Barton Fink (1991)
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Barton Fink quite simply is a writer who cannot see the forest for the trees. He is so taken with the fact that he is a writer that he can't write. He is so idealistic that he misses fantastic opportunities to become a writer for the ages because he wastes precious time proselytizing. John Goodman perfectly sums up everyone's frustration with Barton Fink when after a series of unfortunate occurrences, Barton asks him "Why me?" to which John's character answers "Because you don't LISTEN!" Set in 1930s Hollywood we follow the exploits of a one-hit wonder, Barton Fink, who has written a successful Broadway play and is summoned by the powers that be to Hollywood. After much cajoling to take the job from his agent, Barton arrives in Los Angeles determined to become the writer for the common man where he insists true stories live. The trouble with Barton, however, is he does not have time for the common man because he has so romanticized their lot as well as his particular quest in speaking for them.
Excellent performances from John Turturo, John Goodman, Judy Davis, John Polito (often overlooked, but his scenes ALWAYS become his!!) and the inimitable Tony Shaloub.
I have decided after a slew of Coen Brothers films I currently have in my collection, that any project these guys are involved with deserve more than passing scrutiny.
Those that stated that the first 2/3 of the movie is boring and then it starts to pick up when the action begins, have unwittingly seen the plot, and masterfully fulfilled its premise. See, Barton Fink is a boring, artsy, impassioned Jewish writer, that gets one lucky break, and is instantly summoned to write a movie that the execs are sure "will be a winner" (no pressure there, right Hollywood?). But since he is so much an "artist", he cannot lower himself to the level of writing a simple wrestling film, desiring instead to write witty stories about "the common man", films that "really mean something". Then he refuses to listen to common man stories, stuck instead on his own ideas of what that should be.
Well, OK, what is obvious here? Well the Coens for one, are Jewish WRITERS/ FILMMAKERS, who got one lucky break, "Blood Simple", and then were given the open door to make Hollywood films, are always branded as mere "artists", too idealistic for the majority of the masses (their movies are rarely fully appreciated or understood, and make only a small profit, but their genius high critic ratings keeps them afloat). So THEY ARE Barton Fink, quite literally and intentionally. It is THEIR personal tale, ensconced in a symbolic cloak.
Summary: Barton wants to write for the common man, and yet what the common man wants to see is this dumb "B"-rated wrestling flick, not some heartfelt idealistic piece about some friendly yokel. They want predictable mystery, unadulterated violence and blood, guns blazing, detectives crunching, and loud sex. As Barton stares at the image of his idealism (the beach picture), he longs for his ill conceived idealism to take form and materialize onto the paper. But of course it is a failure, because he sees himself as an "artist", not as a business man with epic visions.
Which is why finally, the mysterious Audrey (the real writer he is supposed to consult), who always helps Mayhew's stories out of a jam, becomes the catalyst for this story as well, by initiating the sex/horror/detective story as soon as she is asked to. Normal writers apparently are like either Fink or Mayhew, but she sees through to what makes for real-world successful writing (not some dorky contrived "common man" story), and she initiates the final action-filled finale immediately.
This is PURE GENIUS! "Adaptation" as one user here mentioned is like this film, because of the similarity in how the plot loops back in on itself. But this one is much more subtle, to the point where the "common man" would not even understand this movie, and thereby fulfill its message, that all people want are the action films that Hollywood dishes to us, just like the mogul states over and over, and we see delivered on the last third of the celluloid. In the end, Fink realizes his idealism, that what he really wanted is to get his artistic view rejected, so that he can maintain his idealistic (unrealistic) outlook, which is his true passion, the "fight" for self fulfillment. This is personified by the appearance of the girl on the beach, with Fink still not realizing what would be in the box, because he doesn't comprehend Hollywood thinking or action movies (or "mainstream" movies or plots). But he has achieved his goal, as has the movie for Joel and Ethan, as both being an incredibly well-thought and executed film, both an art flick, and an action piece with more perfectly executed symbolism than anyone since Wells.
Now you know why it won all the Cannes awards that year, and why these two brothers from St. Louis Park Minnesota are gods of the art film, while the contrasting Warchowski brothers were once gods of the "common man" film (the first Matrix at least). The Warchowski's even named the subtitle of the Matrix Reloaded as "The Burly Man", which if you look closely (zoom in), is the name of Barton Fink's mystery screenplay, thereby once again fulfilling the intention of this film to the fullest (that what common people want is delivered like clockwork in the Matrix), just like pure Bible prophecies.
Others have commented about Fink's apparent "descent into Hell", led by the neighbor/devil. I found a different interpretation, revealed by the very last shot of the film. To me, it is fairly clear that he is "in Hell" so to speak, but it is very much a Hellish existence on Earth, and the fire is merely allegorical of the intense pressure for him to deliver, compounded by the stifling Summer heat in his hotel room. I believe that at the end, Barton is still hopelessly blocked, having not written anything beyond his opening paragraph. He didn't get laid, there were no murders, no police, no package, and his neighbor has no dark secret. Those were all part of Fink's fantasy/insanity, created out of the desperation to come up with ideas, as he continues to stare at the picture over his desk. I even have doubts about the visit to the studio executive's home.
In short, at the end of the film, I think he is in exactly the same situation as at the midpoint of the film, the last time we see him staring into the picture, waiting for inspiration.
Turturro gives the performance of a lifetime as Barton, and Goodman proved with this movie that he was a first class acting talent (what made the Coens think of him in this role, anyway? surely a mark of genius). Davis also shows herself off extremely well, in one of this underrated actresses finest roles.
There is, simply put, no better satire of Hollywood, and none that I can think of that so successfully manages to also spoof the pretentions of those who despise it.
First, is the great dialog written by the brothers. Great dialog is a feature of their films, and this one has some of the most memorable I have heard. You can almost turn off the visual and just listen and be enchanted and know you are listening to a Coen brothers film.
But turning off the visual would deprive you of the great cinematography of Roger Deakins. His can frame a scene to the point that you could pause the film and just soak in the texture and color and realism. It is almost as if every frame is a painting.
The Coen brothers also seem to get the best performances out of an actor that I have seen. John Goodman is brilliant in this film and he seems to do his best work for the Coens. John Turturro is captivating as the hack writer who talks about his love for the common man, but just really doesn't know the common man and really doesn't care about them. Michael Lerner was brilliant as the requisite man behind the desk that is the feature of 40's noir.
One doesn't always know what is in the Coen brothers minds. Is this a foretelling of the rise of Nazism, of intellectuals who really didn't understand the appeal of fascism to the common man, or a surreal portrait of someone who sells out. No matter what their intention, they make you think and return to see their films again and again.
This movie, which won the Palme D'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, seems to be saying that fruity movies designed for critics, are worthless. Isn't that a delicious irony ? An arty movie reflecting on the self-indulgent, egotistical, uninvolving qualities of arty movies. Barton is so self-obsessed with the importance of his work he completely misses the point of everything that's happening around him. Only at the very end, when Lipnick finally chews him out, does he begin to understand the point of writing (and cinema), and it's not to win acclaim for yourself. What makes this especially weird is that for the Coen Brothers, this critical darling of a movie was sandwiched between two even better films, Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy, two fantastic entertainment extravaganzas, both of which were mauled and bombed. It's a beautiful film though, filled to the brim with subtext which invites interpretation - the Hotel Earle is really Hell and Charlie is the Devil, is it Audrey's head in the box, wrestling as a metaphor for Barton's block, beauty as a distraction from work/reality, Mayhew as King Nebuchadnezzar unable to interpret his own dreams, Barton's surreal experiences of Hollywood. There as so many engaging little nods to these ideas, like the hotel stationery logo ("A day or a lifetime !") or the odd whooshing noises whenever a door is opened (Skip Lievsay's sound design is terrific). Of course some characters can be interpreted as disguised parodies, with Barton as Clifford Odets, Mayhew as William Faulkner and Lerner as Louis B. Mayer, but this is hardly a biopic or exposé story. The cast are all terrific, with Turturro giving a career-best turn, Goodman doing an incredible job with a character who seems to transform constantly throughout the film, Davis as a southern belle straight out of Tennessee Williams, Lerner and Shaloub injecting wry doses of humour, and Mahoney in a showstopping drunk role. The ace photography (the Coens first with cameraman Roger Deakins) is simply stunning throughout; long elegant takes, amazing ultra-closeups as we literally crawl into Barton's Underwood typewriter, a bravura down-the-plughole tracking shot. Combine this with Carter Burwell's typically spare, haunting score, and terrific production design by Dennis Gassner - the Earle is a much a character as any of the actual people - and the result is an unforgettable piece of fantasy drama and one of the Coen's best movies.
Some of my friends who saw this film disliked it because they didn't understand the plot. Well, this is not a movie for people who need instructions how to handle a film. You have to think, to guess what all the symbols mean, what the ending means. Whatever you'll guess it can't be completely wrong because a real masterpiece like this offers many possibilities for interpretation.
So if you're the kind of person who likes to think about every possible idea the filmmakers could have been intending to communicate in every scene, then you'll have a great time with this movie, but if you prefer a story that moves from plot point to plot point at a reasonable pace, then you might find this very hard to sit through.
Personally, I felt the filmmakers were trying to beat me over the head with symbolism, metaphor, and atmosphere to try to make a point that most people already agree with.
"Barton Fink" is about Barton Fink. Catchy title eh? Fink is a writer. He's a writer for the common man. He wants to create a new, living, breathing theater "of and about the common man". He has one hit play and then shuffles off to Hollywood to continue his fight for artistic purity. The second he gets there, Hollywood has different plans. They want him to get cracking on a wrestling picture. "People are going to say to you, Wallace Beery, wrestling, it's a B-picture." Fink slowly realizes he's in over his head in a low genre. Thankfully his neighbor, (John Goodman), shows up to help Fink connect to the mind of the common man. Fink can't hear him because he's too busy listening to himself talk about nothing.
There are a couple of different movies going on in "Barton Fink". My favorite one, and the most funny, is the story of pretentious Fink and the harsh reality check he gets from the Hollywood players. Jack Lipnick, (Michael Lerner), is hilarious. He's the studio head who talks a mile a minute. He confounds Barton with his West Coast ways. He has showmanship and Barton has none. Fink also runs into another fast talking studio exec, Ben Geisler, (Tony Shalhoub). All the scenes with Lerner and Shalhoub are classic. I've watched this movie many times just to see those scenes. The fast forward button took me to the scenes I needed.
The rest of "Barton Fink" is an odd tale. There is murder, Goodman, cops, writers block and visions of Hell. Fink came out to L.A. to show us something beautiful but got knocked to his knees as Hollywood showed him the way things really are: Their way or no way. A surreal cautionary tale about Hollywood although it makes me want to meet some slick guys like Lipnick and Geisler. I would laugh my head off as they tell me how idiotic I am. "We don't put Wally Beery in a fruity movie about suffering! I thought we were together on that!!"
I have no idea why so many of the actors used such horrible southern accents for a movie about life in LA in 1941,but they did.
I see where somebody said it was humorous,but I found it about as funny as tumor day at the children;s hospital.
I have seen several other movies directed by these two brothers,and enjoyed every one of them. Not this stinker,though.
In this case, instead of playing with a genre, they play with the writing itself. Rather, they depict the mind of a writer as a hotel, an Aristotelian arrangement of cubbyholes into which one sets up shop.
This is their most self-referential work to date: Writing about writing; pictures about pictures, wrestling about wrestling (with a biblical Jacob thrown in); various forces at work for control of his (and other's) head; work about working people. Investigation; queries. And love about death as depicted by a drunken Faulkner (and his lover/ amanuensis who orgasmicly dies).
Along the way, trademarked satire of the industry and war. Only one false scene: a bar fight.
I think its fun, but am thankful that they needed to do this only once. Now we can turn to the more nuanced folding within genres.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
Trivia aside, Barton Fink is a masterpiece of satire, rich in atmosphere and symbolism, boasting razor-sharp writing and career performances by John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner, and John Mahoney, as well as fine contributions from Jon Polito and Judy Davis. As an allegorical story, the surrealism is introduced slowly but sure-handedly, until all hell breaks loose, literally and figuratively--well, literarily and figuratively--in the third act.
Barton Fink, as you surely know, is a New York playwright who wants to forge a new theater about and for the working class. His noble aspiration is tempered by his obvious dilettantism bordering on condescension. His first meeting with Everyman Charlie Meadows, he spouts off about the theater ignoring the "common man," but every time Charlie says "I could tell you stories," Barton cuts him off and continues pontificating.
Barton is lured to Hollywood for one reason: money. Despite the fact that Barton's New York success is hardly solidified, he buys his agent's thesis that a successful screenplay could finance any number of plays, and immediately heads for what Bill Mayhew (John Mahoney) archly refers to as the "Great Salt Lick." He has barely set foot in Hollywood when the surrealism is introduced by the bell at the front desk of the Hotel Earle, which continues to sound for a good minute like one of those (what do they call them?) "infinity chimes".
The Hotel is so palpable, it's almost a separate character in the unfolding tragedy that befalls our poor protagonist. It's so oppressively hot, the wallpaper is peeling off the walls. The hallways stretch eerily to the vanishing point. As Barton settles into the mother of all writer's blocks, inspiration hovers tantalizingly over his typewriter in the form of a tacky painting of a mysterious woman sunbathing on the beach. The words of the opening paragraph upon which he has found himself stuck taunt him from the very page of the hotel Bible.
I could go on and on. This is the Coen brothers at the peak of their powers. It's Raising Arizona meets Fargo. Small wonder it swept Cannes in unprecedented fashion.
I'm a farely patient guy who loves watching movies (all types). Liked most of the other Cohen borthers' movies (Fargo, Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona) but I could barely watch this film. Its one of THE MOST OVERRATED MOVIES EVER. I don't believe it won the Golden Palm that year. (I don't have any respect for the Oscars so am not including the Oscar nominations it received). I mean HOW BAD were the rest of the movies that year anyway???
It makes me sick that movies like this are classified as comedies. How boring is you're life if you find humor in stuff like this. So maybe its this very deep movie and it reveals a dark side of Hollywood, with a whole bunch of hidden metaphors and insider jokes, blah, blah, blah. But who are we trying to fool over here??? I've seen my share of films and know a good movie when I see one. I don't need to have some pseudo-intellectuial wanabe tell me how good or deep they thought the film was. Watching it reminded me of "The Emperor's New Clothes" where if you couldn't see the clothes you were considered stupid. Is that why this movie has such a high rating?? Cause people are too scared to admit it was a bad movie for fear of looking stupid??? If this makes you think I'm probably too young (I'm 22) to understand and appretiate a movie like this, so be it. But I'll never admit (no matter how old I get) that there was an iota of humor in that film. A COMPLETE WASTE of time.
Who could blame him when forced by contract into a wrestling picture for an old-time studio head (Michael Lerner, who has show-stealer scenes), getting no advice from his once-idol-now-drunkard writer Mayhew, and only company being a surly, un-commonly genteel fellow from next door named Charlie (John Goodman), and the writer's 'secretary'? As Fink tries to find what the 'essence' of what he needs to write for this formulaic picture, Charlie keeps stopping by, things keeps revolving around him in the frustrated Hollywood scheme, and he goes in over his head. But what makes him go over his head? The Coen's solve this possible problem in terms of their surreal-like, trick-playing and mood heavy technique by making the hotel Fink is staying at have its own sort of character, the walls and the images (i.e. the painting, typewriter, ceiling) all apart of what's closing in on him. Roger Deakins, first-time DP with the brothers, gets long, cavernous hallway shots. And then there's Turturro himself, quite the eccentric here and there, but really is the most sane guy when given the other characters.
There's such eccentricity here, and so many potentials for deranged humor and even beautiful shots of this sort of 'hell', that you almost can't hope but think something has to come out of this. What climaxes is indeed one of the Coen's very best. I've seen Barton Fink twice now, and I've almost had the same reaction to it both times, with a greater appreciation for all of the dream-like qualities of the film this time (and also having gone through more of the Lynch and Bunuel and films like that). But you do have to 'give' yourself to the film (hate to use that term, but it's true for here). I could see someone getting bored with this movie- certainly not I, though then again it's such a particular thing (unless dealing with Fargo or O Brother Where Art Thou) to recommend a Coen brothers movie to the masses. Especially this time around, when the duo were working their way through a block on a much more 'mainstream' movie for them (Miller's Crossing), that some of the symbolism, if it even is sometimes, will go over people's heads. Indeed, here and there I could sense a possibility for pretentious moments to slip through.
They didn't for me, and that was thanks to the main three things the film won for at Cannes- the calm, seething direction, the inhibited, magnetically odd acting from Tuturro, and the production values all combined. When it comes time to read off the names of the best surrealist works of the last twenty years of the 20th century, this deserves a place among some of the more well-know Lynch and Cronenberg films.