TBT – Barton Fink (1991)

Coen Brothers, films, John Goodman, TBT

When it came to Hail, Caesar! you couldn’t really get away from Barton Fink. Both films involve the same fictitious film studio, Capitol studios and portray a man clouded in darkness because of his connection to the industry. That’s pretty much where the connections end though. Barton Fink was the dark comedy that the Coen brothers wrote when they hit a snag writing Miller’s Crossing. Experiencing a form of writer’s block, the pair cleared their minds by writing a new film for actors John Turturro and John Goodman. Once the script was finished the brothers put it to one side so they could finish Miller’s Crossing. As soon as production stopped on that movie they began working on Barton Fink. It was a massive hit with critics and won multiple awards at Cannes but failed to make back its budget at the box office. Despite its meagre earnings, Barton Fink is an amazing film and I couldn’t waste the opportunity to watch it again for this post. Even it did mean I was enforcing dodgy connections with the Coens’ current film.

Barton Fink is the kind of film that intelligent people have and will continue to discuss for years. The Coens created such an ambiguous and symbolically significant film that there are countless interpretations out there. The ending alone has cause ridiculous amounts of outrage and analysis since its release. All the while you get the idea that the Coen brothers have just been sitting back and pissing themselves as people tear their hair out trying to make it all make sense. There is every sense that the story of a writer desperate to change the world but finding himself floundering in 1940s Hollywood has some autobiographical leanings but the brothers keep their audience on their toes once the writer discovers his own story is going in a different direction.

Loosely based on Clifford Odets, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a left-wing writer who found overnight success as a playwright in New York. He was quickly snapped up a Capitol film studios as their new hit writer but Barton struggles to turn his own brand of social realism to wrestling movies. The studio boss, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), has utter faith in Fink and offers him an insane amount of money to produce their next hit. Hoping to find inspiration from other writers, Barton seeks out the help of established talent W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a figure modelled on William Faulkner. Unfortunately for Barton, Mayhew is a drunk who has his “personal assistant” (Judy Davis) to thank for much of his latest work.

Whilst he slowly tumbles into the depths of writer’s block, Fink meets his next door neighbour, Charlie (John Goodman), a hapless insurance salesman who could easily offer Barton the real-world stories that he so craves to write. Unable to see the source material in front of his face, Barton indulges his need to create and spends his time hopelessly sitting at his desk without inspiration. So he takes part in a strange relationship with Charlie who, aside from a creepy bellhop, is seemingly the only other resident in the rundown hotel. When events in Barton’s life take a dramatic turn, it is to Charlie he must turn but the man remains almost as much of a mystery as the strange box he has Barton take care of.

Barton Fink was the Coens’ first collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins and is a visually stunning treat. On the one hand, the film embraces the Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s and exists in a world of Art Deco excess but, on the other, it shows the darker side of the period. To stay nearer the common man, Barton places himself in the dingy Hotel Earle and the hotel becomes a character in it’s own right. With its long hallways, peeling wallpaper, creaking elevators and rattling pipes, the Earle is the perfect setting for Barton’s breakdown whilst offering hope in the shape of a picture of a young woman at the beach. It is the kind of setting that could easily turn anyone insane and it becomes difficult to work out what is real and what isn’t when Barton can no longer make that distinction,

After all, his ideologies tell him that the little guy is worth fighting for but fails to realise that the one living next door to him is full of darkness. Whilst trying to succeed as a writer, Barton is unable to see the unrest hiding under the surface of the so-called “common man” despite believing he can speak for them. It is something that so easily becomes a metaphor for the rise of Nazism and shows Barton’s blindness. He fails as a left-wing intellectual and proves to be ineffectual in changing the world. When he sells out to Hollywood he fails as a creative too. Turturro plays him perfectly, making him an ineffectual, introspective writer who can never quite live up to his creative desires. Barton Fink is an assured piece of dark comedy that, after you take away the various interpretations you could have, presents a blinded individual being crushed under the weight of his intellectual and creative hype.

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