Friday, April 4, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink  (1991) 
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: John Turturro (Barton Fink), John Goodman (Charlie Meadows), Judy Davis (Audrey Taylor), Michael Lerner (Jack Lipnick), John Mahoney (W.P. Mayhew), Tony Shalhoub (Ben Geisler), Jon Polito (Lou Breeze), Steve Buscemi (Chet), David Warrilow (Garland Stanford), Richard Portnow (Detective Mastrionotti), Christopher Murney (Detective Deutsch).

Like the Coen’s previous three movies, Barton Fink is a film that is in love with old movies – and has the Coen’s both paying homage to Hollywood classics, and putting their own Coen spin on it. Watching it shortly after Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing though, I have to say that I think Barton Fink is the first of their films that reaches for something greater – something deeper – in all that style.

The film stars John Turturro as the title character – an intellectual, Jewish New York playwright in the 1930s who fancies himself a poet of the “common man”. He has just had a hit on Broadway about the lives of fish mongers, where the reviews say he captures the poetry in even the roughest speech, and the humanity in even the poorest of characters. Like many playwrights, this means a call from a Hollywood studio, who wants to put Barton under contract to write for them. Barton begrudgingly accepts, and in his first meeting with studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Barton is staying at the rundown Hotel Earle – with its sparsely decorated rooms, peeling wall paper and overly chipper bellhop Chet (Steve Buscemi). He meets his next door neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) when he hears the other man crying, and calls down to complain. Charlie comes over to apologize and introduces himself – he’s an insurance salesman, and boy does he have some stories. Barton prattles on about how all common men like Charlie have their stories – and those are the stories he wants to write – but he never really lets Charlie tell him any. Barton tries to work – but cannot seem to get started. He meets a writer he admires – W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) – and turns to him for advice, but the old man is a drunk who has little of value to add. His “assistant” Audrey (Judy Davis) does however.

At its most basic level, Barton Fink is the story of a writer who comes to Hollywood and finds he cannot write. He is struck by writer’s block, which he tells himself is because he doesn’t “get” wrestling pictures – but could really be because, in the end, Barton Fink just isn’t that talented of a writer. He says his screenplay is the greatest thing he’s ever done, yet it ends with virtually the same line that his play did. He wants to write for the common man and tell their stories – and yet when he is presented with a common man like Charlie, he never stops and listens to anything he says, and he doesn’t realize who Charlie really is until it’s far too late. He’s so wrapped up in his own head he doesn’t notice anything else around him. The film has references to the rise of fascism in Europe at the time – including two anti-Semitic detectives with the names Mastrionotti and Deutsch – and even has Charlie yell “Heil Hitler” during his climatic rampage. But Barton barely seems to notice any of this – he doesn’t understand Charlie because as Charlie tells him “You don’t listen!” and even though we see when Barton is watching wrestling movie dailies that some of them were shot just two days after Pearl Harbor – the event itself is never mentioned by him. He’s so wrapped up in his own problems he doesn’t notice anything else around him.

The use of the Hotel Earle in the film resembles the way Roman Polanski used the apartments in both Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) or Stanley Kubrick used the Overlook in The Shining (1980) – as a way of suggesting the characters declining mental state being tied to his physical environment. The Coens have stated that the Hotel is a representation of the mental state of Charlie – the wall paper peels off the way in the same way sweat drips down Charlie’s face, the hotel eventually becomes a physical and mental prison for Charlie – and threatens to do so for Barton as well. The Hotel Earle is a masterpiece of production design – and is contrasted wonderfully to the pristine environments inhabited by Lipnick. Working with cinematographer Roger Deakins for the first time (they have worked with him on every feature since – save for Burn After Reading and Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coen have also made a masterful visual film – once again, using darkness and shadows to great effect as they did with Miller’s Crossing, but also giving the film a much more surreal look and feel – as if parts of it may be taking place entirely within Barton’s head.

Then there are the performances, which are all excellent. Michael Lerner earned an Oscar nomination for his wildly over the top performance as Lipnick – and it is a hilarious performance from start to finish. Tony Shaloub has a few great scenes as a producer who tells Barton to “talk to another writer” about his screenplay – and tells him to throw a rock a he’ll find another writer to do so “And do me a favor Fink, throw it hard” he advises him. Judy Davis is sympathetic as Audrey, a woman who helps Mayhew, and wants to help Barton as well. John Mahoney is wonderful as the great writer, now too drunk to do much of anything. John Goodman should have taken Lerner’s spot in the best supporting actor race that year – hell, he should have won the Oscar – as his Charlie Meadows is the best work he’s ever done – a seemingly nice guy, with a bottomless pit of rage he eventually taps into. John Turturro has also never been better than he is as Barton – he somehow makes it clear that Fink is a hack who doesn’t care about anyone around him, and yet still makes him somewhat sympathetic. Both the Coens and Turturro have expressed an interest in making a sequel to Barton Fink – set either in the 1960s or 1970s – but they’re going to take their time to ensure Turturro is old enough for the role. Unlike most long delayed sequels – I hope this one happens.

I’ve reached the end of my review of Barton Fink, and I think I’ve just barely scratched the surface of the film. There is so much going on in the film, so much to parse over and think through, that the more you think about it, the deeper the film gets. I’m only four films into this Coen retrospective, and already I feel like I’ve “rediscovered” one of their films. Barton Fink is much greater than I remembered it being. It is the Coen brothers first true masterpiece.

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