Tuesday, 29 March 2011
DVD: 10 DAYS OF JOEL & ETHAN COHEN: DAY 3 -BARTON FINK (1991)
This is an odd one, make no mistake about it. While Coen movies often cross genres, this one crosses so many that critics can't agree which ones they are. Indeed opinions differ widely as to what it's actually about. I have my own opinions but checked the longish article in Wikipaedia which summarises a variety of views, some of which coincide with mine and some don't. The Coens are two ferociously intelligent individuals who share a puckish sense of humour and it can be difficult to take what they say about their movies at face value. I remember reading that they said they'd never read Homer's Odyssey despite basing the structure of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? very closely on it. My view is that they probably kept a copy or two on set during the making of the film. The thing about any work of art, particularly a problematic one like Barton Fink is that whatever the viewer gets out of it is, by virtue of it clearly being open to a number of interpretations, irrelevant to whatever the Coens intended.
So. whatever I say about it has to be valid and those views, while my own, are hardly likely to be original. Inevitably I'll be revealing plot twists as it's impossible to discuss Barton Fink without doing so. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Superficially it's about a talented playwright who's poached by Hollywood and finds himself out his depth in their shallows. He lives in a seemingly deserted and fading hotel where he is befriended by a working man who is more than he seems. Fink creates, he believes, his best work and it is rejected by the studio boss. And that is pretty much it.
However, consider another way of looking at it. It's about intellectual elitism. As the film opens, so does Fink's play about the working man (it's set in 1941 by the way) has just opened and is a rousing success. Fink (John Turturro) is full of himself and the need to give the working man a voice. It's clearly obvious that he has no idea what the working man is like at all but he is so full of his own burning need to create that this never occurs to him. When the studio tells him to write a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery he has no idea how to begin because he has no knowledge of popular culture. When his befriended by Charlie (John Goodman) who mentions that he has lots of stories, Fink rolls over him so full of his own self-belief. Only later does a completely mad serial killer tell him bluntly that he never listens.
Then there's the film's visual dichotomy. The Hollywood scenes are crisp and bright, light fills them. Walls and furniture are white or give the impression of whiteness. everything is sharp and clear and busy, even if it is only with the expansive sound of the Hollywood mogul's (Michael Lerner) voice. The hotel in which Fink finds himself is very different. The colours are full and rich but they are deep and dark with reds and browns seeming to predominate. The hotel is faded, looming, and empty. Even though we see a corridor with shoes waiting to be shined at every bedroom door, the only guests we ever see are Fink and Charlie, the only staff the elevator boy (a very elderly man) and the bell boy Chet (Steve Buscemi). Is this the Coens suggesting something about Fink's state of mind or something else? I don't have answer, I'm just asking a question.
Is it a satire or a black comedy about the state of Hollywood in the early 40's. To a certain extent the answer is yes. Many of the Hollywood scenes are played for laughs, albeit sometimes of the bitter kind. Michael Lerner is terrific as the over the top mogul, usually genially ebullient but swift to turn into a cruel intimidating bully. Out of his depth, Fink (who is apparently based on Clifford Odets) turns to the great writer W.P.Mayhew (John Mahoney) who is also struggling in the Hollywood salt mines and is apparently (though the Coens say not really) based on William Faulkner (which I had guessed). Mayhew, however, has become a bitter drunk and his writing is really done by his secretary/mistress Audrey (Judy Davis).
Is it a film noir or a crime drama? Some way through, Fink turns to Audrey (who has already rejected his tentative advances) for help with writing but when she shows up at his room it's with sex not writing on her mind. When Fink wakes up next morning he finds her next to him dead and bloody. Charlie appears and offers to get rid of the body, just to help his friend. Much later when he returns, Charlie says he has to go away but asks Fink to look after a parcel for him. Not long after that the police arrive to interrogate him about a homicidal maniac called Madman Muntz. Guess who Charlie really is? One of the cops, the appropriately named Detective Deutsch, makes a deliberately anti-semitic remark. Some days later, the cops appear again to interrogate Fink but Charlie arrives and kills them both as he sets fire to the hall. Fink escapes with his precious new (and ultimately worthless) manuscript, and the parcel Charlie gave him.
Symbolism is clearly important to the film and I'll cite a few images, but as to their meaning... In his room is a picture of a girl on a beach to which his eyes are drawn constantly. In the final scene, he's sitting alone on the beach when a pretty girl turns up, they talk briefly, then she sits down in the exact same pose as the picture. Also in his room, the wallpaper is gradually is gradually peeling away and at one point Chet tacks it to the wall. Gluey paste which closely resembles semen slowly rolls down the damp wall. There is definitely a subtext about sex here. The parcel, which I was certain contains Audrey's head, is never opened and is with him at the beach. (Another unanswered question is: did Charlie kill Fink's family while he was away -Fink had already given him their address.) And the name, Fink, itself. What does that tell us about him? And why did they pick a 5 feet tall actor for one of the cops?
And that's as far as I'm going to go. Barton Fink is a film which asks more questions than it answers. If you haven't seen it, do. Then you can try and discover them for yourselves.
They loved this movie at Cannes. It won three major awards: Best Actor, Best Director, and the Palm D'Or.