“I’ll show you the life of the mind!” – Charlie Meadows (John Goodman)
Barton Fink is a film with myriad meanings. Its elements are so diverse it defies genre classification. Is it a comedy drama? A period piece? Thriller? It’s strange, but it grows on you over the course of many unnerving scenes. After all, this is a Coen Brothers movie, so like most of their work, Barton Fink lends itself to discussion and debate.
The world of Barton Fink
Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a 1940s playwright, with a self-absorbed and awkward manner. He’s idealistic, longs for more success, even though his plays have done him proud in New York’s theatres. One day Barton’s agent tells him he received a call from Hollywood; Capitol Pictures want to sign him to a screenwriting contract. For Barton, this is huge news because he’s always dreamed of hitting the big-time, yet he’s resistant at first, knowing he may have to sacrifice art for the promise of regular wages. In other words, he’s likely to have to sell his soul to the industry.
Barton ends up in a run-down Hollywood suite called Hotel Earle, but it’s not your everyday hotel. It’s like stepping foot into someplace haunted, with its ghostly corridors and chilling atmosphere. Inside, Barton tries to rattle out the new movie he’s been commisioned to write, but he can’t get his creative juices flowing. The dreaded writer’s block has taken over and his world becomes a personal hell.
It’s as if his creativity is being sucked up by his surroundings. Pesky mosquitos bite at his skin, there are strange noises all over the hotel and slime oozes from the walls. Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbour tries to give Barton inspiration and good company, but everything becomes a whole lot more sinister.
Two of the film’s central themes – the writing process and the culture of Hollywood – are a nod to the nature of the work. The Coen Brothers wrote Barton Fink while struggling with the script for 1990’s Miller’s Crossing. To snap out of their creative burnout, they spent three weeks writing a movie about a screenwriter with writer’s block. It’s worth mentioning the film was not supposed to represent the directors themselves. The Coens said:
“Barton Fink is very far from our own experience. Our life in Hollywood has been particularly easy. The film isn’t a personal comment. We don’t have any rejected scenarios in our drawers.”
At its core, Barto Fink is about creative frustration, but you could read it as a satire for the studio system, or as a statement about the dangers of living inside your own mind. In true Coen Brothers fashion, the film has a range of hidden meanings and subtexts. Barton Fink packs religious images, surrealism, the struggle between liberalism and the far-right, and messages about WWII.
I’ve seen many different interpretations, but I haven’t come across an ultimate explanation. A film doesn’t need to explain its overall purpose, but I’d like to believe Barton Fink has an internal logic and isn’t a bunch of random ideas thrown together. I do regard it highly, however, as the world the Coens create is one of visual mastery.
Why should you watch it?
The Coen Brothers’ films aren’t easy to digest, but that’s often the brilliance of these directors. Some people may see it as a weakness, but you’re always guaranteed to come away with your own opinion. Their movies (Barton Fink in particular) tantalise the mind in ways that make you think about life and art. No matter the Coens’ intention, Barton Fink can be watched over and over, with each viewing just as rewarding as the last.
A movie about a screenwriter might sound dry, which may be the reason it flopped at the box office. Despite low box-office returns, Barton Fink received great reviews when it was released in 1991. If you see Barton Fink for anything, it should be for the characters and the story, because they’re captivating.
There’s so much to like and discuss, but it’s not a movie I’d take to a desert island. It’s so abstract you can’t watch it solely for entertainment. Ultimately, Barton Fink is a man lost in a sea of people who don’t understand him. Hell, he doesn’t even understand himself, but all he wants to do is tell stories from the heart. This movie offers a unique feeling that draws you to the life and mind of Barton Fink.
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