Directed by Joel Coen.
Produced by Ethan Coen.
Joel & Ethan Coen.
by Roger Deakins.
by Dennis Gassner.
Music by Carter Burwell.
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner, John
Mahoney, Judy Davis, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shaloub,
Richard Portnow, Christopher Murney, David Warrilow.
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Buy the script:
Here's an interview I did with Joel and Ethan Coen in 1991, shortly before the release of Barton
Fink -- which they wrote as a diversion while they were stuck in the middle of
plotting the complex Miller's Crossing.
By Jim Emerson
"What don't I understand?" asks an exasperated Barton Fink
(John Turturro) -- a young, idealistic and hopelessly bewildered New York playwright who
comes to Hollywood and finds himself in a seedy room at the Hotel Earle, struggling to
write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture for Capitol Pictures. Barton's question -- like a
lot of things in Joel and Ethan Coen's delectably funny and unsettling Barton Fink
-- is left tantalizingly unanswered.
The scene ends seconds later, and the joke is on Barton:
There's just so much this clueless fellow doesn't understand that the lack of an answer is
itself an answer.
Barton Fink is packed full of intentionally unexplained riddles, visual puns,
potently punchy language and all sorts of oddly suggestive, creepy-funny sights (peeling
wallpaper and oozing paste, ) and sounds (the hollow whoosh whenever Barton's hotel room
door opens, the infernal buzz of a mosquito above his bed, groaning pipes, muffled voices
from adjacent rooms).
Watching Barton Fink, you realize how thinly, how
two-dimensionally, most movies are conceived. It's as if your average filmmaker is able to
draw on 30 percent of his brain and his senses when making a movie, whereas the Coens are
closer to invoking 90 percent. As you watch this movie, its themes -- empathy and
understanding vs. pity and disgust; the life of the body vs. the life of the mind;
loneliness and isolation; the link between sex and violence; and so on -- start coming
together in patterns as intricately interwoven as the wallpaper of the Hotel Earle that
appears beneath the opening and closing credits.
The story is bent, but simple: Flush with success
in New York, Barton travels to Hollywood with his head full of grandiose, highfalutin'
(but smugly patronizing) dreams of establishing a theater for and about the Common Man.
But first, he's gonna write a movie to pay some bills. Of course, Barton is such an
insulated egghead he has no idea that he's reduced The Common Man to an intellectual
abstraction. Barton has sealed himself off from humanity, incapable of relating to or
understanding his fellows, common or otherwise.
At the exquisitely seedy Hotel Earle, Barton
encounters the personification of his common man in the bulky form of his gregarious next
door neighbor, a sweaty insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). And
despite Charlie's repeated assertions that I could tell you some stories..., Barton
doesn't think to listen.
Barton's panic and frustration mount as his deadline for
finishing a treatment approaches. Not knowing what's expected of him -- and unaware that
if there was ever a Theater of the Common Man, it's the movies -- he solicits the advice
of another studio writer, acclaimed Southern novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-souse
W.P. Bill Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character based on William Faulkner, and his
lover/secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis).
He's alternately bullied and fawned over by loquacious studio
boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), treated dismissively by tough-talking producer Ben
Geisler (Tony Shaloub), patronized by his sophisticated agent Garland Stanford (David
Warrilow) and cheerfully accomodated at home by Chet (Steve Buscemi), the low-rent Hotel
Earle's pale, elfish bellboy.
Barton talks about the pain and loneliness of his
struggle with the life of the mind, but he's oblivious to the pain of those around him --
whether it's the physical torture of Charlie's ear infection or the pain that sends Bill
into drunken rages. "Empathy requires understanding," longsuffering Audrey tells
him. And empathy is beyond Barton's emotional range. Charlie, on the other hand,
experiences empathy to such an extent that... well, it drives him to some rather extreme
Barton views most of the people around him as
incomprehensible grotesques because they're so much coarser, so much more animated and
alive than he is. They curse, they drink, they sweat, they spit, they vomit, they have sex
-- but Barton is so repressed that he's become completely disconnected, not only from
others but from his own body. So, he sits behind his typewriter, imprisoned in his own
head and his own room, and stares dully at a framed tinted photo of a beautiful girl
gazing out over the ocean at a sky as blank as the paper in Barton's typewriter. Barton's
life of the mind is composed of nothing but barren abstractions. It takes Charlie to bring
Barton crashing into the real, physical world.
The delight the Coens display in showcasing their characters'
quirky behavior, in weaving resonant patterns of visual/verbal imagery, and in just
playing gleefully with the sensual and kinetic properies of motion pictures, is
contagious. The dialog is so rich you can almost sense the actors' salivating to bite into
it. Each character has his or her
own distinctively peculiar syntax and way with words: Lipnick's non-stop bluster, Audrey's
brittle drawl, Bill's ornately formal Southern Southern imagery, Geisler's aggressive
crudeness, the hostile Abbott-and-Costello interrogation techniques of Detective
Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Detective Deutsch (Christopher Murney), Charlie's
common-man patter, and Barton's cerebral, self- absorbed monologues.
Listen for all the talk about keeping or losing
one's head, having a good head on one's shoulders, and such. Notice how Barton's wallpaper
begins peeling just after Charlie has invaded his private sanctum -- or the way the oozing
wallpaper paste not only resembles the pus that flows from Charlie's infected ear, but is
also linked to semen, the sounds of the couple making love in the next room, and Barton's
There's all sorts of intriguing stuff like that in this
picture. Does it all add up? Yes and no. Barton Fink can be interpreted any
number of ways, but doesn't limit itself to any one, definitive reading. That may bug some
literalists, who want everything spelled out for them, but Barton Fink is alive
to the perverse and paradoxical mysteries that are all around -- and within -- us.
Besides, it's much more fun to just sit back, watch the movie, and pick up on the many
provocative little clues (or red herrings) that the movie is riddled with.
For example: In one shot, Barton and Charlie,
sitting on the bed and putting on their accidentally swapped shoes at the same time,
become mirror images of each other, hinting that perhaps the two could be seen as
complementary sides of a single personality. There are also suggestions that the sickly,
claustrophobic, yellow-green corridors of the Hotel Earle, which seems to contain only
Barton and Charlie as tenants, could be viewed as a projection of either (or both) man's
There's a wealth of detail to pore over -- and chortle over -- in Barton Fink,
although much of it which can't be touched upon until after you've been put through the
movie's wringer and witnessed its surprises.
But even if you feel the Coens are being too playfully
elusive, they still give you plenty to enjoy. The performances -- all of them
astonishingly vivid -- are so exquisitely wrought, choreographed with such colorful
gestures, inflections and other mannerisms, that they're almost like works of music or
dance. The clever, evocative production design is filled with peculiar details, from the
rotting banana trees in the Hotel Earle lobby to the Capitol Pictures statues in Lipnick's
office. And the prowling, creeping, occasionally soaring camerawork is consistently
So, I'm proud to report that Barton Fink really does have
"that Barton Fink feeling" that Capitol Pictures is looking for -- even if his
Wallace Beery wrestling picture (was that Big Men in Tights?) does not. Roman
Polanski was the head of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival that awarded this
movie the Palme d'Or, and you can see why -- it's an eerily distorted comedy (not unlike
Polanski's own The Tenant) that Polanski himself would have been proud to make.
And unlike most of today's one-joke, surface-level movies, Barton Fink not
only holds up under repeated viewings, it actually gets funnier, grows more tantalizingly
twisted and intriguing, every time you see it.
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