I have seen quite a few films involving The Coen brothers, even going so far as to describe No Country for Old Men as an example of the rare perfect movie. While I am used to their films being incredibly comedic and intensely centered in action heavy moments, Barton Fink provided me with an entirely different viewing experience, that while not the norm for the Coen's certainly proved to be enjoyable and incredibly intense. Combining some stellar performances by both John Turturro and John Goodman, a film about intelligence, accessibility and the delving of one's psyche into the paranoid evokes the greatest of emotive responses one can imagine while watching a film. I find this to be one of the most complex and introspective films in the Coen oeuvre and place it second only to A Serious Man in what I would claim to be my favorite film by Joel and Ethan. Perhaps it is the centralization of character evident in both these works that make me love the films, or the complete lack of concern for spatial formality, but something about the magical realist nightmare evoked in Barton Fink makes for a stellar two hours of film viewing. While this is somewhat early in the Coen's filmmaking career one can, nonetheless, find moments of their soon to be traditional touches, whether it be cameras focusing on events occurring outside of the room in which events are filmed, or fixation on seemingly arbitrary objects. I personally could not help but pick up on some clear similarities to the world David Lynch creates in his seminal work Blue Velvet. Barton Fink is a magnificently realized work that explodes into a much larger film than one will initially expect. The work considers how we consider factual events in a biased narrative, as well as what role we place on creativity in a writer's output, especially when their work is always influenced by outside forces. While many a films have been made about making films, I would place Barton Fink in the highest of rungs.
The film centers on a character of the title's sake Barton Fink (John Turturro) a New York based playwright who has found recent success with his gritty and minimalist plays focusing on the common man. While we are shown him enjoying lavish dinners, he is offered high paying work to write screenplays in Hollywood, an offer he finds slightly offensive and counterproductive to his guttural desires to speak for the working class. Agreeing as a means to gain money to pay for multiple plays in the future, Barton flies out Hollywood and stays at the surprisingly dilapidated and unoccupied Hotel Earle, with the exception of the the under zealous bellhop Chet (Steve Buscemi). Once situated in his room, Barton attempts to begin writing a gritty "wrestling picture" only to undertake insufferable writer's block, a problem exacerbated by the distraction of continually peeling wallpaper and the constant interruptions by Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) a talkative, rotund life insurance salesman. Barton seeks inspiration outside of the hotel, eventually running into a idol writer of his W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), who it becomes quite clear has spiraled into alcoholism, much to the disdain of his wife Audrey (Judy Davis), for who Barton begins to take a liking. Eventually winning over Audrey and earning an extension on his script writing, Barton convinces her to spend time with him, however, upon awaking he realizes she has been inexplicably murdered. Seeking help from his only friend Charlie, Barton disposes of the body, only to become a key witness in the investigation of Charlie, of who viewers learn is actually "Mad Man" Munch an infamous serial killer. Needless to say, Barton's daily life becomes absurd all leading to an intense run in with Charlie/Munch that, nonetheless, allows him to burst through his writers block and provide Capitol Studios with a script, one that is instantly despised and leads to his being put on restriction, although he is told to stay in Hollywood as he is still on contract.
One of my favorite elements of Barton Fink are the multiplicities of interpretation allowed for this work. Of course some of the more obvious interpretations center on the creative process, or class consciousness. However, it is many of the more obscure yet equally tangible elements of the film that I find intriguing. It almost has a The Shining element in that one can pick up various possibilities for commentary. One element of note is the suggestion of a critique of Fascism within the narrative, particularly in that it represents a clearly Jewish character in Fink avoiding the suppression and attacks of fascist nationalism. This is overtly emphasized when he is accosted by detectives Mastrionatti and Deutsch whose clear German and Italian ties draw upon Fascism. Similarly, a reading involving ideas of slavery has emerged, citing the singing of slavery songs and spirituals as an example, although a connection to notions of possessing intellectual property could certainly add some validity to this specified reading. Finally, and of course most notably is the fact that this could all be an imagined film, which begins with the fact that we are shown moments through the eyes of Barton, especially since it begins with him watching his own play, a fact that is never verified to exist outside his own mind, a quick cutting to a near point of view of him entering into a ritzy restaurant almost solidifies it, if not at the very least helping to rationalize the absurd moments in which he witnesses a hotel become engulfed in flames only to seem fine moments later. We are never sure what his rejected script consists of, but perhaps that has been what we were shown up until this point, after all there is a wrestling scene between Charlie and Barton that could serve as the inspiration for the script, amidst all its latent homoeroticism.
Key Scene: For the key scene please refer to the quote in the title of this post.
I watched this on Netflix via Watch Instantly, but was so enamored with it that I intend to purchase a copy and would certainly urge you to do the same, although I would hold out for a bluray release.