness for Burn After Reading.)

• 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.

Et Cetera

Where I rank Barton Fink among Coens films: #9 (out of 16)

Best line: “Sex? He’s a man! We wrestled.”

Best visual: The twinkle in John Goodman’s eye as he looks over his shoulder with the wrestling invitation

Best sound: The peeling of wallpaper

Notable locale: Hollywood

Notable influences: Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Preston Sturges

Dream sequence(s): Possibly the bulk of the movie

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Conspicuous use of fans: Yes

Deranged hair: Yes (Barton)

Uniformed elevator operator: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: Two (Mayhew, Charlie)

John Goodman going berserk: Yes

Next up: The Hudsucker Proxy