Barton Fink (1991), the Coen brothers’ fourth feature, represents a departure from their earlier excavations of classical American genre cinema, Blood Simple. (1984) and Miller’s Crossing (1990), as well as the kind of postmodern mash-up exemplified by the delirious, though overly manic Raising Arizona (1987). An often-insular, interior, exquisitely slow-burn and creepingly surreal work, it now most comfortably sits alongside later Coen films such as A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), black ‘comedies’ that revel in the subjective delirium and building terror of recessive male characters tested by the cultural, social, sexual, historical, artistic and economic forces that weigh them down.
Although Barton Fink does largely sit within a recognisable generic framework, the Hollywood ‘film-on-film’, and includes numerous references to specific cinematic and literary precursors like John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939) and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939) – and with which it shares an abiding sense of paranoia and impending apocalypse – the Coens’ film is equally beholden to the work of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick. The oppressive and mind-bending writer’s block suffered by Barton is clearly reminiscent of the murderous torment endured by Jack (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), while the blurring of mind and body, brain and head, space and place, subjectivity and objectivity, vision and sound, is deeply informed by the increasingly fractured worlds and spaces that destabilise Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976). Considering this debt, and the film’s bravura rendering of its seeping environment, it is unsurprising that the Cannes jury headed by Polanski awarded Barton Fink its Palme d’Or along with several other awards. Nevertheless, although Barton Fink fuses together these and a range of other influences and historical touchstones, including the mercurial fate of celebrated writers like William Faulkner and Clifford Odets in Hollywood (and with whose stories the Coens take supreme, even libellous liberties), it is also a singular and nightmarish fusion of character and environment: a man in a room battling against his inner demons and the oppressive mise en scène of his terrifyingly expressive surroundings.
Although the film tells the story of a newly successful leftist New York playwright who reluctantly journeys West to cash-in on his East Coast triumph, it is actually little concerned with the realities or even fantasies of early 1940s Hollywood (in contrast to the Coens’ much later 2016 film Hail, Caesar!, a film that also takes liberties with specific historical figures like Herbert Marcuse). Barton’s arrival in California is announced by a wave crashing on an isolated rock, which then slowly dissolves to an extreme long shot of the cavernous, musty and evocatively lit interior of the Hotel Earle; whose disconcerting promotional slogan is “a day or a lifetime”. Although we do follow Barton as he nervously and uncomfortably visits the offices of Jack Lipnick, head of Capitol Pictures (a wonderfully broad caricature that fuses together the legends of Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner and is played with gusto by Michael Lerner), the producer unknowingly assigned to the Wallace Beery “wrestling picture” Barton has been corralled to work on, the writer’s bungalow of W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his ghost-writing secretary, Audrey (played by Judy Davis with a wonderful combination of twittering southern femininity and “get the job done” pragmatism), and a very small number of exterior (though still highly circumscribed) locations, the film is dominated by the oppressive and expressive interior of the Hotel Earle. The Coens do much with this drab, sunken, oozing interior, overwhelmingly suggesting its profound though ambiguous relationship to Barton’s fragile and fetid psyche. The various shots of the deep hotel corridor, as well as the muffled sounds bleeding from one room to another, suggest that the establishment is substantially occupied; though we see just a handful of characters and only witness their immediate interactions with Barton (John Turturro). These characters are limited to the meek but meticulous hotel clerk (Steve Buscemi), the garrulous but over-friendly travelling salesman (Charlie Meadows, aka “Madman” Mundt), a nuanced study of ingratiating charm and repressed pathology brilliantly telegraphed by John Goodman, Audrey, and the two detectives who come to interview Barton as his world (and increasingly the hotel itself) starts to fall apart. But the key relationship is between Barton and Charlie. This set of intermittent exchanges, snatched in the extended moments opened up by Barton’s writer’s block, illustrates Barton’s actual distance from the common man (the self-identified subject of his work) and our increasing suspicion that what we are viewing and hearing is all going on inside Barton’s head (and the film’s various references to the “head” and “mind” do little to contradict this).
There is also a sense that Barton Fink is playing with larger historical connections and implications. Although Barton himself fails to see beyond the figurative nightmare of the boldly unfamiliar and ridiculous wrestling picture he is attempting to bend to his will – Barton seems both out of date and out of place; his clichéd proletarian drama stranded in the early to mid-1930s rather than the early 1940s, much like the new “genre” he is trying to master – the film does make reference to the cataclysmic global events erupting at this point in time (late 1941, the year of that other great “head” movie, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane). When Barton returns to Lipnick’s office, to hear the sour news that the studio head is displeased with the “fruity” screenplay he has turned in and that he will continue to hold Barton to his contract while using none of his work, Lipnick now insists on being called by his newly acquired military rank. America’s involvement in the war seems to have begun while Barton has been neurotically and narcissistically preoccupied with the miasma connecting his hotel room, the studio, the stories he doesn’t let Charlie tell, and his increasingly unstable psyche. Although Barton has been drafted into Hollywood to bring that “Barton Fink feeling” to the generic properties of the studio, he sees himself as above the fantasies and daydreams represented by the movies.
But Barton is also preoccupied with the image of a woman on a beach that hangs on the wall of his hotel room – a patently composite and commercial image that fuses together its distinct background and foreground elements into a “pristine” vision of California (in a way common to many of the rear-projection-dominated movies of the era). In its final quizzical moments, the film finds itself within a version of this image as Barton asks the woman if she’s “in pictures”. Her response, “don’t be silly”, just before a bird suddenly dives into the water in front of her, makes us wonder just where we are and where this film has taken us. As Barton “retreats” to the very concrete fantasy of this clear, clean, manufactured but still unsettling vision, we leave the cinema.
Barton Fink (1991 USA)
Prod Co: Circle Films/Working Title Films Prod: Ethan Coen Dir: Joel Coen Scr: Joel and Ethan Coen Phot: Roger Deakins Ed: Roderick Jaynes [Ethan and Joel Coen] Prod Des: Dennis Gassner Mus: Carter Burwell
Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi