Not long ago we lauded the Film Plays Itself series on the Criterion Channel, a collection of films about films that includes everything from Sunset Boulevard to 8½ to Hollywood Shuffle to Adaptation. Here, Tinseltown is by turns cynical, magical, savage, surreal, everything you could possibly hope for, anything you could possibly imagine. Here, film artists are by turns inspiring, insipid, visionary, avaricious, down on themselves, full of themselves. If you’re interested in movies about movies, Film Plays Itself represents a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Hollywood artistry that encapsulates pretty much everything you could want.
…except for Barton Fink.
For a pair of writer/directors with a consistent knack for inscrutable cinema — and general inscrutability as just, y’know, people — Barton Fink might be the most head-scratchingly opaque effort from Joel and Ethan Coen. As with the rest of our Coen Brothers Director Series, revisiting Fink in the context of the Coen oeuvre is more of a hunt for commonality (or deviation) across the retrospective, rather than a prescriptive lens by which to “get” the given film. Importantly, Fink‘s power — not unlike that of the Coens’ later effort A Serious Man, which shares a great many qualities with this film — does not rely on you “getting” it. Not in a plot sense, anyway. If there’s anything to read into with certainty in Barton Fink, it’s likely the ways in which the most oblique elements subtly inform the main character.
That said, a retrospective rundown does underscore how different Barton is from the usual Coen protagonist. We actually said the exact same thing in our review of Miller’s Crossing, the prior Coen flick, in reference to hat-chasing protagonist Tom Reagan. Reagan stood out because he had a brain in his head, which makes him opposed to the classic Coen “hero”: the hapless, lovable idiot. Only Fargo‘s Marge and No Country for Old Men‘s Ed Tom really fit with Reagan in their quiet intelligence. But Barton stands out in another way: he’s a decent guy. Marge and Ed Tom probably share this, too, but that sort of gets lost in their characterization because they’re officers of the law. Their decency is part and parcel with their role in society, whereas no such prerequisite exists for Barton Fink the playwright.
He’s also suspiciously rational. We should consider the choices Barton makes throughout the film, because the All-Hallowed Rules of Writing dictate that this is how you really write a strong character. Will this review veer astray upon realizing that Barton Fink actively, maniacally, gleefully burns the All-Hallowed Rules of Writing to the ground? You better believe it.
Barton’s decisions, unlike those of Blood Simple‘s Abby/Ray or Raising Arizona‘s Hi/Ed or Miller’s Crossing‘s Reagan, are probably not so different from the decisions you or I would make in Barton’s situation. If we wrote a successful play and were offered the chance to make money in Hollywood, we’d probably say yes. We’d probably take a crack at a wrasslin’ picture, despite knowing nothing about it, if that was what the studio assigned to us. And if a neighbor in our hotel was making too much noise, we’d likely think nothing of choosing to make a complaint. In short, Barton Fink is not a self-destructive man. He tells the truth and he makes rational choices, almost consistently.
Which is not to say that he’s without flaw. Charlie Meadows will eventually elucidate Barton’s primary shortcoming in the finale of Fink — when he screams “You! Don’t! Listen!” — but that much is obvious from their first meeting. Meadows is ostensibly the “common man” that Barton pretends to champion; given the character’s villainous third-act twist, perhaps he even intentionally adopts the persona of the working man that he knows will excite Barton. Except Barton, stoppered with writer’s block and given a real opportunity to hear the experience of a man from the social strata he supposedly loves, keeps interrupting Charlie mid-story. It’s the classic paradox of a “higher class” citizen stepping down to assist the lower class and stomping on them in the process, all couched within the writerly paranoia of never really knowing your subject.
That sense of paranoia makes Fink into a bit of a horror movie, albeit one without most of the traditional trappings of horror (aside from the creepy hotel). The anxiety and discomfort permeating the film are an extension of Barton’s own personality, and as such the scariest thing in this horror movie is not a monster jumping out of the shadows; it’s a venerable figure of success telling Barton that “we’re all expecting great things.” What could be a more terrifying thing to say to a character already paralyzed by his own anxieties? The All-Hallowed Rules of Writing (hereafter AHRW) would likely state that Barton needs a more tangible, Capital-O Obstacle to overcome. But Fink bucks that assumption with more success than should even be possible.
Hand-in-hand with Obstacle is Incitement, and the AHRW dictate that you need a strong inciting incident to kick off your plot. Maybe 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes, or maybe an evil sorcerer is back and hunting for his magic ring, or perhaps you’ve happened across a suitcase full of millions in cash. These are exciting ways to kick off your adventure. But in Barton Fink the inciting incident is simply lodging a complaint against the guest in the hotel room next door. That’s it. The film winks (Barton Wink?) at the notion of what writing is supposed to be even more explicitly when Barton expounds on how his writing stems from a place of pain, art borne of longing and suffering. W.P. Mayhew, Barton’s literary idol, undercuts this in a way that makes our hero’s eyes pop: “I just enjoy making things up.”
One last comment about the perceived inscrutability of Barton Fink, offered as evidence — as if we needed any more — that a Coen script is the best you’re gonna find: the film’s ending stands up to a multitude of readings, but it’s particularly impressive that it withstands two opposed interpretations. Cooped up in the hotel and the stuffy writer’s row at the studio for the brunt of the movie, Barton walks along the beach and sees a woman who looks exactly like the painting in the hotel room. Maybe he’s finally free to experience the real world, to write under the auspices of his heart instead of under the thumb of expectation…or maybe he’s still stuck in his hotel room after all, the tease of that freedom hanging as a piece of someone else’s art above his typewriter, expecting great things.