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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘Barton Fink’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Joel and Ethan Coen's 'Barton Fink'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Barton Fink”
Dir: Joel Coen
Criticwire Average: A-

Though the term “offbeat” is synonymous with “unconventional” or “unusual,” there are nevertheless certain expectations that come with that label. A typically offbeat film, for example, tends to be filled with stylistic quirks, or a self-conscious narrative, or dare I say, “wacky” characters whose wackiness is their primary appeal. But a truly offbeat film works against traditional, established filmic rhythms, with a palpable feeling of going against the grain but never foregrounding that quality as its primary trait. The Coen Brothers’ fourth film “Barton Fink” is offbeat in every sense of the word. It assumes multiple genres — period drama, buddy comedy, surrealist horror, Hollywood satire — without ever working within them; it removes the comfortable floor from underneath the audience at every turn, not by being outrageously unpredictable but through a sustained feeling of dread that creates an air of unpredictability; it owes debts to the films of Polanski, Lynch, Kubrick, and even Sturges, but it’s entirely a Coen Brothers vision. “Barton Fink” is a surrealistic journey into the life of the mind, a disturbing externalization of an internal struggle that’s one of the Coens’ all-time best works.

Set in 1941, acclaimed New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) moves to Hollywood to write scripts for Capitol Pictures despite his fears of separating himself from the “common man.” He checks into the Hotel Earle, an expansive, yet strangely desolate building filled with sparse rooms, drab walls, mosquitos, and the unrelenting noise of the world around Barton. He meets with Capitol Pictures head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) who puts him to work on a wrestling picture despite Barton’s lack of knowledge about the genre or what’s expected of him. After meeting producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub) and acclaimed novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-drunk W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), Barton feels less comfortable than ever with his new place in the Hollywood studio system, an institution mostly interested in profits than artistic success, despite claims to the contrary, and that entraps writers to churn out work at a satisfying rate. Barton’s only source of comfort is his next door neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman, in arguably his greatest film performance), a traveling insurance salesman whom Barton believes is the embodiment of his “common man” pretensions, but is secretly a much more sinister figure. As Barton struggles to write his screenplay, the world around him turns more menacing and phantasmagoric, providing Barton with the ultimate lesson on what it means to really explore the life of the mind.

In “Barton Fink,” the Coens present a vision of Hell that at first resembles the real world but soon becomes its own living, breathing organism. It achieves this by laying down an ineffable sense of foreboding, as if at any moment something truly terrible and shocking can help (and it does). The first thing that stands out in “Barton Fink” is the sound. Skip Lievsay’s eerie sound design coupled with Carter Burwell’s score almost immediately puts the audience at unease, packing the aural walls not only with strings, but with murmurs, phone calls, ringing bells, screams, guttural cries, humming, peeling wallpaper, and just about everything but silence to create the feeling of a world that’s slowly falling apart. Then, there’s Roger Deakins’ dreary cinematography, which extends even to the sun-drenched Hollywood exteriors, that recall the best of “The Shining” and “Eraserhead,” a sort of infinite plane of creeping, crippling terror that hardly ever shows its face, but makes its presence known. But on top of all that, it’s the Coens editing rhythms that make the audience feel like they’re sitting on a piece of driftwood while the water slowly drains from underneath them. It’s not any specific juxtapositions or deliberate arrhythmia, but it’s just a steady atonality that allows for a tender sex scene to transition to a trip down the bathroom drain to a horrifying bloody spectre without ever once feeling forced or showy.

It’s temping to chock the Coens’ filmic vision up to their projection of Hollywood as a place of creeping oppression, a land that capitalizes on artistic ingenuity only to codify and market it for the masses, and while the Coens certainly take the piss out of the film industry, their vision for “Barton Fink” is much more the externalization of Barton’s nightmarish internal landscape. Though Barton makes claims to his artistic purity and his wish not to devolve into a show business phony, he’s really a pretentious, conceited hack who only employs the superficial language of “The Streets,” a setting he knows nothing about, only to placate himself rather than to reach out to anyone. Whenever Charlie comes to his room to share some of his own stories, Barton never listens and only prattles on about his own aspirations, condescending to Charlie without ever once realizing it. Barton’s writers block slowly seeps into the outside world as all of his surroundings become infested with noise and terror, but instead of paying attention to it, he simply blocks it out, and it’s only when he literally stuffs his ears with cotton that he can actually complete any writing. It’s only when the Hotel Earle is engulfed in Biblical flames and the steps of Fascism slowly creep around the corner that Barton finally sees his world as it is, not how he wants it to be.

In 1991, “Barton Fink” became the rare film to sweep the Palme D’Or, the Best Director, and Best Actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival, which certainly created a buzz around the film before it was released in the United States. Yet despite the positive reception at Cannes, “Barton Fink” only grossed 2/3rd of its $9 million budget, and though the film had its critical advocates (and eventually racking up three Academy Award nominations), there were just as many critics who were left cold by the film, frustrated by its thick ambiguity and perceived lack of coherence. There’s still plenty of people who see a style-over-substance hollowness at the center of all of “Barton Fink’s” latent symbolism, the literary allusions, the Fascist allegories, and the enigmatic ending. It became a film that had to be “understood” rather than felt. But this line of thinking has a “missing-the-forrest-for-the-trees” quality to it. “Barton Fink” overflows with ideas, and if someone attempts to find one-to-one corollaries between symbols and themes, or if they think the key to the film is in that picture of the woman on the beach hanging in Barton’s hotel room, or even if they believe that there’s an end-all, be-all “answer” to what the film means, it will forever frustrate. “Barton Fink” isn’t a film about answers, nor does it ever try to be. It’s a film about the ugly questions of creation, power, and life. What is our motivation to create? How do our abstract idealizations affect our behavior? Does the mythical “common man” exist at all? Why do we attempt to reach out to the world through art? The Coens’ genius is manifesting these questions into a relatively small-scale film about a writer trying to write for all the wrong reasons. The life of the mind…there’s no road map for that kind of territory.

More thoughts from the web:

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Each aspect of the film fits, from the production design by Dennis Gassner to the remarkable cinematography by Roger Deakins. The Coens’ screenplay is the kind that encourages and accommodates spectacular camera gestures. These include point-of-view and overhead shots and moments when the camera becomes a kind of evil companion to the disintegrating Barton. The camera nudges Barton to expect the worst when someone knocks at the door. It points to the wall where, suddenly, for no apparent reason, the wallpaper starts curling back, exposing a lazy rivulet of viscous ooze too disgusting to identify. After observing some furtive love-making, the camera sneaks away from the couple on the bed, possibly in shame, moves into the bathroom and (in effect) disappears down the drain of the basin, like a silverfish when the light goes on. It was said by some at Cannes that “Barton Fink” is a movie for people who don’t like the Coen brothers’ films. Not quite true. It’s a film for those who were not sure that the Coens knew what they wanted to do or had the authority to pull off a significant work. “Barton Fink” eliminates those doubts. It’s an exhilarating original. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Like all of the Coen productions, “Barton Fink” has a deliberate visual style. The Hollywood of the late 1930s and early 1940s is seen here as a world of Art Deco and deep shadows, long hotel corridors and bottomless swimming pools. And there is a horror lurking underneath the affluent surface. Goodman, as the ordinary man in the next room, is revealed to have inhuman secrets, and the movie leads up to an apocalyptic vision of blood, flames and ruin, with Barton Fink unable to influence events with either his art or his strength. The Coens mean this aspect of the film, I think, to be read as an emblem of the rise of Nazism. They paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the “common man” but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer’s mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The Dissolve

“Miller’s Crossing” was such a bear to write, due to its extreme plottiness, that Joel and Ethan got stuck halfway through and couldn’t proceed for a while. During this period of writer’s block, they quickly wrote “Barton Fink,” in which a New York playwright…gets put under contract by a Hollywood studio and attempts to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery from his room in the eerie Hotel Earle. The Coens’ first three films were all tonally consistent to a fault, if anything, but “Barton Fink” begins in a fairly naturalistic mode, then slowly turns phantasmagorical. Its finale appears to be taking place in the depths of hell, and Barton’s failings as a writer (he’s jejune, pompous, and prone to repeating himself) and as a man (HE! DOESN’T! LISTEN!) land him in a bizarre limbo where his fantasies and nightmares have merged into something inexplicable. By this point, the Coens had become superb technicians, or at least learned who to hire: The production and sound design of the Earle rank right alongside the most creepily atmospheric in the horror genre, with special mention to the vacuum-sealed whooshing noise that accompanies the opening and closing of every door. Still, the movie belongs to Goodman as Barton’s regular-guy next-door neighbor, Charlie. The big lug struggles in vain to tell his new writer friend some funny stories about working-class life (and show him some wrestling moves); he’s ingratiating until he’s terrifying, and equally riveting in both guises. Read more.

Noel Murray, The A.V. Club

Barton Fink” trades “Miller’s Crossing’s” fixation on hats for a study of heads, in a surreal scenario that plays like a fevered nightmare vision of what it’s like to work alone on an impossible task. Turturro returns as a 1940s playwright hired to bring a “common man” touch to a wrestling screenplay, even though he knows nothing about the sport and displays disdain for actual common men. As they often do, the Coens score comic points off the dynamic of powerful bosses and impotent lackeys, as well as the metaphor of wrestlers grappling, and though a subplot featuring John Mahoney as a Faulkner-esque slumming screenwriter proves to be a shrill detour, “Barton Fink’s” focus on bodies cut into pieces and hotel rooms falling apart creates an eerie visual representation of the hero’s callousness. People and places are deconstructed, but still Turturro can’t figure out what he’s told early on: that “empathy requires understanding,” not self-satisfied analysis. Read more.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Unfortunately, [“Barton Fink”] ultimately founders on the Coen’s primary impulses, which drive them to use a festival of fancy effects; whatever their ambitions, midnight movies are still the brothers’ metier. The movie’s arty surface fairly screams with significance, but the stylistic devices are designed for immediate consumption rather than being part of a coherent strategy. As entertainment, “Barton Fink” is in some ways even better than Miller’s Crossing, though also just as adolescent and much less engaging when seen a second time. Last May it received the unprecedented honor of being awarded three top prizes at the Cannes film festival — for best picture, best director, and best actor (John Turturro) — which will undoubtedly help it commercially in Europe. Whether these awards will count for much in the more hidebound U.S. still remains to be seen. The president of the Cannes jury was Roman Polanski, who took the job only after demanding that he be allowed to handpick his own jury members. Considering the indebtedness of “Barton Fink” to Polanski pictures like “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Tenant” — in its black humor, treatment of confinement and loneliness, perverse evocations of everyday “normality,” creepy moods and hallucinatory disorientation, phantasmagoric handling of gore and other kinds of horror as shock effects, and even its careful use of ambiguous offscreen sounds — the group of awards should probably be viewed more as an act of self-congratulation than as an objective aesthetic judgment…Nevertheless, “Barton Fink” is an unusually audacious movie for a major studio to release — not only because of its bizarre form and content, but also because the Coens had complete creative control. Whatever else they might mean, then, the Cannes prizes cannot be regarded as automatic nods to the commercial tried-and-true. In terms of overall meaning, “Barton Fink” qualifies as a genuine puzzler. Considering how transparent most commercial movies are, “Barton Fink” at least deserves credit for stimulating a healthy amount of discussion.

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

So, why did “Barton Fink” leave me cold? I think there are two principal reasons. The first is the film’s pitiless treatment of pretty much every one of its characters. I am not remotely in the camp that views the Coens as technically adept nihilists who feel little or no compassion for their characters. “Barton Fink,” however — along with their later, and in meaningful ways related, film “A Serious Man” — seems almost to have been offered up as a witness for the prosecution. Turturro’s character is manifestly unlikable in almost every way: sanctimonious, patronizing, hypocritical, and utterly devoid of self-awareness. W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, playing a character based—again, loosely—on William Faulkner) is a hypersexual drunkard who brutally mistreats Audrey, the lover/assistant who is by now writing most of his work for him. (That both characters are grotesque caricatures of actual writers seems particularly ungenerous, as if the Coens are trying to get back at some high-school English teacher whose syllabus they did not appreciate.) Audrey and Hollywood lackey Lou Breeze (Jon Polito) are in their differing ways receptacles for near-infinite abuse. Studio executives Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), while both tremendously amusing, are one-note bullies. The cops who eventually show up looking for Charlie are malignant anti-Semites…and on down the list. The only character in the film who is even modestly appealing is Goodman’s serial-murdering Charlie Meadows. Yes, this is of course another of the central jokes of the film. But it’s one that grows tired over the course of so many scenes of unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly. Read more.

Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion

After three pictures, the Coens stop to take stock. Where does inspiration come from? The stumped writer wakes up next to a gore-drenched corpse, and his creativity is unclogged. “You read the Bible?” “Think so… Anyway, I’ve heard about it.” David Lynch can track the camera down the kitchen sink, but sardonic mannerism is a poor substitute for the thrust of genuine artistic obsessiveness, so with the Coens it becomes yet another brick in an academic Grand Guignol treatise. By the time Turturro’s Harold Lloydian schmuck staggers out of his room with a literal package of symbolism under his arm, the hotel corridors have come to resemble not the artist’s churning mind but the filmmakers’ conjoined colon. Read more.

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