Barton Fink, 1991, USA
Director: Joel Coen
Stars: John Tuturro, John Goodman & Judy Davis
Academy Award Nominations (1992): Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lipnick), Best Art-Directon-Set Decoration (Dennis Gassner & Nancy Haigh), Best Costume Design (Richard Hornung)
Between Heaven and Hell, There is always Hollywood
This is a review I have been meaning to do for a while now. After writing up my analysis for 'No Country for Old Men' I realized I still had my notes from a recent revisit of 'Barton Fink' so I decided to write up an analysis in the same style as the aforementioned 'No Country for Old Men' review, so here it goes.
Does Barton really care about the common man?
Early on the film, Barton makes it abundantly clear that he writes for the common man. ''Strange as it may seem'' Barton tells Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) his friendly next door neighbor ''I guess I write about people like you. The average working stiff, the common man.'' Barton continues ''There's a few people in New York...who feel we have an opportunity now to forge something real out of everyday experience. Create a theater for the masses based on a few simple truths, not on shopworn abstractions about drama that don't hold true today, if they ever did.'' Barton notices a blank look on Charlie's face and states ''I guess that doesn't mean much to you'' a strange little comment from a man who is describing a form of theater that would be targeted at a person like Charlie, who then claims ''Hell Yeah, I could tell you some stories'' before Barton interrupts with ''and that's the point. That we all have stories'' this exchange leads you to believe that Barton is the complete opposite of what he wants to be. Any good writer should relish the chance to hear first hand stories from subjects that are attempting to bring to life via a play. The conversation continues with Barton claiming that theater about the common man should viewed on the same level as plays focused on the upper class, before Charlie states again ''and I could tell you some stories'' as Barton cuts him off again ''sure you could, and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live and trade and from where they fight and love and converse...'' a comment that is dripping with irony as Barton then proceeds to examine the common man in an analytical and condescending manner, almost like they're a different species. Through Barton, it seems like Coen brothers ares taking a stab at writers who try to write about something they have no grasp on.
Ain't Hollywood Hell?
Basically everyone who has ever seen 'Barton Fink' can agree that the Hotel Earle and Hollywood in general symbolizes Hell. When Barton first arrives at the Hotel, he rings the bell to summon the helpful desk clerk, Chet (Steve Buscemi) who makes his arrival from the basement, an early and small tidbit of symbolism. For the duration of the film the Coen's, both in subtle and not subtle ways, bombard us with hell imagery and symbolism, leading us to believe that Charlie may be the devil and his room is the gates of hell, and then almost giving us conformation with the fiery climax. This feels like the Coens are humorously satirizing the Hollywood creative process by linking it to a world of fire and brimstone.
Are the Coens alluding to the Holocaust?
I've always likened 'Barton Fink' to Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', another film centered on a writer in a hotel and also one may have allusions to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. There is plenty of evidence throughout 'Barton Fink' to suggest a focus on Hitler's reign of terror. Firstly, the Hotel Earle offers complementary shoe shines, so in the hallway where Barton's room is, all the patrons have their shoes lined up outside their doors. Apart from Barton and Charlie, we don't know these people or ever see them, so they're basically identified by their shoes, which I took as a reference to the images from the Holocaust where thousands of shoes are piled on top of one another, we don't know who the shoes belong too but we know there is a story behind them. I also have a feeling that Charlie may be an ex-Nazi, which could explain his crying toward the beginning of the film due to guilt for his crimes in WWII. I think this could also explain the dripping wallpaper, which is said to symbolize Charlie's infected ear. I noticed that when the wallpaper is peeling away, it leaves a red wall (representing the blood of the Jewish people murdered?) which Barton proceeds to cover up, although I may be way off there. Another glaring Holocaust reference comes in the form of two detectives, who come to the Earle to question Barton about Charlie and inform that Charlie Meadows is actually Karl ''Madman'' Mundt, a serial killer. During the questioning, the officers Deutsch (which is German for...German) and Mastrionotti are very hostile toward Barton, especially when they find out he is Jewish ''Fink? That's a Jewish name, isn't it?'' ''I didn't think this dump was restricted'. Then there is the film's climax, where Mundt guns down the policemen in the fiery hallway, and just before finishing off the second cop, he delivers the line ''Heil Hitler''
The Coens also seem to be referring to Hollywood as a form of creative slavery. Showing that, through Barton, when writers are hired by production companies they lose any sense of personal input and they're simply writing for the company, like slave. Barton was a promising playwright in New York, but as soon as he is hired by Capitol Pictures to write a wrestling picture, he struggles and can't get going. When Barton finally produces a script he is proud of, ''with all due respect sir, I think it's the best work I've done'' The studio head, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) berates him and tells him it ''won't wash''. ''This is a wrestling picture. The audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling and plenty of it. They don't want a guy wrestling with his soul - well alright, a little bit for the critics'' proclaims Lipnick, verbally ripping apart Barton's attempt to make something unique and meaningful. Lipnick continues ''He tried to convince me to fire you too but that'd be too easy. You're under contract. Anything you write belongs to Capitol Pictures, and Capitol Pictures isn't going to produce anything you write.'' ''You think you're the only writer that can give me that Barton Fink feeling? I got 20 writers under contract I can ask for a Fink-type thing from.'' this just gives an assembly line type thing, the studio just has dozens of writers at their whim and mercy. It should also be noted that the name of the film that W.P Mayhew is working on is called ''Slaveship'', as seen on his bungalow door.
What's in the box?
I'm still of the opinion that it is Audrey's (Judy Davis) head in the box. I've heard claim that it could be Barton's creativity in the box, seeing that he's writer's block is gone soon after Charlie gives him the box, which is a very interesting theory, but I still believe it is Audrey (or one of Charlie's other victims) head in the box.
Hotel Earle = Hotel California?
Okay, this one can be seen as a little ridiculous but I still love it. I once read someone claim that the Hotel Earle was actually Hotel California from the famous Eagles song of the same name. The song in question focuses on a ousider who ends up at a hotel in California, while it is nice at first it soon turns into a nightmarish place from which he can never leave, I guess you could say he's a RES. I know it's a little far fetched but I still think of 'Barton Fink' every time I hear the song. It can be noted that The Dude has a thing against The Eagles in 'The Big Lebowski' and when John Tuturro's character, Jesus, first appears in that film, a rendition of 'Hotel California' is actually playing.
"We are all just prisoners here of our own device"
These are only a few discussion topics from a film filled with them, the others I may try to analyze on a rewatch. The Coen's film are just so dense when it comes to thematics, It's a joy to try and analyze them. 'Barton Fink' is a truly wonderful film and my third favorite of the Coen's filmography.