Barton Fink at 30 | The Coens’ Horror Comedy Remains Dense, Entertaining and Thrilling

The header on the stationary at the Hotel Earle reads: “A Day or a Lifetime.” And with that comes the key to entering the strange world constructed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Later in the film, when Barton (John Turturro) is pressed about how long he’s been at the hotel, he’ll only be able to give an uncertain answer. Has it been 8 days or 9? Is he a transient or a resident? This indeterminacy is all over the film. Barton, to put it in the film’s terms, couldn’t tell his head from his mind. His inability to make distinctions – if he’s even listening – will give the naïve playwright no shortage of trouble. All this before he even comes face to face with the fascist madman next door.

One key element of this indeterminacy is the reliance on interior spaces. Most of the film is constrained within four walls. Even some of the exteriors appear to be covered by a grey vaulted ceiling. Moreover, the Hotel Earle, where most of the action takes place, is seemingly barren, with the notable exception of the bellhop, Chet (Steve Buscemi). Though, this isn’t quite the case. We see shoes lined up in the corridor of the sixth floor, suggesting other occupants. That we see nobody and hear possibly only two others, is immaterial. Whoever might be staying here is of no concern to Barton. After all, he has very important work to do. It’s this work, and Barton’s inability to do it, that drives the film forward.

His work, you see, is that of a writer. Barton was hired on at Capitol Pictures after the roaring success of his stage play. In New York, he wrote about the Common Man. He superficially resembles Clifford Odetts, another Leftist playwright who worked in Hollywood. Don’t let that distract you, as the Coens have no interest in historical reconstruction. These echoes are as shallow as the world Barton inhabits, to say nothing of the man himself. The atmosphere is phoney right from the start. The first images are of the backstage of a theatre. An artificial space, bustling with the artifice of simulated life. This artifice extends beyond the theatre, as well. The producer’s entourage Barton meets after the show are caricatures of East Coast pomposity. The writer is seemingly beset on all sides by thoughtless rubes, fawning over reviews and material success. Barton, on the other hand, wants to revolutionise theatre for the Common Man, but when he actually meets one, in the form of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), all he can do is speak over him.

Charlie is Barton’s neighbour at the Hotel Earle. A travelling insurance salesman, he straddles the line between transience and residence. As he puts it, the head of his operation is in New York, but he maintains a room in Hollywood. He and Barton quickly strike up a friendship, despite their fundamental differences. Charlie is broadly crass, is always drinking, and wears the likeness of a pin-up girl on the underside of his tie. He is also a noticeably physical presence. He is large and he is always sweating. Puss oozes from his ear, the result of a chronic infection. He is the head to Barton’s mind. The brute, corporeal presence confronting the nebulous realm of thinking. All Barton can do in Charlie’s presence is proselytise about the Common Man. Charlie appreciates this and promises stories about his experiences, but all Barton does is spin his own perspective. Caught infernally within the Life of the Mind, Barton is doomed to stare, mouth agape, at everything that happens around him. When Charlie discovers that Barton is writing a script for a wrestling picture, he offers to teach him the fundamental moves of the sport. This bit of research ends in the larger man lying atop the writer, both panting and sticky with sweat. It’s undoubtedly the most intimate encounter of Barton’s life.

Moving away from the confines of Room 621, we find ourselves in Hollywood as mental landscape. The Coens resist the urge to fetishise exterior shots of Hollywood in 1941, choosing again to stage scenes in interior spaces. First is the office of studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). Jack is another physical presence, large and garrulous. At Capitol Pictures, he says, the writer is king. Though, along with his boastful ignorance of the “technical mumbo jumbo” of filmmaking, it’s suggested he doesn’t even read the scripts his writers pen. Jack runs the show on “horse sense.” Always in his shadow is Lou (Jon Polito), a former big shot who, rumour has it, was forced out during the Depression. Put another way, he’s Lipnick’s whipping boy. He carries himself as a man defeated by life. When he does assert himself – to tell Barton that the contents of his head are the property of the studio – Lipnick fires him in a paroxysm of rage.

Jack and Lou are stereotypes of the Golden Age of the studio system. They exist not so much in the history of the cinema, as in the popular imagination of the dream factory. This idea is brought directly to the screen by Barton’s producer, Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub). Geisler talks fast and thinks faster. He has no particular interest in the picture until he discovers that Barton is blocked. Shalhoub’s performance is pure screwball. Though he never tumbles, his verbal gymnastics may as well come from a half-remembered Preston Sturges feature. When he meets Barton for lunch, they eat in a restaurant bearing a wall decoration made up to look like the New York skyline. Another artificial interior, perhaps suggesting the state of Barton’s mind.

Facing pressure on a project he doesn’t even know how to start, Barton makes the acquaintance of W.P. (Bill) Mayhew (John Mahoney). A bitter fellow member of the writers’ pool, Mayhew drinks heavily and often. He also happens to be the spitting image of William Faulkner, right down to shared aspects of biography. Much like Barton’s similarity to Odetts, Mayhew’s inspiration is skin deep. Superficial qualities abound, though it would again be a mistake to read this as a failed historical commentary. The Coens are undoubtedly post-modernists. The reference here is not to Faulkner, but rather to the idea that great novelists sometimes prostitute themselves, losing their soul in the process. (The Coens, working for Hollywood, are surely above this.) This is a narrative archetype of the movie brat variety. A short-hand way of suggesting the few things we need to know about a character based on the few things we know about other films, or else about Hollywood legend.

What the Coens pursue, as suggested by Jonathan Rosenbaum, are the thrills of the midnight movie. If this is the case, Barton meets Bill so he can meet his secretary, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). She is the only woman with a significant speaking part, which is another way of saying she becomes Barton’s love interest. Eventually, they have sex, illustrated by a virtuoso tracking shot lensed by Roger Deakins. The camera descends into the plughole in the bathroom sink, moving through the pipes into the next room over. The architecture of the sexual act. Waking the next morning, Barton finds Audrey brutally murdered in his bed. What we have here is a slasher rule, whereby the woman is punished for her sexuality. Though to read the Coens as reactionary is to forget their foundation in midnight movies. Joel and Ethan aren’t demonstrating anything here, other than an adherence to generic expectations. They aren’t committed to anything other than their own wry sense of detachment. When in doubt, chuckle and nod.

Detachment is a narrative, as well as aesthetic, choice. Barton, for all his bluster, can’t really be committed to anything for lack of actual activity. He can largely be judged for how he spends his alone time. Unable to write, he leans back in his chair. On the wall is a portrait of a woman looking out over the ocean. When Barton studies the image, a faint sound of waves and gulls bleeds onto the soundtrack. His mind wanders. As he snaps back, he notices the wallpaper is peeling. The wall sweats and adhesive oozes out, rhyming with Charlie’s puss-ravaged head. As Barton’s understanding of himself as a writer collapses, so does his surroundings become rotten. Likewise, as the external world closes in, so does Barton close off.

Barton Fink is having a crisis. He is suffering from writer’s block. An author he admires turns out to be a souse. The woman he has a crush on is dead. When Detective Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney) come to question him about a serial killer called “Madman” Mundt, producing a photo of the man he knows as Charlie Meadows, it’s a wonder he doesn’t let out a distressed yelp. Mundt’s M.O. is to “ventilate” his victims with a shotgun before decapitating them. Heads again. The exterior apparatus that holds our interior lives.

By this point, the film has thrown so many potential symbols at the spectator that we can’t help but construct meaning. The curiously named, and demonstrably anti-Semitic, detectives bear Italian and German appellations. The setting is 1941. Barton, on managing to write the script, attends a USO dance for soldiers and sailors shipping out (this, of course, ends in a cross-service brawl). We might start to sniff out an allegory. This interpretation comes to a head – and collapses – in the most famous sequence in the film.

Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch sit in Barton’s room, reading his recently completed script, which tellingly ends with the same dialogue as his play. Caught out with his one idea, to say nothing of the copious amount of dried blood on his bed, Barton is in something of a pickle. Suspecting he knows the whereabouts of Mundt, the detectives bring their slapstick verbal heat to bear on the ineffectual intellectual. That is, until they realise the suffocating heat making its presence felt on the sixth floor. “It’s hot. He’s back.”

They handcuff Barton to his bed and set out for the final confrontation with the “Madman.” Flames lick out from the lift, as smoke billows out into the corridor. The detectives are by now drenched in sweat, looking much like the man we knew as Charlie. Mundt steps out of the lift, looking more determined than we’ve ever seen him. Producing a shotgun from his policy case, he promptly “ventilates” Detective Mastrionotti. A tower of flames shoots up behind Mundt, as he takes off down the corridor towards the hapless Detective Deutsch. Flames trail along the walls as he runs, shouting: “I’ll show you the life of the mind.” Look upon his sound and fury. Barton spectates, confused. When Mundt reaches the other detective, he places the barrels of the shotgun against his face, and mutters, a propos of nothing, “Heil Hitler.” These few sequences, from the anti-Semitic detectives to the USO dance to “I’ll show you the life of the mind” weave a series of historical allusions that start to sound like a theme.

We might read the film as an illustration of Barton’s mental collapse under the rising tide of fascism. A leftist writer, newly acclaimed, leaves New York for Hollywood to write B-pictures under contract. Suffering from writer’s block, he strikes up a friendship with the amiable Common Man next door. As he struggles to get a start on the script, the world around him crumbles and closes in. The rot fully sets after Mundt kills the two detectives. Seemingly clear of the rage that ignited the sixth-floor corridor, Mundt/Charlie sits again with Barton. Things, Charlie admits, have gotten “all balled up in the head office.” There is some evident disconnect between the nerve centre and the far-flung limbs. Around this point, a streak of puss oozes from his ear.

One standard interpretation is to read Charlie as an exteriorisation of Barton’s mental state – that is, that Charlie is the Common Man that Barton has either lost within himself or else an expression of fear and loathing Barton feels towards the subject of his writing. When he asks his friend why this is happening to him, Charlie replies, simply: “Because you don’t listen.” Barton spends the film so caught up in self-importance that he either fails to understand what is happening around him or else fails to listen at all. The standard interpretation would then suggest a commentary on the failure of leftist artists to sufficiently understand and work against the rise of fascism and Nazism. If you’ve seen Barton Fink, you’ll understand this as something of a stretch.

To interpret the film so seriously is to impose an academic reading on what we’ve established as a midnight movie. It is a horror film, yes, and a psychological one at that. One of the avowed influences on the film is Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Coens’ influences and intentions, as I’ve tried to show, are eminently filmic. The “I’ll show you the life of the mind” scene is meant to look cool. And it is fucking cool. It is memorable, extravagant, and well-executed – just like those two detectives.

One might breathe an air of condescension in the films of the Coen brothers and this response would not be entirely out of place in relation to the film at hand. Put another way, their films are shot through with the cynicism found throughout post-modern cinema. What saves Barton Fink is the sheer talent evidenced at every stage of the production. The performances are fantastic, with career-best turns from Turturro, Shalhoub, and, arguably, Goodman. Some of my favourite work by Roger Deakins is to be found in the Coen brothers’ filmography, Barton Fink among it. Then there is, of course, Joel and Ethan themselves. Regardless of how you receive their films, there’s no denying the sheer deadpan poetic force of “you’re a sick fuck, Fink.”

To get the most out of a Coen brothers’ film, pay close attention to Barton. His script is ridiculed by a studio head who won’t fire him, choosing rather to keep him under contract while not letting him work, caught within the 9 to 5 tyranny of studio filmmaking. Barton wanders onto the beach where he meets a woman who looks uncannily like the figure in the portrait in his hotel room. “Are you in pictures?” “Don’t be silly,” she says, before striking the pose of her likeness. Waves crash and the wind blows onto the soundtrack in the cinematic reverie suggested by Barton’s own obsession with the image. Drop out, tune in to the internal rhythms of a unique cinematic imagination.

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