With the Cannes Film Festival underway in France, I decided that I would spend the next few days watching and reviewing some of the previous winners of the Palme d’Or. Today, I got things started with the 1991 winner, Barton Fink.
Directed by the Coen Brothers and taking place in the mythological Hollywood of 1941, Barton Fink tells the story of a writer. Played by John Turturro, Barton Fink is a playwright who has just had a big hit on Broadway. We don’t see much of the play. In fact, we only hear the final few lines. “No,” one the actors says, in exaggerated “common man” accent, “it’s early.” From what we hear of the reviews and from Barton himself, it seems obvious that the play is one of those dreary, social realist plays that were apparently all the rage in the late 30s. Think Waiting for Lefty. Think Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Think of the Group Theater and all of the people that Elia Kazan would later name as having been communists. These plays claimed to tell the stories of the people who couldn’t afford to see a Broadway production.
Barton considers himself to be the voice of the common man, an advocate for the working class. He grandly brags that he doesn’t write for the money or the adulation. He writes to give a voice to the voiceless. When his agent tells him that Capitol Pictures wants to put Barton under contract, Barton resists. His agent assures Barton that the common man will still be around when Barton returns from Hollywood. There might even be a few common people in California! “That’s a rationalization,” Barton argues. “Barton,” his agent replies with very real concern, “it was a joke.” Barton, we quickly realize, does not have a sense of humor and that’s always a huge problem for anyone who finds themselves in a Coen Brothers film.
In Hollywood, Barton meets the hilariously crass Jack Lipnik (Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner). Lipnik is the head of Capitol Pictures and he is sure that Barton can bring that “Barton Fink feeling” to a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Barton has never wrestled. He’s never even seen a film. The great toast of Broadway finds himself sitting in a decrepit hotel room with peeling wallpaper. He stares at his typewriter. He writes three or four lines and then …. nothing. He meets his idol, Faulknerish writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), and discovers that Mayhew is a violent drunk and that most his recent work was actually written by his “secretary,” Audrey (Judy Davis). He seeks help from producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), who cannot understand why Barton is having such a difficult time writing what should be a very simple movie. Barton sits in his hotel room and waits for inspiration that refuses to come.
He also gets to know Charlie Meadow (John Goodman). Charlie is Barton’s neighbor. Charlie explains that he’s an insurance agent but he really sells is “peace of mind.” At first, Barton seems to be annoyed with Charlie but soon, Barton finds himself looking forward to Charlie’s visits. Charlie always brings a little bottle of whiskey and a lot of encouragement. Charlie assures Barton that he’ll get the script written. Barton tells Charlie that he wants to write movies and plays about “people like you.” Charlie shows Barton a wrestling move. Barton tells Charlie to visit his family if he’s ever in New York. Charlie tells Barton, “I could tell you some stories” but he never really gets the chance because Barton is usually too busy talking about his ambitions to listen. Charlie tells Barton, “Where there’s a head, there’s hope,” a phrase that takes on a disturbing double meaning as the film progresses. Just as Barton isn’t quite the class warrior that he believes himself to be, Charlie isn’t quite what he presents himself to be either. Still, in the end, Charlie is far more honest about who he is than Barton could ever hope to be.
When it comes to what Barton Fink is actually about, it’s easy to read too much into it. The Coens themselves have said as much, saying that some of the film’s most debated elements don’t actually have any deeper meaning beyond the fact that they found them to be amusing at the time. At its simplest, Barton Fink is a film about writer’s block. Anyone who has ever found themselves struggling to come up with an opening line will be able to relate to Barton staring at that nearly blank page and they will also understand why Barton comes to look forward to Charlie visiting and giving him an excuse not to write. It’s a film about the search for inspiration and the fear of what that inspiration could lead to. Towards the end of the film, Barton finds himself entrusted with a box that could contain his worst fears or which could cpntain nothing at all. There’s nothing to stop Barton from opening the box but he doesn’t and it’s easy to understand why. To quote another Coen Brothers film, “Embrace the mystery.”
There’s plenty of other theories about what exactly is going on in Barton Fink but, as I said before, I think it’s easy to overthink things. The Coens have always been stylists and sometimes, the style is the point. That said, I do think that it can be argued that Barton Fink’s mistake was that he allowed himself to think that he was important than he actually was. Self-importance is perhaps the one unforgivable sin in the world of the Coen Brothers. Like most Coen films, Barton Fink takes place in a universe that is ruled by chaos and the random whims of fate. Barton’s mistake was thinking that he could understand or tame that chaos through his art or his politics. Barton’s mistake is that he tries to rationalize and understand a universe that is irrational and incapable of being explained. He’s a self-declared storyteller who refuses to listen to the stories around him because those stories might challenge what he considers to be the “life of the mind.”
Barton Fink is a film that people either seem to love or they seem to hate. Barton, himself, is not always a particularly likable character and the Coens seem to take a very definite joy in finding ways to humiliate him. Fortunately, Barton is played by John Turturro, an actor who has the ability to find humanity in even the most obnoxious of characters. (As obnoxious as Barton can be, it’s hard not to want to embrace him when he awkwardly but energetically dances at a USO club.) Turturro has great chemistry with John Goodman, who gives one of his best performances as Charlie. It’s putting it lightly to say that most viewers will have mixed feelings about Charlie but the film makes such great use of Goodman’s natural likability that it’s only on a second or third viewing that you realize that all of Charlie’s secrets were pretty much out in the open from the start. Michael Lerner deserved his Oscar nomination but certainly Goodman deserved one as well. The rest of the cast is full of Coen Brothers regulars, including Jon Polito as Lerner’s obsequies assistant and Steve Buscemi as Chet, the very friendly front deskman. And finally, I have to mention Christopher Murney and Richard Portnow, who play two of the worst cops ever and who deliver their hardboiled dialogue with just the right mix of menace and parody.
Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, defeating such films as Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Lars Von Trier’s Europa. It also won awards for the Coens and for John Turturro. It’s perhaps not a film for everyone but it’s one that holds up well and which continues to intiruge. Don’t just watch it once. This isn’t a film that can fully appreciated by just one viewing. This isn’t a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. This is Barton Fink!