Friday, February 12, 2010

Barton Fink

With 90 minutes of soul violence that is A Serious Man just released on DVD, perhaps it’s a good time to revisit the Coen brother’s other Squirm enduing existential fable Barton Fink (For a trilogy of Coen flavored despair watch with The Man Who Wasn’t There but take care to remove the razor blades and sleeping pills from your house first).

While Fink isn’t quite as excruciating as A Serious Man, if only because its title character is a lot more deserving of some karmic realignmen.

It’s still a sweaty turn of the screw. A film about claustrophobia of the mind. Barton is a New York writer who after a successful, but terrible and pretentious play, is summoned to Hollywood. What initially looks like a big break soon turns into a waking nightmare, as Barton develops a monstrous case of writers block and is assigned to write a “Wallace Beery Wrestling Picture.” A line I’ve been quoting to stupefied looks for about ten years.

What’s more he finds out that his hero is a drunk whose been publishing his secretary’s work under his name for the past ten years, his friendly neighbor, played by John Goodman in a performance equally funny, scary, and somehow monstrously pitable, has some serious issues, he’s wanted for a murder he’s reasonably sure he didn’t commit, there’s a head shaped box that has appeared in his hotel room, and his hotel might be a literal door into hell. Why its enough to make a fella say, “Heil Hitler”.

The Coen’s make this all work by giving the film such a twitchy sense of paranoia. The film generates a sense of unease that’s almost Lynchian, but as unlike Lynch’s dream logic everything here makes a horrific kind of sense. Its some of the Coen’s most stylisitically rich work (which really is saying a hell of a lot. There’s a fever dream intensity to the film, the falling wall paper that clings to the wall with viscous vile looking glue. The screening of the dailies, from another wrestling film" Devil On The Canvas", for Fink the screen reflected off his glasses. The wrestler getting up a seemingly infinite amount of times roaring “I will destroy him” as he lunges towards the camera is one of the Coen’s most nightmarish scenes. I don’t know why but I’ve always found something about it to be utterly hypnotic.

The film is aided pitch perfect performances by Steve Buscemi, John Mahoney, Tony Shaloub, Judy Davis, and Michael Lerner who all find just the right pitch of unsettling to play their characters at. And of course there is Turturro’s committed, to say the least, performance.

Fink is as open to interpretation as The Big Lebowskwi, is Fink a parable for the rise of the Nazi’s, a kind of Dante’s Inferno with Fink meeting the human avatar’s of vice? Or is it simply a rancid little Hollywood satire, blasting at both the institution and those who think themselves above it? Whatever its meaning, Fink remains an unsettling masterpiece.


Neil Fulwood said...

I've always struggled with 'Barton Fink', even though I can recognise and appreciate its brilliance in every frame. It's perhaps the least watched Coens title in my collection.

'The Man Who Wasn't There' is easier to come to terms with re: despair in that Billy Bob Thornton's protagonist is so impeturbable and philosophical, calmly chalking up everything in life to pure ironic chance even as he goes to the chair.

Unknown said...

I really love BARTON FINK and feel that it may be the Coen bros.' masterpiece. There really is a lot going on in this film and it is open to interpretation and multiple viewings.

Good call on the Lynchian tendencies of this film. The nearly-deserted hotel and attention to sound design is reminiscent of Lynch's ERASERHEAD. Hell, John Turturro even sports a hair-do eerily similar to Jack Nance in Lynch's film.

But I would say the biggest cinematic influence on FINK is Roman Polanski, namely REPULSION and THE TENANT. The Coens have copped to this and I find it interesting that the year they won the three major awards at Cannes, Polanski headed the jury. Go figure.

I think that this also might be a fave of the Coens as it is the only film of theirs that they've said they would make a sequel to. OLD FINK where Barton is in his '50s, now a university prof during the 1960s after having ratted out his buddies during all those Senate hearings in the 1950s. I think they're just waiting for Turturro to reach the proper age.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: Same here.

@ J.D: Funny I never really thought of the Polanski connection. But now that you mention it I have no clue how I missed it.

Unknown said...

Barton Fink is a living example of the condition of many writers, which is at least half bullshit (he keeps talking about wanting "real" theater not "new" theater, theater for the "common man," and merely by making these statements he is creating a giant disconnect). He freaks out on Audrey for basically being W.P. Mayhew's ghostwriter for his novels and screenplays, but then Barton Fink is doing the same thing. He thought he was protecting Audrey from Mayhew but he is really a complete hypocrite. I don't think Audrey was dead until Barton hit her -- to kill the mosquito -- but he hit her after having witnessed Mayhew hit her. After he slaps her, the blood begins to flow out from under her and I think that is when Barton truly "loses"/"sells" his "soul" although really it's like the period at the end of the sentence, the calling her for help and sleeping with her. Even though the entire time he is heading towards it, after he takes the Hollywood job for no other reason than the money, and is apprehensive in the first place about taking the job because he knows he is going to be forced to compromise artistically and produce work that does not matter at all to him.

But I think that terrible Hollywood man who first says, "THE WRITER IS KING HERE OH YES I WILL KISS YOUR SHOE" and then shits on the meaningful work he is presented with, is supposed to be something that everyone identifies as very real and I think that could be a lot more specifically autobiographical even though it's wickedly funny and scary satire.