BARTON FINK, 1991
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Meagen Fay, Steve Buscemi,
The Common Man is what made Barton Fink famous on Broadway. His playwriting ability allowed him to generate enormous success and attract the attention of Hollywood hotshots and big production companies. Fink, however, thinks of himself as in touch with The Common Man, and moving to the glamour and phoniness of the pictures would distract him for the source of his success. Fink eventually takes the bait, and proceeds to seal his fate with the Gods of the pictures. Staying true to his roots, Fink stays in a humble, dull hotel room at the Hotel Earle—alone and isolated—ready to write his next masterpiece. What would result is a spirally self-destructive course of psychological torture where only revelation of oneself is the remedy. Hollywood is where Barton Fink moved; hell is where he ended up.
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If there is one director—or pair of directors—who you can always rely on for refreshing, different and perplexing cinema, it’s the Coen Brothers. With each film, something new is brought to the table, and it will undoubtedly make you think. I’ve only seen a few of their impressive filmography, and I can say that no two films of theirs follow a similar theme, but they all follow a similar style. Really, the only thing you can expect from a Coen Brothers film is the unexpected.
Barton Fink fit into this perfectly. The film is a perplexing, thought-provoking, and immersive conundrum of endless symbolism and significance. Picking apart each element of the film literally takes hours, and figuring out the meaning behind it all would take a couple of days. Whether or not that means that this film is an outright success, it does prove the point that the Coen Brothers achieve exactly what they set out to do; possibly more successful than others, but their reputation supports such a claim.
But the trouble with a film like this is where to start with a breakdown of its elements. On the performance side, John Turturro’s portrayal of Fink was impressive, to say the least. Fink’s bumbling, eccentric characteristics shouts the personality of a troubled writer, and he remains that way throughout the film. The Coen Brothers didn’t try to create a wholly innocent and honest protagonist—an aspect addressed in many of their films that I’ve seen. Instead, they focus on external influences on their main characters, who may or may not become immersed in them. Turturro’s performance was both humorous and captivating, which leads into the main external influence in the film: Charlie Meadows.
John Goodman’s naturally jolly and cheery demeanour works perfectly for this character; something that the Coen Brothers thought as well, writing the character up with John Goodman in mind. In hindsight, you can start to appreciate the attention to detail with a Coen Brothers production, but that can only occur after you watch the film. Goodman’s performance did its job, and because of that, the film’s effect becomes that much more significant.
This film consists of surprises, next to its symbolism. Here enters another Coen Brothers characteristic—throwing curveballs. After watching Burn after Reading, you would think that Coen Brothers fans would be accustomed to such tactics, yet they always seem to remain equally as effective when used in their other films. Simply put, you don’t know what will happen next in Barton Fink. Then again, you won’t be able to tell dream from reality, fact from fiction, or historical figure from imaginary character.
This is where Barton Fink comes into play as a truly surviving film in history. While I can’t say that it is the Coen Brother’s best film, it is their most interesting. Most likely, it was because it took so long to try and piece together the dots; connect all the events in the film and attempt to find meaning in everything it presents. My attempts to decipher the significance behind all the objects, people, or aspects of their existence in the film only added to the intellectual frustration one experiences after watching Barton Fink.
Most likely, this is what makes the film so great. The immersion by viewers happens post-viewing; Barton Fink is a film that forces you to examine it as a whole and then understand it after it has passed, rather than just being a series of events that eventually conclude. While the credits are rolling, I doubt that you will be getting up to leave the theatre, or turning off the television; you will be sitting there wide-eyed and open-mouthed wondering, “What did I just watch?”
The common consensus with this film is that it’s a genre-bender. To consider it a genre-melder would be incorrect, in my opinion. There are no elements that define the film as belonging to two, or even one, specific genre. More so, it defies any genre. The amount of symbolism presented in it, accompanied by the endless ways that viewers and critics can interpret that symbolism create an environment for the film to separate itself from others. The Coen Brothers—I would think—had this in mind while producing this film, though it would not be surprising to think that they decided to write a film about a playwriting moving to Hollywood to write pictures. How it would unfold into a screenplay would unfold in Coen Brothers fashion.
Barton Fink is not entertaining. Most films that trade the factor of entertainment for something else—something greater. It usually pays off. This film is without a doubt a thinking viewer’s film. Even if you don’t consider yourself one, Barton Fink will naturally make you. It’s how the film is pieced, and in turn, it’s how the audience will react to it. Really, there is no way to fully breakdown this film, as the audience should do it by themselves, or with help from others. What can be said in certainty is that Barton Fink is not a simple film, nor was it intended to be. Instead, the Coen Brothers created what is arguably the most complicated film in recent decades.