Barton Fink (1991): Joel and Ethan Coen Satirical Noir Allegory Starring John Turturro

barton_fink_posterIn Barton Fink, a satirical allegory framed as noir, which won the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Fest, Joel and Ethan Coen decode the myth of the “sensitive” artist, the mysteries of the creative process and the ambiguities of authorship.

They began writing Barton Fink in the midst of a writing block. “We started with the idea of a big seedy hotel,” said Joel. “We’d also been reading about that period in Hollywood, and it seemed like an amusing idea to have John Turturro as a playwright in Hollywood,” noted Ethan. “We wanted Barton to meet another writer, and we were playing with the kinds of people who came out to Hollywood at that time, like Faulkner and Odets, people from very different backgrounds, and the funny thing is that they were all writing wrestling pictures.”

barton_fink_1John Turturro plays a self-absorbed playwright with the big hair and round spectacles of George S. Kaufman and the ideological bent of Clifford Odets. After a Broadway hit, he’s brought to Hollywood by studio mogul Jack Lipnick (a Louis B. Mayer or Harry Cohn type). The theater in the opening scene is meant to be the Belasco and the play Awake and Sing, which actually premiered in 1935. Defying history, the Coens set their movie in 1941, when Fink’s proletarian ethos–theater for the masses–was already out of date, replaced by anti-Fascism, the then current intellectual cause.

The philistine studio head firsts proclaim that “the writer is king at Capitol Pictures,” then asks Barton to endow that “Barton Fink feeling” into a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. “We need some heart in motion pictures,” he says, “Can you make us laugh, can you make us cry” Lipnick engages in delirious monologues: “I’m bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. I don’t mean my dick is bigger, though you’re the writer–you’ll know about that better than me.”

barton_fink_5The Coens, however, don’t challenge the industry’s vulgarity or its abuse of artists; rather, they emphasize Barton’s comeuppance, the shattering of his vanity. Parodying the self-important artist, the Coens made Barton a caricature, pretentiously raving about a new theater for the common man. “I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain,” Barton intones, to which Mayhew replies, “Me, I just enjoy making things up.”

To prove he still has social conscience, Barton checks into a seedy hotel, where he experiences an intense creative block. He seeks help from another contract writer, W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a novelist modeled on Faulkner, who actually contributed to Flesh, a John Ford wrestling movie. Hopelessly naive, Fink is shocked to realize that the literary genius is tended by a secretary-mistress, Audrey (Judy Davis), who claims to have written his novels.

barton_fink_3Fink spends his time in a dingy hotel room, whose shabbiness mirrors his inner state. Struggling to write a single line, he stares at the peeling, fading wallpaper, which mocks his own creativity, then wistfully looks at a photo of a bathing beauty staring out to sea. He meets his neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman who turns out to be a mass murderer metaphorically linked to Hitler. Meadows says he has great stories to tell, but Fink is too absorbed in lecturing about “the life of the mind” and “the common man” to listen to anyone.

For a man described as brilliant, Barton is imperceptively slow and impervious to his surroundings. Critic Stanley Kauffman raised a series of questions about Barton’s character–Would such a man have colluded in hiding a body Would he then have sat down and written in heat Would he have remained calm when his hotel is on fire and he is handcuffed to his bed But rigorous realism is not a yardstick to apply to a Coen film.

barton_fink_2The strained narrative and flawed characterization are meant to be excused because they serve as a platform for the Coens’ stylistics. With Dennis Gassner’s “distressed Deco” design and Roger Deakins’s lighting, the Coens imbue almost every shot with virtuosity: the producer’s office, the dank little hotel room, immense close-ups of the typewriter. To convey decay, the interior sequences are in Rembrandt’s sepia tones and the wallpaper is decorated with rotting banana leaves. Scenes set in the Hotel Earle were filmed in the lobby of the Wiltern Theatre, where the banana trees had been left for days to wither in the sun. When the theater owners got apprehensive about Gassner’s plan to “distress” their new carpet, the filmmakers found the same carpeting at the drydocked Queen Mary in Long Beach, where the New York scenes were shot.

Fink’s real education takes place not at Capitol Pictures but in the hotel, which is the Coen’s most memorable character. A miserable place, the hotel has endless green corridors with symmetric rows of shoes and feebly lit rooms that underline the dwellers’ isolation. The hotel becomes a physical metaphor for Fink’s tormented psyche, and at the end, stands for his hellish metaphysical state. Typically, the Coens provoke Fink’ transformation with sudden violence, heralded by a brash visual pun. While Fink makes love to Audrey, the camera tracks from her feet along the floor, up to the bathroom and then literally down the drain in the sink. When next seen, Fink’s life has taken the same journey; he’s sunk into the abyss of darkness and murder.

barton_fink_4A hyperbolic vision of 1940s Hollywood gives the film’s studio atmosphere a recycled Fitzgerald or Hawthorne ring–some of the settings recall The Day of the Locust. A more immediate inspiration is provided by The Shining and its hero (Jack Nicholson), a writer locked in a huge Gothic hotel. But Barton Fink goes further than Stanley Kubrick in depicting a writer who’s first paralyzed by the “unreality” he’s asked to write about, then liberated by a severe reality shock. At the end, Barton’s eyes have been opened: He sits on the beach with an ambiguous gift, a box that contains human remains–and stares at a real bathing beauty looking out to sea.

Stylistically, Barton Fink was influenced by Roman Polanski’s surrealistic, darkly comic vision, which turns the brooding satire into a horror movie. Employing subjective camera, the tale is shot from Fink’s distorted P.O.V., with experiences filtered through his claustrophobic sensibility. Echoes of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard are also evident: In both movies, the protagonist is a desperate writer suffering a block. Sunset Boulevard opens with a surreal touch–the narrator is a corpse in a swimming pool–and the Coens use surrealism to register Fink’s unconscious.

Throughout, flamboyant camera moves decorate the picture–a dolly-shot into the bell of a trombone, a shot of Fink sleeping with a pillow over his blank face. The color schemes verges on the psychedelic: the glue dripping from the peeling wall paper is a sickly yellow, the ocean in the postcard is a bright blue, Audrey’s crimson lipstick foreshadows the violent burst of red that will change Barton’s life, and the climactic fire is in apocalyptic red.