BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL THERE'S ALWAYS HOLLYWOOD!
It was bound to happen at some point. Inevitably, the attempt to stay on top of the ‘one movie review a day’ thing would get away from me and I would miss a day. Yesterday was that day, meaning that today I shall need to review two films to make up for it. However, as it turns out, the review that arrives a day late rests on a rather appropriate film, giving that it charts the struggles of a writer’s attempts to overcome writer’s block, with mounting pressures and anxieties making it more difficult to get the job done in the ever-decreasing amount of time to do it. The fourth film from the Coen brothers, it’s a nightmarish drop into the tough world of the Hollywood screenwriter, circa 1941.
New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to Hollywood to write for the pictures, with his first assignment being a wrestling picture. Staying in the creepy rundown Hotel Earle, Barton develops severe writer’s block. His neighbour, the cheerful insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), tries to help, but Barton continues to struggle as he gets lost in his own artistic impotence… and then things really start to go wrong.
Back in 1989, the Joel and Ethan Coen began writing a script for a movie called The Hat, though it’s title would eventually become Miller’s Crossing. Apparently becoming so lost in the process of writing, their normal speed of productivity came to a near complete halt. Although the pair denied that they were actually suffering from writer’s block, they decided to give themselves a break and began work on a completely different story. Naturally, what they chose to write about was a writer struggling to get over writer’s block. It took them only three weeks before they had completed the script, with them apparently saying that Barton Fink was something they just “burped out”. For something that was seemingly so reflexively expelled from inside them, they created something truly excellent.
Set in 1941, the film presents a quasi-Faustian fable that has a greater grounding in reality than one might think. Through the 1930s, into the 40s and through to this very day, Hollywood sought talent from the East Coast, as New York was the centre of what was considered to be the legitimate arts, such as plays, theatre, Broadway. The contemporary artisans of New York would generally return Hollywood’s gaze in a manner that was both amused and rather patronising. The great film critic Philip French wrote wonderfully about this particular dynamic of cross-country artistic parry and thrust in an article for the Observer back in 1995, Losing It to the Movies, with his main focus being the staff writers of the New Yorker magazine and their conflicted relationship with the Hollywood Dream Factory: disdainful of those in charge, unimpressed with their filmic produce, flattered by their praise, tempted by their money, and disturbed by their own readiness to succumb to it all. Obviously it wasn’t just those at the New Yorker who fell into the trap (such as Dorothy Parker and Herman J. Mankiewicz, who would win an Oscar in 1941 for co-writing Citizen Kane with Orson Welles), but many other big East Coast writers would be seduced by the promise of fortune and glory offered by Tinseltown (like Ben Hecht, James M. Cain and S.N. Behrman). It’s not really difficult to see why they would be tempted by such offers. There’s a saying that in the world of Theatre, the writer is paid a pittance, but treated like a king; whereas in the world of Film, the writer is paid like a king, but treated like dirt (this is actually alluded to in Barton Fink, when studio chief Jack Lipnick tells Fink, “The writer is king at Capitol Pictures. Look at your paycheque. That’s what we think of writers.”). The ones that lasted a long time in Hollywood ultimately became the ones who were the most willing to forgo their own sense of artistic integrity for the sake of easy money and warm weather, or as Philip French said, they stayed to “get rich and become pickled in alcohol and regret.”
It’s from this conflict world that we come to meet Barton Fink, a successful intellectual New York playwright, fresh on the scene and already darling of the critics. His invite from Hollywood is near instantaneous. They want him so they can have him bring that “Barton Fink feeling” to the pictures. The feeling they refer to is Fink’s fascination and preoccupation with the plight of “the common man.” This is his focus, which he believes brings with it a weight of responsibility, both to the lives of those he dramatises but also to theatre itself. As he passionately recounts to his new neighbour, “There’s a few people in New York… hopefully our numbers are growing… who feel we have an opportunity to forge something real out of everyday experience… create a theatre for the masses based on a few simple truths, not on some shop-worn abstractions about drama that don’t hold true today.” To this end, Barton feels uneasy about making the move westwards, not only because of his admitted unfamiliarity with the whole medium and structure of film, but because it would mean removing himself from a place where he can be immersed in the lives of his dramatic inspiration. Indeed, how can he tell the story of the common man when nestled in the warm opulence of Hollywood? To this end, Barton opts to stay in a place that’s “less Hollywood” (it’s not a dirty word). Therefore, his new residence is the Hotel Earle, a disquieting and eerie hotel that seems nearly completely abandoned by residents and staff. In fact, there only seems to be two members of staff to the whole building, receptionist/bell-hop Chet (played by Steve Buscemi) and elevator operator Pete (played by Harry Bugin). And, although reference is made to other guests, we only ever see one: Charlie, Barton’s next-door neighbour, played by John Goodman. At first, Barton is a little intimidated by Charlie, a big man that he meets under less than agreeable circumstances. Barton finds the noise coming from Charlie’s room (of which there is hardly any) to be too loud, distracting him from his important work of writing. He calls down to Chet, who then calls Charlie to ask him to keep it down. After hanging up, Charlie immediately comes knocking on Barton’s door, asking if he was the one who complained. Charlie looks pissed, and Barton is clearly not good with confrontation. As it is, Charlie turns out to be good-natured and apologetic, sorry for the disturbance. It also turns out that Charlie is Barton’s kind of person: an insurance salesman, “a working stiff, the common man.” It looks like Barton has lucked out with his choice of lodgings, finding a great source for material living right next door who is willing to assist the writer in any way he can. And Barton needs the help.
Barton’s complete unfamiliarity with the film world puts him at an almost immediate disadvantage on arrival, despite what Jack Lipnick says. Barton’s subdued personality and artistic pretensions are met with the almost pummelling effect of generosity and praise from Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and his lackey Lou Breeze (Jon Polito). They know he’s great, gifted, wonderful, and they just want him to bring that same standard of class and brilliance to their pictures, give them heart and soul, and in return he can have anything, say anything. Lipnick himself is another big man, equally suited to acting as a steamroller to Barton’s quiet manner. His first project? A wrestling picture for star Wallace Beery. Right away, Barton is rather at a loss about where to start. He doesn’t watch films, doesn’t like wrestling, has no idea to what standard his work is being held. He tries to seek advice from producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), an irritable man with contempt for most people, especially writers. Geisler takes Barton to lunch and suggests he speak to another writer, see what advice he can get about the best way to approach the material. When Barton goes the bathroom, he overhears someone being violently sick in one of the stalls. He tries not to notice, but can’t help it when it turns out the person being sick is W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), famed novelist and screenwriter and a big influence on Barton. It’s Mayhew that Barton asks for help with his script, which turns out to be a rough step. Mayhew does offer to help, but when Barton visits his office, he meets Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), Mayhew’s assistant, who is in the middle of trying to quell the latest drunken outburst of the great writer. The next time they meet, the three are gathered at Mayhew’s home, where his bitter self-loathing, drunkenness and frayed relationship with Audrey see him walk away singing an old slave song. Much is made of the similarity between Mayhew and real-life writer William Faulkner, which is fair to a degree. Indeed, both are Southern writers, esteemed in their field and share a very similar visage. However, by temperament, he is more similar to the previously mentioned Herman Mankiewicz, who enjoyed some great success before becoming severely alcoholic and dying at the age of 55 (“become pickled by alcohol and regret”).
With help still not forthcoming in a way Barton can interpret or recognise, he delves further into his despair. He sits at his desk, typewriter in front of him, staring ahead, desperately looking for inspiration in the wallpaper in front of him. So many images of the film are of the screen completely filled with a single, flat image - the wallpaper, the ceiling, the blank white of the paper resting in his Underwood - all of which will be more than familiar to those who have, at one time or another, tried to write. With every fresh meeting with Lipnick or Geisler, his dread deepens, trying to find a steady footing in his work. His panic gets the best of him one night and he calls Audrey, pleading for help with his script. She complies, arriving to try and help him, but things get complicated when they end up sleeping together… and here’s where I stop telling you what happens and talk about other things.
Throughout the film, Barton’s biggest trouble is, essentially, that he is too pretentious. Now, he is an artist, and he truly believes that with that job comes the responsibility to tell the truth, to say something important, to make a difference in the world. And like his New York brethren, he believes that he can express the importance of the everyday monotony of life, find the poetry in the mundane of the regular working stiff. However, for all of his desire to live amongst the common people and show their value, the manner in which he talks about them makes it clear that he is not one of them. He talks about them as a separate entity, a group to be studied and filtered, like he’s panhandling the working class for gold. When the hotel shoe-shining service gets Barton and Charlie’s shoes mixed up, it offers the shot where Barton unsuccessfully tries to write whilst squirming in shoes too big for him - he literally cannot fill the shoes of the common man. He also completely overlooks the potential for help that rests right next door. Barton writes about the common man, but completely ignores it when Charlie repeatedly says, “I could tell you stories,” insisting on telling Charlie about how difficult it is to find a story to tell. Barton is writing a wrestling picture, but pays no heed to the offer Charlie makes to tell him about the sport. Much later, Charlie tells Barton that his problem is that he doesn’t listen, which certainly seems to be true. Charlie listens, says he hears everything that goes in that dump. That’s probably why he has an infection in his ears, because he can’t filter it like Barton can. When he eventually does finish his work, Barton celebrates by going to a USO dance, which is naturally filled with sailors and soldiers due to be shipped off to fight the war the next day. When one sailor asks to cut in on Barton’s dance partner, he manically fires back that he is a writer, that he’s celebrating finishing something good, yelling at those about to fight, “I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator!” Such is Barton’s reverence for the role of writer that he can forgive a certain amount of indecency from those who can write, such as Mayhew. At the meeting at Mayhew’s home, when the great writer gets drunk and threatens Audrey, Barton tells her, “That son of a bitch! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine writer.” Barton isn’t a bad man, really just a kind of ignorant one.
He also believes that he must suffer for his art, that a piece of himself must go into everything he writes if it’s to be any good. He’s not satisfied with himself or his work unless he had to go through Hell to get it done. And this is just exactly the point in Barton Fink. He doesn’t just go through Hell; he gets a room there. The Hotel Earle starts as a vaguely metaphorical building in which Barton takes up residence, but eventually drops the vagueness and turns into a full-blown house of surreal and rather unsettling images. It begins simply with signs of a rundown building, one that is home to few. In Barton’s room, the fan runs constantly because the heat is so bad that it sweats the wallpaper from the walls. A viscous glue-like substance literally runs down, the green wallpaper peeling away to reveal the vicious red colour of the walls beneath. This itself could be as good an explanation for Charlie’s ear infection, that the reason he hears so much is because he spends his time with his ears pressed to the wall, where the sickly residue runs into his ears, making him ill. Other details are liberally scattered throughout the film in such ways that you will probably miss them on your first, second, even third viewing. For example, notice everything that surrounds the elevator: when Barton takes the elevator to his floor for the first time, aided by the zombie-like Pete, the number six is said three times in fairly quick succession; or that when we are making the journey with the characters, we are travelling down, but when we are not, we see them rise up from the depths. All of these allusions to Hell further echo the aforementioned Faustian nature of the story, creating a very clear parallel with how all of those East Coast writers felt when they were courted for work in the land of movies.
Of the myriad ways you could interpret the film, a perfectly valid one is to question whether or not much of the film really happened or if just it existed in Barton’s head. At one point, in one of his many moments of staring at the blank whiteness of the paper, the whiteness consumes the screen, which could so easily be a transition from the real world to the one of Barton Fink’s imagination where he is the distressed hero, lost in a world created by a mind soaked with literary allusion to Dante and Kafka. That plotlines get introduced and lost, creating what would seem like vast holes in the film, make such a reading more convincing. Only later, when Barton has completed his story and left, can we consider that we are now free of his inner turmoil... maybe. See what you think in all of it.
There is not a single bad performance in this film. Most of the roles where written with specific actors in mind, and it’s very difficult to imagine anyone else who could have handled the job. Everyone is absolutely spot on. Turturro is every inch the awkward, introverted, pretentious writer from New York who is out of his depth; John Goodman is outstanding as the jovial Charlie, who gradually darkens throughout the film, but never entirely loses the warmth; Michael Lerner ably carries the dual nature of Lipnick, equal parts virtuous benefactor and severe tyrant; Tony Shalhoub’s Geisler is superb, a barely contained pot of resentment, whose delivery of the line where he asks Barton to throw a rock to find a writer is enough to sell the character completely; John Mahoney’s mix of Southern manners and angry contempt is perfect for W.P. Mayhew; and Judy Davis gives the most grounded performance in the whole film.
The cinematography from Richard Deakins, who I maintain is the best DP alive right now, does great work. The colours, the shadows are all so rich and solid. They genuinely make the film feel resolute. And Carter Burwell’s music is just as great as always.
Barton Fink is a truly excellent film. Rich in every aspect of filmmaking, from the writing to the direction to the performances to the cinematography to the music, nothing is wasted here. It holds enough detail that it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, and is always such a joy to watch. It’s dark, occasionally unsettling, and regularly funny as hell. Really, why aren’t you watching this already?