Sunday, August 21, 2011


The Life of the Mind

By Damian Arlyn
Writer's block. We've all had it. That torturous feeling of staring at a blank sheet of paper (or, in most cases nowadays, a computer screen) and not having the faintest idea of what to say. It is the bane of the writer's existence. Barton Fink had it. He had it bad and as I sit at my keyboard peering into the vast amounts of intimidating whiteness on my screen, knowing full well that I am going to have to fill all that empty space with copy before my deadline is up, I am understanding a little bit of how he felt and what he went through in Joel and Ethan Coen's 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink (which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release today). Fortunately, however, my wallpaper isn't peeling, there are no mosquitoes in my room and, perhaps most importantly of all, I didn't wake up in bed this morning next to a dead body.

Barton Fink is probably the Coen brothers' strangest and most esoteric work (and that's saying something). It was only their fourth feature film and it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it snatched up several awards (including the prestigious Palme d'Or). I remember when I first saw it in college. I had recently watched and enjoyed The Hudsucker Proxy and had decided to check out other movies by these wacky filmmakers. I probably should've gone with Raising Arizona or Miller's Crossing next, but Barton Fink was the one that I remember being slightly intrigued by back when it first came out. It seemed bizarre, stylish and engaging. It turned out to be all of these things and I loved it…even though I didn't completely understand it (and still don't).

It tells the story of a successful 1940s Broadway playwright (the titular character, played by Coen regular John Turturro) who wants his work to have meaning and value, to change the way things are. Reluctantly, he takes a deal to come to Hollywood and write the screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture at a major studio. As Barton sets up his typewriter in a depressing, rundown hotel where he's staying, he finds it very difficult to write (only getting as far as his first two sentences: "Fade in on a tenement building on Manhattan's lower east side. Faint traffic noise is audible; as is the cry of the fishmongers."). However, Barton's situation starts to undergo a radical change when…Well, I'm not quite sure what happens. Either he loses his mind or weird things just start to happen around him or I don't know what. The ambiguity of the film's hallucinatory imagery is one of the many interesting qualities about it.

Because it's a Coen brothers film, Barton encounters a series of unusual characters in his journey through the movie industry. His next-door neighbor Karl (played by John Goodman) is a hulking insurance salesman — a quintessential example of the "common man" that Barton is so dedicated to lifting up in his work — who likes to drop by and chat with Barton, whom he seems to like. Barton meets one of his idols, novelist William Mayhew (John Mahoney), and his long-suffering secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). Barton also comes into the good graces of studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner in an Oscar-nominated performance) who speaks of how the writer is "king at Capitol Pictures." However, as is often the case in a Coen brothers film, nothing is what it seems to be. His warm and friendly neighbor is in reality a psychotic serial killer who beheads his victims, his favorite writer turns out not only to to be a drunk but a fraud whose works are written mainly by his secretary and the studio boss who was literally kissing his feet turns out to be a dictator who berates his talent and flat-out refuses to let him out of his contract or produce anything he writes. It is a bleak picture that the Coens paint of working in Hollywood, a virtual purgatory of miserable lost souls. Indeed, the hotel itself where Barton ends up staying feels more like a prison where all the inmates live out a sad and lonely existence (besides the Goodman character, no other tenants are ever seen in the hotel, despite the fact that we see their shoes placed outside their doors) and where the "warden," a bellhop named Chet (Steve Buscemi), seems utterly clueless as to the goings-on in his establishment.

Barton Fink is in many ways the archetypal Coen brothers movie; the type of film that only they could produce. Its style, its pace, its themes, its haunting visuals, its dark sense of humor, its enigmatic ending are all elements that are distinctly Coen. It also came at an important point in the development of their careers. Barton was made after they had established themselves as a formidable presence in the independent film world, but before films such as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men and True Grit turned them into the household names they are today. Perhaps that is why in recent years the Coens have indicated that they might be making a sequel to Barton Fink that takes place many years later. If it does get made, it would be the only sequel that the Coens have ever produced and as much as I don't care for the idea (I personally think that Barton Fink should be a completely self-contained story that creates its own reality and has no ongoing narrative), I have to admit that I would be curious to see what they could come up with.

In other words, we might be hearing again soon from that crazy writer known as Barton Fink…and I don't mean a postcard.

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I can't believe you didn't mention the police detectives. Detective No. 1: Physician, heal thyself. Detective No. 2: Good luck with that with no fuckin' head. Then there's always Lerner's advice to toss in a little art "for the critics."
I didn't mention a lot of things. Tony Shalhoub's impatient, fast-talkin' studio employee ("Souse. Souse! SOUSE!"), Jon Polito's pathetic assistant to Lerner's studio boss. No review can do that film justice. There were just too many wild, memorable, symbolic things to include. A whole book could be written and still barely scracth the surface. I just had to boil it down to its essence. Don't forget I had another piece running this same day.
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