on 1 December 2014
Academics will tell you it's dangerous to brand something `postmodern' as there is no cast-iron definition of the term. It has accrued so many meanings as to be meaningless. However there is consensus on certain aspects. If modernism presupposes the existence of an overall explanation for everything it is the mission of modernist artists to reach up to gain an understanding of the world, to assess the position of man in it through systems of their own construction. Postmodernism starts off with the assumption that the world is beyond understanding and that such a reaching up is pointless. There is no rhyme or reason for human existence and no `blueprint' explaining everything to us. Modernist systems which claim to offer an explanation are therefore threatening. From this emanates an essentially paranoid worldview where artists (especially writers and filmmakers) accept in their work that while it is only human to seek out an understanding, comprehension is always denied by forces beyond their control. This is the 'reality' which determines their characters' fate in ways that defy logic. A film which exemplifies this to perfection is the Coen brothers' 1991 masterpiece, Barton Fink.
The surface of Barton Fink is beguilingly simple. The politically-engaged leftish writer Barton Fink (a stunning John Turturro who will never do anything better than this) makes it big on Broadway in 1941 with his play, `Bare Ruined Choirs'. His agent (David Warrilow) tells him Capitol Pictures in Hollywood are offering $1,000 a week to write screenplays. Barton worries about cutting himself off from `the common man', the audience for and of whom he writes. He accepts the offer and following a linking image of a wave crashing on a rock on a beach, he checks into the Hotel Earle in Hollywood with Chet (that `funny looking' Steve Buscemi) the desk clerk. The hotel is a dark, seedy dump chosen by Barton to stay closer to his `common man'. His room on the 6th floor is damp, mosquito-ridden and has wallpaper sweating off the walls. On the wall in front of his writing desk is a tacky picture of a girl sunbathing on a beach looking away at the waves. The walls are thin and external noises together with his dank surroundings quickly install a state of writer's block in Barton as he sits at his typewriter staring at the picture and the wall that surrounds it, his mind empty of ideas. Most of the film alternates between scenes conveying his mind slowly becoming unhinged in his room (both induced and assuaged by his noisy insurance salesman neighbor Charlie [a wonderfully out-sized performance from an equally out-sized John Goodman]) and scenes at the studio which showcase the glitzy glamour of Hollywood during this period. Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner in his element) is the arrogant blustery head of Capitol Pictures who with his cringe-worthy side-kick Lou Breeze (the usual sweaty Jon Polito - check out the gallery of greasy weirdoes he's played for the Coens down the years!) assigns Barton to producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub) to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Alone and clueless about how to write a genre picture (the Coens' métier of course!) Barton turns to legendary (now alcoholic has-been) writer Bill Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his secretary/bed partner Audrey Taylor (a sensual Judy Davis) for help.
That's as much as I'm going to say about the story for after this, the film spirals down into fantastical depths which confound any attempt to impose logic on to events as they transpire. Joyfully juggling many themes simultaneously, the Coens ingeniously have us grappling with enormous ideas which all seem to make sense, but when examined closely, plainly don't. Let's run through a few of them. Most obviously the film would appear to be about the very process of artistic creation - how a writer takes everything from around him and sublimates it into his creation to produce something rich and satisfying which overcomes the block that initially chokes him. The dingy room echoes Barton's dingy neighbor Charlie. Just as the wallpaper sweats off the walls so pus oozes out of Charlie's infected ear and sweat pours off his body. Mosquitoes plague the room, their high pitch whine segueing seamlessly into the high pitch violins on Carter Burwell's wonderful soundtrack as Barton is bitten and perhaps `inspired'. Barton's relations with Charlie and then with Mayhew and Audrey conspire to assuage his loneliness and break his writer's block to produce what he thinks is his best ever work.
Within this meditation on artistic creativity the film explores the gap between the artist with a social conscience and his subject. Barton writes about "the common man" without really knowing who the common man is. His conversations with Charlie reveal how in love with himself he is through his pretentious posing as an artist of the people as he rattles on arrogantly, not bothering to listen to the common man living next door. Charlie repeatedly tells him, "I have so many stories to tell", but Barton doesn't want to hear them. As Charlie tells him near the end of the film: "You don't listen!" Looking around his seedy working class standard hotel room Charlie stresses emphatically, "You are nothing put a tourist with a typewriter. I LIVE here!" He not only lives there, but his understanding of `the life of the mind' is incomparably greater than Barton's condescending pretension could ever grasp - "Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind!" Charlie insists.
This social division feeds into the theme of slavery. In the hotel Barton may be able to lord it over his neighbor who he regards as his intellectual inferior, but when he's at the film studio the tables are turned if his scripts turn out to be unsatisfactory. If he fails to fulfill his promise it is Barton who is the slave. As Lipnick tells him, "Capitol Pictures owns everything in your head" and as with so many writers before him (including Mayhew of course) in the event of failure he would become a mere serf in a feudal empire run by a movie mogul. He would become even lower than Lou Breeze (a lavatorial pun surely!) who is used and abused by his lord and master at will. This is brilliantly shown in the swimming pool scene where Breeze prompts a reluctant Barton to show Lipnick his work in progress. Barton is the writer of a potential blockbuster for the studio and enjoys a higher social position than Breeze, and so Lipnick fires his sidekick and even insists on licking Barton's shoe himself to apologize for Breeze's presumption, the idea being that even studio heads are subservient to the writers who keep them in business (no writers = no pictures). But Barton gets to retain his exalted position only of course if he produces golden scripts...
The theme of slavery feeds into the even bigger theme of fascism and its connection with anti-Semitism. Fascism is shown to be present in both ends of social spectrum - the wealthy Lipnick (a Jew like all the studio heads at that time) lording it over his studio in his military junta-style uniform straight from the costume department and then the two working class policemen who show up at the hotel to question Barton. Named Mastrionotti and Deutsch to reflect the fascist axis powers then fighting in the war (remember this is 1941), they ask Barton if he's a Jew and express regret that the hotel isn't restricted. Later, the lowlife `working stiff' (Barton's words) who they are looking for utters the words, "Heil Hitler" before committing a crime.
The stress on Barton's Jewish faith (also shared by Lipnick and the Coens themselves) leads us naturally into the film's biggest theme - religion. Thinking he has betrayed his `common man' by selling out to Hollywood, Barton sentences himself out of a sense of self-inflicted guilt to Hell (Hotel Earl = Hell). When he checks in the lobby is dark, hot and smoky as if fire is omnipresent. The bell on the reception desk resounds eternally until Chet the desk clerk emerges from below to silence it. Chet's demeanor is weird, his artificial politeness contrasting completely with the funereal countenance of the elevator man who takes Barton up to floor 6, 666 being the Devil's number of course. When Barton opens his typewriter we see the maker is `Underwood' (Underwood = Underworld). The Hotel Earl as Hell theme escalates in importance when we appreciate that Charlie is a human extension of the hotel. I've already mentioned the oozing pus pouring from his ear paralleling the water seeping out of the walls and that he is a working class man living in a working class hotel room. We further learn he has extra-sensory perception and can hear everything going on in other rooms - "pipes or somethin'", he says. Also, the way he talks about his insurance job makes him sound like an evangelist - "I just sell peace of mind, that's all", he says. Later in the film he comments, "Most guys I just feel sorry for. Yeah. It tears me up inside, to think about what they are going through. How trapped they are. I understand it. I feel for `em. So I try to help them out". In the hotel (and possibly outside as well) he is omniscient, just like God.
At first resistant to, but then reliant on Charlie's neighborliness, Barton's writer's block is related to his extreme loneliness and acute sexual repression. Similar to Roman Polanski's apartment psycho-horror films (Repulsion , Rosemary's Baby , The Tenant ), the hotel (Hell/Charlie) comes alive and ratchets up his stress and paranoia. To really hammer home the importance of religion in the film the Coens directly cite the Bible at key moments. When Barton is at the peak of desperation, Charlie having left him alone, he finds a Bible in his desk. We read: "And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut to pieces, and of your tents be made a dunghill" (Daniel: 2, 5). It would be telling too much to reveal the full meaning of this quote in relation to the film, but let's just say it shows Barton can't understand his own emotions let alone the hopes and dreams of the common man. It also refers directly to World War Two (Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream as a statement on the rise and fall of world powers with the king's Babylonian gold the first to fall) and to Barton's possible insanity at this point of the film (God made Nebuchadnezzar insane for 7 years as punishment for his pride). Significantly Mayhew gives him a copy of his novel entitled `Nebuchadnezzar', with an inscription that reads: "A little entertainment to divert you in your sojourn among the Philistines", the Philistines of course being the Hollywood system. A second Biblical reference is made to the book of Genesis where Barton imagines the first paragraph of his script prefacing the words, "And God said, let there be light" (Genesis: 1, 3) which suggests paranoid delusions of grandeur on his part as omnipotent/omniscient writer-creator which rival those of Charlie.
So how are we to connect all this together and make meaningful sense? Once we recognize the latter events of the film as illogical and clearly fantastical we have to accept the film works on the level of dream logic. But, whose dream, and from where to where do we access it? Interpreting the film from Barton's point of view there are two obvious possible dream portals. The first is the framing image of a wave crashing against a rock which covers the ellipse moving from New York to Hollywood and then signals the end after the action proper has finished and before the epilog with the girl on the beach which repeats in real life the picture in Barton's hotel room. This means that Barton never actually leaves New York. He stays with his `common man'. The Hollywood segment of the film is then a projected fantasy of what COULD happen if he accepted Capitol Pictures' offer. If this interpretation is correct however, then the final epilog remains enigmatic. The second dream portal could be the closing epilog itself casting the whole film that precedes it as a fantasy on events which have led to Barton sitting on the beach ogling a girl and holding a mysterious box. Throughout the film Barton stares at the picture on his wall and we hear the sound of waves and the cry of seagulls. Counting the number of times `fish' appears in the dialog, especially at the beginning, can become obsessive for an attentive audience!
There is another interpretation, and for me it is the only one to really explain everything we are given in the film. For it we should pay attention to the wallpaper over which the opening and closing credits roll. We later find out it is the wallpaper of the Hotel Earle, but I'd suggest it could be another hotel entirely and the man suffering from writer's block staring at this paper isn't Barton Fink, but the Coen brothers themselves. In Barton Fink they have made a meta-cinematic film about their own writers' block. Significantly the Coens wrote the script during a forced hiatus in the making of Miller's Crossing (1990) when the writer-directors ran out of inspiration and it transparently reflects precise feelings felt at the time. By writing the script the brothers unblocked themselves so that they could go back and finish the gangster film before embarking on their new project. The character of Barton is a doppelgänger for themselves and the events of the film are projections or symptoms of his/their writers' block. This serves to free up their imagination. Knowing their film doesn't have to make sense (blocked writers are hardly reliable narrators), the Coens delight in deploying a bewildering range of styles which gleefully contradict each other in what amounts to a postmodern pastiche. There is exaggerated social satire for the New York restaurant scene where high society fawns over Barton's Broadway success. There is the screwball comedy depiction of the world of Capitol Pictures with Barton playing Sullivan (from Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels ) to the gag-a-second wisecracking of Geisler and Lipnick reminiscent of the world of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks as well as Sturges. Then there is the noirish depiction of Hollywood excess in the depiction of Mayhew and Audrey which links to the world of Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder), In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander McKendrick). The film is dominated though by shades of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter filtered through Polanski to depict the Hellish Hotel Earle. This eventually accelerates into Gothic horror and the world of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) towards the end of the film.
Aside from delighting in intertextual pastiche, the Coens also indulge in sizable dollops of faction. When you are blocked, who do you base your characters on but real people? Barton is based squarely on the lefty Broadway playwrite Clifford Odetts who also left the common man for Hollywood. The Coens gave Turturro Odetts' journal to read as preparation and the opening play `Bare Ruined Choirs' is clearly an Odetts parody. Lipnick is a conflation of three famous movie moguls - he has the weight of Harry Cohn, the Jewish-Russian (from Minsk) ethnicity of Louis B. Meyer and the Colonel's uniform of Jack Warner borrowed from the wardrobe department in a bid to enlist in the war. While Geisler probably has his own role model, Mayhew is clearly based on William Faulkner, another great writer turned alcoholic. John Mahoney was cast mainly because he looks like him and both he and his secretary speak with the Deep South accent Faulkner is famed for.
A meta-cinematic feast foregrounding intertextual pastiche, faction, the blurring of high and low culture (genre cinema meets Heidegger and the Bible), playful (but biting) ironic humor and strung together with pervasive paranoia leading to an inconclusive ending (what IS in the box?), Barton Fink is a postmodern smorgasboard which works brilliantly on all its different levels. Deliciously entertaining, dazzlingly written, beautiful shot by Roger Deakins and performed to perfection, the film deservedly picked up all three main awards at Cannes that year and represents the Coens at their considerable best. The DVD itself is excellent, the picture clear and well saturated and the sound well-rounded. Highly recommended.