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.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Hail, Caesar (2016)

Channing Tatum, Coen Brothers, films, George Clooney, Jonah Hill, Josh Brolin, review, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

One of the things I have managed to achieve with my week off is to manage to watch the latest release from the Coen brothers. I have generally mixed feelings about them as film makers but would put myself, largely, in the fangirl camp. I argued with my friend over our differing opinions of Inside Llewyn Davies because she’s wrong about it being shit and won’t see reason. Still, I haven’t always found it quite so easy to love them. Either a rewatching is in order or I just didn’t understand A Serious Man enough to come out of it feeling inspired. I mean I didn’t hate it but I can’t say I loved it as much as most people seem to. I mean there were very few reviews for Hail, Caeser! that didn’t reference the earlier film. I get the connections between the two but it did have me worried that I could be wrong about my excitement to see it. Still, with such a great line-up of actors and their long time collaborator Roger Deakins on board, I figure it’s got to be great, right?

Hail, Caesar! is set in the Hollywood of the 1950s, a time when studios were more concerned with quantity than quality. The Coen brothers have avoided falling into the trap of looking back at this era of filmmaking through rose-tinted glasses. They use their trademark gifts for satire and parod to create a witty yet realistic portrayal of that period of film history. Whilst the pair celebrate everything good about filmmaking, they also cast their critical eye over every aspect of the industry. The egotistical creators and the voracious stars are all based on historical figures and their leading man, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), is based on the real life fixer for MGM from the 1920s onwards. The real Eddie was responsible for ensuring that MGM’s image remained family friendly.

Like his real life counterpart, Hail, Caeser! follows studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), as he rushes around the lot trying to stop problems before they can create issues for the studio. We first meet Eddie as he is taking the first of a number of confessions and it’s clear to see that he is a man struggling to keep his faith in the Lord in line with his faith in the film industry. It quickly becomes evident why Eddie is having doubts about his jobe as the fires that he spends his days extinguishing are morally questionable and outrageous. They can range from tracking down a young actress who has been talked into an illicit photo shoot, arranging for a pregnant star to adopt her own child born out of wedlock, and helping ensure that a country bumpkin Western star is transformed for a period drama.

However, Eddie’s biggest stress comes when the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is abducted from the set of the Roman epic “Hail, Caesar!”. Mannix must bring the star back whilst preventing twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) finding out the truth. When he later receives a ransom note, it becomes clear that there is something deeper going on as a mysterious groups called The Future declare responsibility for the crime. Turns out that Baird was kidnapped by a group of angry screenwriters who have become students of Communism and are protesting Captiol studios as a tool of capitalism. Although, don’t think that this is the Coen’s own protest against Hollywood. The group are ridiculed just as much as the industry they are fighting against.

Really, Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a mishmash of stories and, at times, ends up looking like a good old fashioned revue. The Coens take great pleasure in letting their audience see behind the scenes of the process of film making. They take us through the artificial sets used to create the Roman epic, let us into the editing room to see the film reels, and let us see the frantic exchange between a director (Ralph Fiennes) and an actor who is out of his comfort zone (Alden Ehrenreich). Then they move out of the real world and let us view the final product as they were intended. It is when we see glimpses of the various movies as movies that we can get lost in vintage Hollywood glamour. These moments are engrossing and fabulous but the Coens are, as always, clever about limiting their time. They can’t let us have too much of a good thing after all.

It is Brolin who carries the majority of the film and Mannix is a true Coen creation. Almost taking the role of Noir leading man, Eddie is a man with a purpose, a fedora and a lot weighing on his soul. He is also incredibly endearing and thoughtful in the midst of the lunacy of the rich and famous. It is his loyalty to the studio that causes him stress and gives him pleasure. He is lost in the fantasy of that world whilst being the only person keep it grounded. Mannix is the very image of the industry’s self-aggrandisement but his alternative faith still leaves him able to question his actions. He is a wonderful creation and Brolin commands the screen in a quietly, brilliant way.

Mannix is the sane one in a sea of idiots but, just like the sullen fixer, these idiots are great at their craft. Alden Ehrenreich as Western star Hobie Doyle shines off the screen as a gymnastic cowboy and, despite her personal troubles, aquatic star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johnansson) is quite the talent. Channing Tatum has the dance skills necessary to prove that his Gene Kelly alike is a worthy talent. Even the dense Baird has the acting chops necessary to pull of the Roman epic of the title. Hail, Caesar! may ridicule many aspects of the supposed Golden Age of cinema but there is a genuine respect beneath the scorn. With their cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, the pair have recreate the tone and aesthetic of this era and, despite the darker and Noirish undertones, everything is played with a playful touch. The brothers revel in the absurdity of the industry at that time but, with their series of impressive pastiches, celebrate that bygone age. It’s not a film for everyone but, if you’re a Coen fan, then it’s everything you could wish for.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Carey Mulligan, Coen Brothers, folk, fucking beautiful, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac, review

A few years ago I got into a fairly heated Twitter argument with my old flatmate about Todd Hayne’s unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. I wanted so much to love it but, aside from Cate Blanchett, found very little to get too excited about. It was an interesting concept but I couldn’t help feeling it was all style and no substance. He, as someone who is a hell of a lot more Indie than I am, was outraged at my criticisms. I always intended to go back and rewatch it but my first viewing has filled me with an unending wariness of films loosely based on the lives of famous folk singers. So it filled me with dread and some sadness to discover that for their latest film the Coen brothers took inspiration from the memoir of the late Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, to tell the tale of Llewyn Davis. Whilst not an out and out biography there was some concern about how it would end up. Plus the Welsh link isn’t exactly subtle and it is hard not to add your own level of subtext. However, the trailer is just magnificent and the Coens so rarely steer me wrong. If anyone could rectify Hayne’s mistakes it would be Joel and Ethan, right?

Inside Llewyn Davis takes the audience right into the heart of New York’s folk scene in the early 1960s to follow a turbulent week in the life of success-hungry musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Llewyn is haunted by the past and constantly struggling to get past the obstacles that so often grace his path to making it. Our protagonist is in mourning for his former singing partner, Mike, who committed suicide and left the hapless Llewyn to flounder in the world of solo artists. His debut LP, whose title is stolen by the film, is not finding the success that he was hoping for: leaving him with no other options but to couch-surf and compete against lesser (or so Llewyn believes) acts for gigs in dark, dank venues around the Village.
It is often remarked upon that the Coens take a certain delight in putting their lead characters completely through the ringer for the pleasure of their audience. You need only remember their 2009 film A Serious Man to see just how sadistic they can be towards their own creations. Inside Llewyn Davis has no let up in terms of relentless struggles but the effect of this is less cut and dry considering that its leading man is, in no uncertain terms, a dick. He’s the kind of man who, after being told by his friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan)

that he may have impregnated her, asks the friend he cuckolded (Justin Timberlake) for money to pay for an abortion. In his head, Llewyn is a suffering artist who isn’t being given the break that he deserves and he is ready to take his frustration out on those closest to him. But, as we have seen so many times before, great genius is often associated with poor social skills.

Although, is Llewyn actually the undiscovered musical savant he believes himself to be? The Coens never definitively answer that question. After a fraught journey to Chicago, Llewyn performs an audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), owner of the Gate of Horn, only to be told that there’s probably no money in it. Llewyn, according to Grossman, just doesn’t quite fit as a front man. Just as he needs additional harmony for his singing, Llewyn finds himself being unable to cope by himself. (An idea that many people will probably want to relate to the brothers’ fears regarding their professional reliance upon each other.) Throughout the narrative Llewyn is constantly acting as his own worst enemy and making decision that will clearly come back to haunt him. It’s not exactly the making of a leading man but, let’s face it, in the world of the Coen brothers there are no real front men: just sidekicks or hopeless wannabes who struggle to make their way in the world.
A fact that could very easily destroy the film but, thankfully, the combined talent of the Coens and Isaac ensures that Llewyn remains engaging. Despite all of the mistakes and terrible behaviour the character somehow remains personable enough to ensure you’re still with him every step of the way. You aren’t sure that you want him to succeed but you can’t help but follow his journey. Of course, this may also have something to do with the fact that you are, literally, with him every step of the way. From the very minute Llewyn finds himself out on the wintery New York streets trudging through the snow you are right beside him. You are also experiencing that harsh 1960s winter that has been so beautifully realised by Bruno Delbonnel with his desaturated colours.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most perfectly crafted films I’ve seen in a long time. The script is incredibly smart and perfectly balanced: between the profound melancholy that clouds the narrative there are wonderful moments of utter hilarity and warmth. With no real plot to speak of it would be easy to dismiss this as pointless but the scenes that unfold before your eyes are utterly engrossing that you won’t miss the lack of direction. Alongside some superb supporting turns from John Goodman, as the straight-talking and world-weary Jazz musician that joins Llewyn on his trip to Chicago, and Carey Mulligan, playing the gloriously angry young woman Llewyn may have planted his seed inside, there is little chance that the ambling nature of the plot will even show through.

Of course the one thing that holds this film together more than anything is the same thing that is at the core of Llewyn’s entire existence. The music that litters the narrative is performed adeptly by the entire cast and adds greater depth to the emotional struggle on screen. It is the kind of soundtrack that demanded to be purchased as soon as the credits began to roll and I haven’t stopped listening to it yet. T-Bone Burnett, the Coens’ long-time collaborator, has expertly matched the overall tone of the film. The chosen songs are played out in full, a potentially risky decision which actually pays off gloriously. Like all good folk songs, the soundtrack is beautiful, emotive and soul-cleansing. 

It would have been easy for the brothers to dismiss Llewyn as another deluded and talentless performer scrabbling for notoriety but instead they gave him a certain amount of credibility and a genuine chance. Isaac’s voice is the one pure and beautiful thing in Llewyn’s depressing world and it is the very thing that gives him a humane side. Using his struggles to his advantage Llewyn is able to perform some genuinely touching music even if nobody seems to appreciate it. The film offers a selection of music that is permeated with the sadness and frustration of one who is unable to realise his dream and who must know, deep down, that it will remain unrealised. This film is quite simply a pleasure to experience and is certainly one of the brothers’ finest.