Hollywood is about money, and that determines what it makes. In a nutshell, that is the meaning behind the Coen Brothers' 1991 film Barton Fink.
Considering the film's strange storyline, its unlikeable characters and confusing ending, it is supremely ironic that this film was made within the Hollywood system.
Ethan and Joel Coen, the film's creators, are Hollywood's odd couple. Despite their offbeat humour, they have managed to create profitable and influential films within the Hollywood system. Early efforts like Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing gave a hint of what they were capable of, and it is unlikely that film watchers will again experience the pleasure of the great 1-2-3 punch of Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where art Thou?
Modern fans of the Coen brothers will look at those three films with great nostalgia as the years go by (and wonder why it was that The Man who wasn't there was only average and Intolerable Cruelty was so poor). Yet many will look upon Barton Fink with confusion.
For starters, Barton Fink contains none of the incisive wit and humour of their later films – and this despite starring Coen favourites John Turturro as the main character, John Goodman as a mysterious insurance salesman and Steve Buscemi as Chet the bellhop.
Fargo, Lebowski and Brother are all combinations of humour and drama. Fink, however, is mainly drama – though with enough idiosyncracies to identify the film as one of the Coen's. If Fargo was a send-up of Minnesota, Lebowski a send-up of California and Brother a send-up of the deep south, then Fink is a send-up of Hollywood. And Hollywood, deep down, is a serious place and cannot be sent up with much humour.
The film is possibly autobiographical in that Fink represents the Coen Brothers. Set in 1942-1943, Barton Fink is a young and successful Jewish playwright who is critically acclaimed for his Broadway productions. Fink is a true artist – his art must reflect true humanity and exalt “the common man” above everything else. Fink sees his work seriously and believes that it may lead to the betterment of humanity. He, along with a number of other young playwrights in New York, are redefining theatre by focusing upon the lives of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. Deeply committed to his artform, Fink sees no room for compromise.
That is, until he gets an offer to go to Hollywood. The critical praise that Fink's plays gain in the New York newspapers has filtered through to a studio executive in Hollywood who wants Fink to work for him and write screenplays for films. Fink reluctantly agrees, seeing in this opportunity the ability to raise enough cash over the period to support his artistic work for many years to come. Besides, as his agent informs him, “the common man will still be here when you get back”.
The rest of the film covers the first week of Fink's tenure as a scriptwriter for Capital films. Typically and painfully, Fink is asked to write a script for a B-movie wrestling picture.
The Hollywood of the 1940s depicted in the film is strangely sparse, and completely opposite to Fink's New York. In New York, Fink is feted by the rich intelligentsia. In Los Angeles, Fink is manipulated and confused by the executives running the business – Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and Lou Breeze (Jon Polito). Fink's art is not respected in Hollywood - only his ability to write a popular script... something which he is unable to do in the week he is given.
So what is Fink to do? Shacked up in a dirty and cheap hotel with melting wallpaper and armed with his typewriter, Fink has the choice between being artistic or being a hack – between being himself or earning the cash.
Many people refer to LA as “Hell” (Matt Groening for example). For Fink, his first week in Los Angeles is hell. Despite every room in the hotel being full, Fink sees no other people apart from Chet the funny looking bellhop, an elevator operator who looks and sounds as though he was a bored boatman, patiently and distractedly transporting souls into the nether world, and Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman who lives next door to Fink and who eventually turns out to be the ruler of the damned, flames and all.
The inference is that Fink has unwittingly sold his soul to work for Hollywood. Yet Fink is not a hack, but a true artist. His entrapment in hell is made all the worse when he finally produces a work that he can be proud of – a masterpiece so important that he churns it out over a few days non-stop work. Yet when this work is presented to the studio executives it is so completely and horrifically dismissed that Fink is stunned. Moreover, he realises that his work is actually owned by the studio and cannot be published or performed without the studio's say so. As he is led out the door, he is also informed that his contract prevents him from writing anywhere else and that he will remain in LA for the rest of his days, unable to write or produce anything that he can call his. Hell indeed.
Warning signs abound throughout the film. Fink is trying to express the point of view of the “common man” in his work, yet when he meets Meadows, as common a man as any (to begin with), he cannot relate to him. More than that, it also becomes clear that it is only the intellectual elite that is worried about presenting the “common man” - of which Fink is a representative – as it is revealed that all the “common man” wants to do is use film as an attractive escape.
Another warning sign is when Fink meets and hooks up with W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his secretary, Audrey (Judy Davis). Mayhew was once a fine author and someone to whom Fink looked up to. Fink was ecstatic to meet such a fine literary figure working in Hollywood and immediately begins to strike up a relationship with him. Alas, Mayhew had sold his soul many years previously, and has become a woman-beater, an alcoholic and, even worse, a hack who can't even write his own authored work any more. Fink is horrified at Mayhew's state. In response, he strikes up a doomed relationship with Mayhew's secretary Audrey.
Fink's room inside the Hotel Earle is another indicator that something is amiss. Living in a low class hotel as a means of identifying with the “common man”, the heat of Los Angeles leads to a stifling, claustrophobic room for Fink to work and sleep in. So warm is it that the wallpaper begins to unglue from the walls, leaving sticky liquid to run down them. The room is a symbol of Fink's desire to understand and relate to the “common man” through his art, but its slow and dismal destruction by heat shows up Fink's arrogance – his entire artistry is inherently flawed.
There is only one bright spot in the room. Above the desk which Fink writes is a picture of a beautiful young woman at the beach. It is idyllic. It is simple. It is escapist. It is everything that Fink does not stand for. And yet he refuses to take it down through his days of writer's block. Every time Fink sits down to write, the camera pauses on the picture and Fink's fixation with it, and we hear the sound of waves and seagulls.
Fink has a choice. He can pursue his flawed art or he can bite the bullet and concentrate upon the beautiful and escapist – what Hollywood wants its main players to work on. Does he want to be realist and true to his art or does he want to earn money and please the masses with manufactured fiction?
Initially we see Fink being true to his art – yet the work he presents the studio executives with leads him to eternal damnation. The film closes with Fink on the beach where he meets a beautiful young woman who then sits on the sand and exactly replicates the pose of the woman in the picture in his hotel room. Fink has found his answer. He will work for the devil and will write about the beautiful and inane, with only an unopened box next to him to remind us of the cost (watch the film if you want to find out what is in the box).
The cynicism of Hollywood and its lies and manipulations jar horribly with Fink's idealism. Told that he is a genius by executive Lipnick and even given a literal boot kissing from him, it is obvious at the end of the film that it was all a ploy to get him working. Fink doesn't even have the chance to return the favour to Lipnick before he is thrown out of the room and confined to the flames.
Another trait which is probably all Hollywood is the “sink or swim” attitude. Fink is an effete, idealistic artist who is unsure of how to perform for his corporate masters – and yet none of them offer any form of effective help. Fink is all about how to serve man for the best. Hollywood is about how to use others to serve yourself. No wonder Fink is so successfully ground down by, and at odds with, the system he has sold himself to.
As with many Coen brothers films, bit players make an impact. As soon as I saw The Big Lebowski I knew that Phillip Seymour Hoffman would win an oscar one day – despite the fact that his screen time is so limited. Buscemi as Chet and Davis as Audrey make an impact on the film greater than the air time they receive, as does Tony Shaloub (“Monk”) who plays Ben Geisler - a cynical and busy executive who complains to Fink that Lipnick “has taken a interest” (sic) in him.
In retrospect, Fink's character is not that attractive. He is serious and passionate and artistic – yet his relationships with others are little more than attempts to serve his artform or career. Fink has no real friends and only becomes acquainted with Charlie Meadows because of the salesman's insistent attitude. Ironically, Meadows is the only person in Los Angeles who pursues a relationship with Fink based upon a desire for friendship – who would have guessed that the Devil himself is the most personable man in hell? Fink's lack of humanity towards others belies his concern for the “common man” and actually places him in the same category as the executives who flatter and deceive him for their own ends – Fink is more like the people he despises than he realises. Since Fink is the film's protagonist and the character the audience naturally identifies with, the realisation that he shares some of the blame for his own misfortune is unsettling. Fink's artistry and passion are without question – it's just that he does not share a concern for the “common man” that he so desperately writes about. Fink is blinded by his own self-importance and commitment to his art and it is this blindness which is his ultimate undoing. Had Fink been a little more cynical, a little more proactive, a little more reflective, he may have saved himself from artistic damnation.
The film is not for anyone looking for action or conventional story-telling. It is not as funny or as tight as the Coen's other films, being dreamy and confusing, with seemingly unimportant events becoming central to its theme. The film won a series of important awards at the Cannes film festival in 1991 – Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actor (John Turturro).
In short, Barton Fink is to the Coen Brothers as Blade Runner was to Ridley Scott. Confusing, slow, out of focus, dark, shocking and occasionally wryly humorous. Fargo, Lebowski and Brother it is not. It stands alone, a testament to the system that created it in the first place, and a harsh critic of arrogance and cynicism alike.
© 2007 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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