I think it takes at least two viewings to understand the layers of the Coen Brother’s Palme d’Or winning “Barton Fink” (1991). The film is an intense, nightmarish character study of a New York playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter in 1941. The new Californian surroundings and movie business subject the titular character, played by a manic John Turturro, to occasionally mental but often physical horrors.
But let’s back up. Barton has the grand idea in his head that his writing and is all about the untold story of the “common man.” Not entirely misguided, he views himself as a new generation of storytellers who have a higher art and deeper sense of purpose than the classic theatrical writers. Evident in the first scene, however, the “common man,” as Barton so elegantly condescends, could not care less about his work. The film opens on the curtain call of his critically acclaimed play. The first shot glides past a group of stagehands smoking and reading newspapers while doing their jobs until Barton comes into frame, clutching a script and mouthing every word the characters speak.
The stagehands’ indifference revealed in this scene implies Barton’s irreconcilable disconnection from his so called “common man.”
Barton’s attempt to pursue the life of the mind separates him from all factions of society. He cannot eat a meal with the wealthy because, despite funding his art, they represent everything he is against, and he cannot connect with the middle lower-class because he views himself as smarter or more important. Even in his relationship with his only friend in the film Charlie (John Goodman), he spouts philosophical tangents about the nobility of his artistic pursuit without ever pausing to let Charlie speak more than a few words.
“Barton Fink” is also the Coen’s most stylistically and thematically obvious film. The majority of the story revolves around the Hotel Earle, an intricately designed and decrepit hotel in the heart of Hollywood. The door screams (yes I said screams), the wallpaper sloughs, and the ever-present concierge is eerily accessible and accommodating. You can almost smell the must coming off the bed through the screen. This 4th film is their best character study (at least until we meet Llewyn Davis way down the line), and is a revelation in terms of production design and ambition.
The amazing design of the hotel mirrors the tone of the film. Horror after horror consume Barton as he tries to make a stable life in this harsh Hollywood. As is the case in many Coen movies, it’s hard to tell whether or not you should be laughing. After all, Barton is just a tourist in hell, what’s so funny about that?
A Few Notes:
- The first of many Roger Deakins’ shot Coen films (maybe one of the best cinematographer and director pairs of all time?)
- The first time the Coens get recognized by the Academy with three nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lerner), Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction
- Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jon Polito, John Turturro all in their second Coen directed performances. Frances McDormand has a cameo bringing her into all 4 Coen films so far.
- The infamous image from Coen films of 2 detectives approaching and talking to our protagonist begins here.
- “What’s in the box? Isn’t it yours?”