An insufferable movie snob wanders off the beaten track, comes back and talks about what he has seen.
March 23, 2015
Roger Ebert once wrote of Joel and Ethan Coen that “Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail, but they always swing for the fences”. Well, they never swung harder that they did in 1991, when they made Barton Fink. Writers block is the central theme, but that only applies to Fink the character. Fink the movie is so alive, robust, and crammed with ideas that it seems ready to burst at the seams.
Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a hot New York playwright fresh off a triumphant run of his latest work, a socialist fable about resilient working folk. When the film starts, he is being courted to come to Hollywood to write for the movie industry, and he’s hesitant. He feels that his place is in New York, trying to create as he airily puts it “A new living theatre”. His agent seems to win him over with one line: “Barton, the downtrodden will still be here when you get back.” In truth, Finks reticence masks the fact that he enjoys being courted. He gives up on his reservations fairly quickly.
When Fink checks into his lodging, it’s not the swank Hollywood hotel we might expect. No, the Hotel Earle is an art deco nightmare that Hieronymus Bosch might find appealing. With its seemingly endless corridors, and its colour scheme of olive green and a red that looks like dried blood, it’s deliberately unrealistic looking, and it gives hints about its true nature that the viewer catches long before Fink does. When Fink rings for service, the bellhop appears out of a hatch in the floor. When he first gets in the elevator to go to his room, the number 6 is uttered three times. Unwittingly, Barton Fink has checked into Hell.
The film views Fink as a naïve poseur, who fancies himself a righteous man of the people. That’s why Fink tells studio honcho Jack Lipnik (Michael Lerner) that he’d rather stay in the grubby Earle instead of an upscale Hollywood hotel. He doesn’t want to lose what he sees as his connection to the common man. The scenes with Lipnik are the funniest in the film, as the exec talks non-stop and doesn’t really require that anyone answers him. Lipnik is clearly modeled after the studio moguls of the forties, most likely Louis B Mayer in particular. The presentation of the movie people in this film is exaggerated, but savagely funny. Besides Lerner, there’s Jon Polito as Lipniks’ toady lieutenant Lou Breeze, and Tony Shaloub as producer Ben Giesler. These are all men who are on go all the time, and expect you to be too, and why aren’t you?
One day, a minor complaint about noise brings Fink face to face with his next-door neighbour, Charley (John Goodman). Charley is a big, rumpled, good-natured insurance salesman, and he becomes Finks only real friend and confidante in LA. It’s with Charlie that Fink eventually starts to open up, talking about his work, and what he wants to accomplish. On more than one occasion, Charley says “I could tell you some stories”, but Fink isn’t interested, even rudely cutting him off at one point. Fink has been assigned to write a wrestling movie with Wallace Beery, and is a bit stuck. When Charley offers to show him some wrestling moves, he only reluctantly goes along with it. The film is making a subtle point in the scenes between the two men. Fink fancies himself as a man of the people, but is uninterested in the man who lives right next door and offers to tell him stories. Their conversation goes in only one direction: Charley asking Fink about his life. Fink’s indignant altruism is actually just an affectation.
His writers block leads him to a meeting with renowned writer W P Mayhew (John Mahoney), a literary titan who has moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. Mayhew is clearly modelled after William Faulkner, and his presence gives a Fink a glimpse at the dark side of his art. Mayhew, you see, is a prodigious drunk, and has long ago surrendered whatever duty he may have felt for his craft. There’s a conversation between the two writers where Fink says that a writer needs to have pain in order to do his best work. Mayhew is amused by this and says that in drinking, he is “Building a levee” to keep the pain away. His illustration of why he writes is sobering “Me, I just enjoy making things up. Yessir, escape. It’s when I can't write I can't escape myself, I want to rip my head off and run screaming down the street with my balls in a fruit pickers pail.” That’s a pretty specific kind of pain, and it’s a statement made by a man who knows his pain well. The Mayhew character is kind of a flash-forward surrogate for Fink. This is the most renowned writer in the US, and this is what his art has done to him. Finks’ block thus becomes even more pronounced.
The meeting with Mayhew is not totally unproductive, however, because this is how Fink hooks up with Mayhew’s assistant Audrey (Judy Davis). She is a muse to the famous writer, but also is the one who enables him to survive. Fink begins a tentative relationship with her, and discovers that she is more than just an assistant – She has in fact written his last couple of books for him. Things take a horrific turn, however, when Fink awakens after a sexual encounter with Audrey, and finds her bloody corpse in the bed with him.
Fink’s immediate action is to go to neighbour Charley for help. When a frantic Fink goes to his door, and asks if he can stay there, Charley instead says that they should go to Finks room – And Fink agrees. Why does he do this when he is presumably trying to escape his predicament? After an initial shock, Charley takes charge, cleans up the mess, and disposes of the body.
The Coens drop subtle little hints about Charleys true nature throughout the film, and it’s in this sequence that they begin to draw the viewer in. The wallpaper peels in Finks room whenever Charley enters the room. Weeping wallpaper paste is mirrored in Charlies runny ear infection. It always seems to be inordinately hot when he is around. When Fink goes to Charley in his time of need, he thinks he’s doing it of his own will, but the truth is that Charley now has Barton where he wants him. That’s, I think, why Charley suggests they go to Fink’s room, and why Fink agrees. When Charley returns after cleaning up the room, he has with him a package of a size and shape which would lead the viewer to one obvious conclusion. When he asks Fink to look after it, Fink knows he has no choice. That is the final setting of the hook.
There is a scene where Fink goes again to meet with Lipnik, expecting to be reprimanded and possibly fired for not having written anything. Instead, he gets another chance. This result is unrealistic, and there is really no rational basis for it happening the way it does, unless one goes back to the previous scene, and considers the “deal” that Barton has made. That agreement with Charley also likely informs the next scene, where Barton finds a Gideon’s Bible in his drawer, and sees the beginning lines of his play printed at the start of Genesis. This kick starts him, and he is able to now fly through his writing. There are two ways to look at this scene; One is that the discovery of the Bible has delivered him from the influence of his deal with the Devil (Charley). The other possibility is that the discovery of the Bible is all part of the Devil’s plan to get the play written.
The final cogs of the story are a couple of tough detectives who come to question Fink about the murder of Audrey, and several other murders. It seems that the jovial Charley is better known as Mundt, a known serial killer who cuts the heads off his victims. It’s at this point that Fink finally makes the connection, and at one point in the interrogation says “Charley is back – that’s why it’s so hot”. Fink has figured out that Charley is more than just a killer, and when the elevator chime interrupts the police, the film is launched into its horrifying conclusion.
The “Hotel Hell” sequence of Barton Fink is easily the most memorable image in a film full of them. The film has teased with daring themes of Hell and damnation, and in this masterful 10 minute sequence, it takes these ideas to a violent, apocalyptic climax. It’s interesting to note that in this scene where Charley is bringing down hellfire, that he makes the conscious effort to spare Barton. When Barton asks “Why me?”, Charleys’ answer is curt and abrupt - “Because you don’t LISTEN!” That’s the nub of it; Fink is punished for his arrogance and hubris, and for presuming to be the voice of the common man, while shutting himself off from actually hearing it. For those sins, Charley destroys everyone close to Fink, but spares the man himself. On his way out though, Charlie comes back to the mysterious package, signing off with a mysterious “It’s not mine”. The inference from that it that it is Finks. What does this mean? Is it Audrey’s head in the box? (The logical conclusion). Did Barton actually kill her? Or, is this just Charley telling Barton that all this is on him? That’s a question that is left in the air.
Throughout the movie, the camera keeps returning to a picture on Fink’s wall of a young woman sitting on the beach. Its function is unclear in the early passages; perhaps it’s meant as a symbol of freedom and comfort. In some cases, it seemed to mock Barton as he sat helplessly in front of his typewriter, trying to make the words come. When the actual girl appears to Barton as he sits on a beach at the films close, the viewer has to think that this might be a sign that the ordeal is over, like the bird appearing to Noah after the flood. It’s no accident, perhaps, that Fink makes contact with the girl. It’s just small talk, but at one point he asks her if she is in the movies. Her response is an amused “Don’t be silly!”, but that might have been just the answer that Fink needed to hear. To her, the movies are far away, and something better kept away from.