“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind… There’s no roadmap for that territory… And exploring it can be painful.”
Whenever I meet new people and they find out about my passion for film, I get asked that inevitable question to list some of my favourite films of all time. Happens every time. This question usually leads to an awkward silence during which I’m struggling to come up with an answer because I’ve momentarily forgotten the title of every film that I’ve ever seen. After being caught off guard by this question several times, I now have a prepared answer for such situations. A pretty standard list that includes titles such as Taxi Driver (M. Scorsese, 1976), Blue Velvet (D. Lynch, 1986), Manhattan (W. Allen, 1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (S. Kubrick, 1968), There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson, 2007), Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958), Sunset Boulevard” (B. Wilder, 1950), however, people are usually surprised to hear that the list also includes one of the Coen brothers’ earlier films – Barton Fink (1991), starring John Turturro and John Goodman.
Even though I tend to agree that (by objective standards) some of their later films surpass Barton Fink, this film has a special place on my personal list of top films because it combines some of my favourite elements in terms of storytelling, genre and visual style. Last week I was suddenly inspired to revisit this film, so I thought I take this opportunity and try to write down some of my thoughts about it.
The film tells the story of a successful, idealistic, left-wing New York playwright Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) in the 1940s, who, after writing a hit Broadway play, is invited to write screenplays in Hollywood. He is commissioned by the mercurial Hollywood producer and studio head Jack Lipnick (played by Michael Lerner) to write a wrestling picture, even though Barton knows nothing about the genre and thus suffers from writer’s block. The film plays with the familiar caricature of the eccentric, cigar-smoking Golden Age Hollywood producer with a working class, immigrant background. A self-made man, who has learned the rules of the “Hollywood system” and only produces escapist films that have proven to be successful, while crushing the dreams and ideals of the fragile artist and our main character Barton Fink, who wants to produce work that reflects the problems of the “common man”.
This dichotomy between commercial low art and high art is a central theme of the film. At least at the beginning, the story is set up in a way for the audience to sympathise with Barton’s struggle against the “Hollywood system”, however, soon after it subverts our expectations as we start to realise that the film is not just another satire of the “Hollywood system”, but also a clever and critical examination of the self-centred, idealistic ambitions of a writer, who, in his mind, is fighting to retain his integrity while working on a project that he finds meaningless. This becomes clear from the way Barton interacts with his next-door neighbour, the travelling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who (at least at the beginning) is the perfect archetype of what Barton considers to be “the common man”. The dialogue scenes between the two characters in Barton’s hotel room cleverly reveal that Barton’s interest in the struggles of “the common man” is purely abstract, since he constantly interrupts and ignores Charlie’s stories, and only wants to talk about the hardships of, what he calls, “the life of the mind”.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the setting. Barton stays in an old, eerie L.A. hotel, a character of its own, and the visual shots of the hotel corridor that alludes to the famous corridor shots from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Considering the popularity of The Shining, it is possible that the film expects the audience to make this connection, thus amplifying the sense of unease. I, personally, really appreciate such stylistic choices. The inclusion of film references or familiar clichés challenges and engages viewers by building upon their existing knowledge of cinema. It elevates the film by creating another layer of meaning beyond the images on the screen. The film also adopts some of the stylistic conventions of film noir by presenting the monstrous amidst the ordinary and using archetypal characters such as the fragile artist (Barton), the femme fatale (Audrey), the hard-boiled LAPD detectives (Deutch and Mastionotti) and the talented yet troubled and alcoholic writer (M.P. Mayhew). The film is very dialogue heavy and each character has a distinct, dynamic speech pattern that corresponds to his/her specific character traits or profession.
The film blends satire with the macabre that brings to mind the work of David Lynch. It is full of symbolism, most notably Barton’s small, hot, cheaply furnished hotel room with peeling wallpaper that serves as a visual representation of the deteriorating state of Barton’s psyche. Barton’s final emotional breakdown plays out visually in a powerful scene where the hotel is literally engulfed in flames during the final confrontation between Barton and Charlie, who (in his own way) is also trying to free “the common man” from the hardships of life.
The film left a profound impression on me the first time I saw it, and I’m pleased to report that, upon revisiting it again very recently, my opinion hasn’t changed. I love the way it fuses different genres and creates a unique view of the world by challenging specific genre barriers and inviting interpretation. I think it deliberately doesn’t provide a tidy or satisfying ending and refrains from making moral judgements to allow the viewer to formulate their own opinion. The open ending also returns to the idea of low-art v. high-art, represented by the picture that hangs in Barton’s hotel room of a girl sitting on the beach alone and gazing at the ocean that is recreated in real life in the final scene of the film. During Barton’s struggles, his gaze constantly returns to this stock image of the girl on the beach. A banal and sentimental image, like you, would find on a cheap holiday card, that is nonetheless somehow comforting, just like the low-art movies produced by the “Hollywood system” that may have a certain value after all by providing some escapism for “the common man” from the hardships of everyday life.