I try to make sure most of the films I cover on this here blog are ones I have never seen before. There’s two reasons for this. If I watch a film I have seen before it will likely be one I love and therefore the review will probably be overly gushing with my love of that film. The other is because I hope to introduce people to new films at the same pace I come across them. Essentially I want to be saying “Hey, I just saw this film and now you should too”, unless you’ve already seen it, of course. Well, I suppose I should also be saying “Hey, I saw this pile of shite. Do not watch”. Today’s film is, thankfully, from the recommended viewing camp. It’s also a film which I probably should have seen years ago as it represents a gap in my viewing of Coen Brothers films. Today’s film is Barton Fink. Click the link!
Barton Fink is one of those oh-so clever meta films that are all the rage with the self professed smart movie fans. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, it’s just that those fans can be prone to unrealistic pretensions about the quality of the film they champion. Examples of such films would be the brilliant Adaptation and the slightly less brilliant but equally clever Synecdoche New York. Both are fine films but their concerns with being smart and inventive with their storytelling leads them to teeter on the edge of a wall representing what can be considered coherent. Adaptation falls on the right side, Synecdoche New York falls a little to the other. Barton Fink walks up to that wall and kicks the ever living shit out of it until the wall concedes defeat (because it’s alive or something) at which point Fink just goes about being the movie it feels like being.
The Coen Brothers wrote Barton Fink whilst finding themselves burnt out during a long writing period spent working on Miller’s Crossing. They took a break and in 3 weeks had written one remarkable and creative piece of fiction that managed to voice some of their frustrations about working in the pictures and also gave them a chance to fool around with various genre conventions. On top of that they worked in some of the strongest symbolism used in their films so far. Which is quite a feat for these guys. Barton Fink was also the first film that the pair worked with Roger Deakins as their cinematographer. The film also represents a mid-point in the pair’s best period of work, stretching from 1987’s Raising Arizona to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. During this time every work they produced was a home run. I’ve gushed over The Big Lebowski before as well as their more recent work of excellence, True Grit. So, what’s it all about?
In Barton Fink the titular character (played by John Turturro), is a New York play-write praised for his works that champion the common man and defy they romanticised nature of the era, that being 1941. After one of his plays receives rave reviews he’s whisked away to Hollywood to write a screenplay for Capitol Pictures headed up by one Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). Lipnick expects big things from Fink and gives him the task of writing a wrestling picture, as he puts it. A genre Fink knows nothing about. Gradually Fink finds the task of trying to create a story to demand more stress inducing than he expected and goes into a deep state of writer’s block. He’s checked into a near abandoned very un-Hollywood hotel complete with mosquitoes and peeling wallpaper and before long forms a friendship with his common man neighbour Charlie (John Goodman).
The key to Fink as a character is his inability to see his own pretension. At the films opening we see him watching his play being performed, the audience erupts with cheers. The next day he is regaled with praise and positive reviews, all of which he refuses to accept as he believes he hasn’t produced that perfect piece of art yet. It’s an understandable struggle for an artist to never be satisfied with the quality of their work. Except this is what Fink shows to others. His lack of satisfaction in his work and his inability to write a film stems from his belief that he is searching to tell the full truth of the plight of the common man. Yet he never listens to Charlie’s stories. He seeks the help of other luminaries in his field rather than get in touch with the potential goldmine of knowledge living in the next room along from him. At the drop of a hat he’ll go off about how important he feels his work is and should be to everyone. How much he struggles and pains to find the true story at heart. He rejects the notion that his favourite author is a drunken hack who may not have actually written a number of his books. He strongly believes that only he can find the truth to his artform but fail to see the simplicity and the truth of the life around him.
It would have been too easy for Fink to slip into being the type of character the viewer would reject as a protagonist but, thankfully, he’s enough of an oddball and complex enough a person for you to fully get behind. He writes the establishing shot of his script and you’ll be urging him on to write just one more word. Charlie is an equally layered character who’s depiction really showcases just how good an actor John Goodman is. On the surface he’s a well travelled, down to Earth, regular guy. But he’s also clearly hiding a lot of pain. Pain that, frustratingly for the viewer, Fink fails to see. He tries multiple times to share his stories with Fink, in the hopes they’ll inspire him, but Fink just doesn’t listen and talks over him believing he has found someone that understands his delusions of grandeur. Charlie is one of the great tragic characters in cinema and one that, by the film’s end, will have you seeing that your instincts to his troubles were not unfounded.
The film is steeped in symbolism and visual metaphors that, sometimes literally, ooze from every pour of the films skin. Fink frequently becomes entranced with the image of a woman sitting on a beach placed on his hotel room wall. It represents his only view of the outside world from within these walls as even his windows face a building directly opposite. It also represents his desire to complete his master work so he can enjoy a happier existence. Every chance the Coens get they’re throwing in little visual metaphors. There’s a number of references to World War II through in with a pair of police officers with Italian and German names representative of fascist regimes that are openly intolerant of Fink’s Jewish heritage. The camera is always moving down representing a descent, of sorts, into despair for Fink. The only time we see the inside of the hotel elevator is when it is moving downwards. Some of the symbolism is simple, such as a shot of our perspective moving into a plug hole to represent the sexual encounter it is denying us a view of. A humorous spin on the train going into the tunnel in essence. Charlie gives Fink a box at one point. We’re never really sure what is in there. It can represent a part of Charlie that is hidden away from Fink. It could also represent Fink’s own inability to see the whole of himself.
Along with all of this symbolism the film toys with genres and tones. It skips about from a story of an artist’s struggle to noir, to horror, to comedy and to near biblical epic. All of this is achieved whilst still providing the audience with the sort of unique and bizarre characters and humour that the Coens had already become known for. The pair drag the usual top notch performances from their entire cast and constantly make you wonder why a lot of the people they have in repeating roles aren’t more well known. John Turturro, for example, is a phenomenal actor, but many people these days will vaguely remember him as the crazy secret agent in the Transformers films. Here, he earns an Academy Award nomination and he’s known for being comedic relief in a Michael Bay film. John Mahoney, Judy Davis and Tony Shalhoub all turn in great performances in their supporting roles all whilst being made to look amazing by Deakins camera work. I’d argue that this was the film that really cemented his status as one of the greatest. And yet, he still hasn’t won an Oscar despite 10 nominations. How he lost to Life of Pi this year is beyond me. How he wasn’t even nominated for this is plain baffling.
Overall Barton Fink is one of quite few Coen Brothers masterpieces. I know that a masterpiece is meant to be the pinnacle of an artists work and so they should have just one but that would deny an incredible work such as this it’s deserved status. Barton Fink is complex, dark, uniquely funny and also a powerful work of art. Every frame is so rich with pure triple distilled quality that you could get drunk off it’s brilliance. So, another overly gushing review from me then.