In which we reach the Coen Brothers film that I have now seen at least four times and am still mostly flummoxed by. But, hello to Roger Deakins, cinematographer above all, yet to win an Oscar for unfathomable reasons. This film my baffle the heck out of me, but it sure does look nice.
I’m thinking about doing this as a stream of consciousness review, starting with, ‘Mmmmm, flocked wallpaper,’ and ending with, ‘I think I empathise with the studio chief.’
I think it’s safe to say that when you’ve seen a film three times before and there’s a big thing that happens in it that you didn’t remember, it’s probably not working for you hugely. And yet so much of Barton Fink is so good – and this time it may have made more sense than ever before. I really really want to like it more than I do.
So what is Barton Fink on about?
The eternal battle between money and integrity?
There was a moment this time round where I wondered if it was about the ability of Hollywood to just continue to rotate in the face of extremely horrible events and general humanity.
It’s definitely about arthouse films and genre films, mocking both and yet buying into both. Barton Fink itself is arthouse, but it’s pretty clear that Barton’s approach to the wrestling picture he’s supposed to be writing is deeply snobby, and the film’s sympathies are definitely with Audrey, who may be the only adult in the whole damn thing.
It’s also definitely about writing: it’s power, possibility, and potential self-importance:
I’m a writer celebrating the completion of something good… I’m a writer you monsters, I create!
There’s something about the impossibility of Barton’s situation. Hollywood says it values the writer (and literally kisses his feet) while simultaneously telling him how to does job. That’s fairly confusing to a person new to a world. Yes, Barton’s obnoxious, egotistical and completely lacking in self-awareness:
“Why I could tell you some stories—”
“SURE you could… And yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man… so naturally their work suffers.”
And yet also, Barton may have talent. Even if he doesn’t, he is still a writer – and a writer writes and doesn’t sell life insurance – so there would be a fundamental gap, even if Barton were a decent human being with empathy. That can be hard to get over. Of course, Barton doesn’t even try… For which John Goodman calls him out:
“You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here. And you come into my home and you complain…”
So in the end The System vs. Barton Fink is strangely satisfying, because Barton is so damn adolescent. The integrity vs. money debate may be eternal – but I suspect the mark of an adult the acceptance of the fact that if you want to pay the bills you just have to compromise on the integrity, and that paying the bills isn’t a betrayal of all of life’s principles. So the only question is how and where to betray yourself.
Time to grow up, Barton Fink.
- Empty Roads? Here be existentially empty hotel hallways. Also, the elevators have more existential angst than the ones in the Hitchhiker offices.
- Terrifyingly bright daylight: Outdoors in Hollywood generally features some bright light. Is it terrifying? Probably if you’re Barton Fink and you don’t know what it wants from you.
- Incredible Carter Burwell score? Burrell score, check. Very evocative, check. Not sure that it sticks with me as much as the sound effects do.
- Very realistic violence? Well, I suppose John Goodman’s gun functions as a gun should do, and is the kind of gun a person might have. The realism pretty much ends when the flames appear though.
- Extremely black lines delivered straight? Yee-up. ‘Little funny in the head. / Funny, as in he likes to ventilate people with a shotgun and then cut their heads off.
- An obsession with odd hair? Yes. Barton’s hair is special special hair.
Pretty great female leads? Sh. Well, our leading lady is Judy Davis as Audrey – who I have never really remembered from viewing to viewing. She does unassumingly write Mayhew’s work for him, and is well on the way to breaking Barton’s story for him. But mostly she gets yelled at by one man, patronised by another who doesn’t want to admit that he needs or likes her, and then becomes a plot device. This is my disappointed face, Joel and Ethan.