Friday, December 02, 2005


From the Vault: Barton Fink

Ambition and aspirations can lead to widely divergent paths and that certainly shows in Barton Fink, the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Fink made headlines earlier this year by becoming the first film in Cannes Film Festival history to win best picture, best actor (John Turturro) and best director (for Joel, who helms the brothers' works). Its appeal to an international jury of film judges comes from the fact that it's a movie that doesn't spell everything out for the audience, something that American films do too often and seldom to good effect.

It remains to be seen whether deeper meanings lurk below the surface of this entertaining and disturbing film or if the Coens have created the film equivalent of those old Mad Lib games with the audience filling in the symbolism instead of parts of speech. Either way, Barton Fink's style and dialogue make it one of the best cinematic trips this year.

Turturro stars as the title character, a left-leaning playwright in the Clifford Odets vein who was making a name for himself in New York writing plays about "the common man." His being revolves around the espousing of his social and creative consciousness, though when it comes to actually listening to what the common man has to say, Fink's self-absorption keeps him from hearing the words.

Following the opening of his first substantial Broadway success, Barton's agent suggests that he head to Hollywood to find screenwriting work for awhile, if for no other reason than to make some good money to enable him to write more plays. Reluctantly, Barton listens, comforted by the idea that common people also live in California. Barton finds his first assignment to be writing a B-grade wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery, something he has no idea how to do.

For help, he turns to a prominent Southern novelist (nee William Faulkner, played wonderfully by John Mahoney) whose Hollywood career has pushed him inside the bottle while his faithful secretary (Judy Davis) does the actual work.

To say much more would not only be detrimental to the unfolding of the plot, but a synopsis would almost certainly be incoherent. The best explanation is that the story has two halves, one involving the seedy Hollywood hotel where Barton takes up residence and the insurance salesman (John Goodman) who lives next door, the other skewering formula filmmaking.

The main problem with Barton Fink is its inability to clearly link the relationship between the two halves, except by the loosest of associations of the creative process gone awry. Still, the film soars in spite of this, thanks to Goodman's excellent work and the amusing caricatures of studio executives, particularly Michael Lerner as the studio chief.

After sitting through this summer of failed formula films, the open ridicule the movie dumps on the process lifts the dispirited movie fan. When Lerner berates Barton about movie audiences wanting to see wrestling not soul searching, except for a little for the critics, any reviewer has to revel in a movie that expresses the same dissatisfaction with the bunk being churned out of Hollywood.

In the beginning, the style and camera acrobatics of Blood Simple made critics take notice of the Coens, but it's their words that have come to dominate their work. The understated ugliness of Blood Simple gave way to the humorous platitudes springing from the mouths of the low-rent characters in Raising Arizona.

Last year's Miller's Crossing painted its dialogue in strokes broad and terse but all infinitely memorable. Now comes Barton Fink and whatever weaknesses it might have, it's the words that hold the package together. The wonderfully rhythmic dialogue ranging from Lerner's deceptively self-effacing studio chief to the verbal volleys of a pair of detectives (Richard Portnow, Christopher Murney) mesmerize as much with speed as with content. The film's beautiful cinematography resembles the work of David Lynch — and that's not entirely out of place here.

As far as the meaning (or if there even is one), that's best left to the audience. Half the fun will be discussing Barton Fink afterward. Personally, I doubt the film has a deeper level, just fun references skewering all sides of the political spectrum on the eve of World War II, from the socialist, fascist and capitalist points of view. Barton Fink represents the Coens at their most ambitious, but its aspirations remain unclear and, I believe, that is precisely their point.

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