Barton Fink
Barton Fink USA, 1991.  Rated R.  116 minutes.

Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi
Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Music: Carter Burwell
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Producers: Ethan Coen & Graham Place
Director: Joel Coen

Grade: A Analysis by Jeff Vorndam

Note: This analysis contains spoilers.

I  don't know if I've ever seen a movie that suggests or hints at so many interpretations. Some people may regard this as weakness, that the Coen Brothers tantalize but ultimately fail to deliver. I see it as a perfect way for everyone to take away his or her own reaction from the film. Is Barton Fink a satire of Hollywood in the 40s? An autobiographical essay on writer's block and life imitating art? An homage to Roman Polanski? An allegory of American seduction with fascism or Nazism? A graphic depiction of the dangers of living within one's head? It is all of these, and it is none of these. It is quintessentially a Coen Brothers movie though.

Before I get into exploring the possible themes I've listed, I want to make some general comments about the movie. I love how each character has a different manner of speaking. It's like Hollywood in the 40s is the equivalent of ancient Babel and the films are its tower. Barton speaks in art-critic cliches. He uses words like "squalor" and phrases like "empty formalism" while trying to explain his work (which actually sounds like my job). He talks like he's constipated--and he is...mentally. Charlie Meadows expresses himself much more simply and "from the gut" though that's where Barton aspires to write from. Charlie uses words like "damn" and "hell" often, maybe a little too often. He's a born storyteller, a folksy down-to-earth guy. As the head of the studio, Jack Lipnick, Michael Lerner is hilariously impatient, equivocal, egomaniacal, and insincerely obsequious. He speaks incredibly rapidly, because he is an Important Man, and his mind wanders audibly like he has no control over refraining from speaking his thoughts as they come to him. For example:

We're only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!

Geisler barks in an angry staccato. Deutsch and Mastrionotti zing deadpan threats and observations like bullets. Mayhew's drunken drawl is incongruous with his poetic words. Audrey insinuates something with every mid-preposition halt that belies her Southern wholesomeness. It's fun just to listen to these actors speak their lines, and a bonus that it's not just nonsense.

One of the theories about Barton Fink that almost seems out of left field is that the film may be an allegory for liberal pussyfooting during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Roger Ebert, in his review, writes:

Goodman, as the ordinary man in the next room, is revealed to have inhuman secrets, and the movie leads up to an apocalyptic vision of blood, flames and ruin, with Barton Fink unable to influence events with either his art or his strength.

The Coens mean this aspect of the film, I think, to be read as an emblem of the rise of Nazism. They paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the "common man" but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer's mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster.

Some of the bits from the movie that would seem to coincide with this interpretation: the two detectives are named Deutsch and Mastrionotti--representing Germany and Italy, the Axis powers. The detectives note that Barton is Jewish and hassle him. Charlie executes one of the detectives while saying, "Heil Hitler." Charlie's real name is revealed to be Karl Mundt. Charlie berates Barton's ineffectiveness by saying he doesn't listen, that this is what he gets when he dwells in the abstract without action.Turturro poster

I don't think it all fits, but it's interesting to mull over. The Coens do intimate a struggle between fascism and liberal socialism. It can be seen in the studio's attempts to own Barton and make him their property. Lipnick rules by fiat, and the writers must compromise their vision if they are to survive.

I had mentioned earlier that the film might be "an autobiographical essay on writer's block and life imitating art." Barton Fink was written while the Coens in the midst of working on the screenplay for Miller's Crossing. Apparently, they were getting nowhere (the plot is rather complex, if you've seen the film) and the idea for Barton Fink kind of sprang from this frustration. In the movie, Barton can't write because he feels he is above the material. The whole concept of a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, its standard storyline, black and white crisis resolution, and unadorned mass appeal are ironically anathema to this supposed Poet of the People. Barton feels that he can't crank out a formula--he has to live the story. Every scene must feel brutally honest and brutal honesty only comes from the tortured soul who commutes to hell five days a week. For Barton, art imitates life. It is shown by the end of the film that the converse is just as true.

Barton checks into the somewhat sleazy Hotel Earle (and requests to stay there when offered a better room) because he wants to live in the element of the people he's writing about. You've heard of Method Actors, he wants to be a Method Writer. The problem is, he's really a hypocrite. He complains about the noise right off the bat-- and not by confronting his neighbor, but by calling down to the hotel clerk Chet. He doesn't bother to experience any of his environment. Barton sits alone in his room, which is a wholly self-contained world--a metaphor for his own mind. Ever notice how there's a tremendous "whooshing" sound whenever a character opens or closes a door in the Hotel Earle? It's like each room is a vacuum, existing in an isolated void. The walls peel and oozy secretions blap out of them. The room is organic. like a brain. It's squishy. There's pipes too, and lots of water/wave-crashing noises. I get the sense of sexual repression in the building around Barton much like in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (more on that later). John Goodman

Barton spends a lot of time staring at a picture on the wall. It's a bland scene of a woman staring at the beach, her arm raised to shield the sun. Barton eyeballs it so intently you feel like he wants to escape. He's so entrenched in his dismal surroundings that he wants to know how one could end up in a scene like that depicted in the picture? It's weirder than he could have imagined, I bet. At the end of the film, he does end up in the picture as he plops down on the beach with the box in tow. When the woman sits down and strikes the same pose as the picture, it's a perfect case of life imitating art. That is, until a seagull suddenly drops dead in mid-air and plops unceremoniously in the water. It's a joke, a measure of levity that pokes a whole in any potentially serious moment in this film. The Coens want to make us think--but not too hard because they're not so full of themselves that they think they're worth it. The Barton Fink character is a semi-autobiographical one then, because they can poke fun at themselves with him.

I have also mentioned that the film might be "a graphic depiction of the dangers of living within one's head." Barton dwells in his mind so much he loses his head! The Coens foreshadow the contents of the box numerous times. Have you ever noticed how many times Barton, Charlie and others in the movie talk about heads? People are said to have a good head on their shoulders, people are admonished not to lose their heads--such references are peppered throughout the film. Similarly, Charlie probably says "damn" or "hell" in every other sentence right up to the infernous climax.

The hermetic and insular world of the self-tortured artist is externalized through Barton's environment. His room's decay is in tandem with that of his mind. The oozing wallpaper also resembles Charlie's infected ear, and may have a link to pent up sexual repression. There are suggestions of homoerotic feelings between Barton and Charlie (wrestling!) and Charlie may have felt upset when he learned that Barton had sex. We don't know for sure who killed Audrey, whom Barton learns had ghostwritten his idol's stories. In a scene reminiscent of Angel Heart, he has sex with her and blacks out--awaking to find her bloody corpse on the bed. Who's responsible? Are Charlie and Barton perhaps one and the same--warring sides of the same personality? Charlie, the life of the body versus Barton, the life of the mind. When Barton becomes a reclusive monk, his body, frustrated sexually, explodes for not being listened to. Again, I'm not saying it's what the Coen Brothers intended, but the possibility is there. Judy Davis

Barton Fink won an unprecedented sweep of the top prizes when it debuted at Cannes. The head of the jury that awarded the Golden Palm, Best Director, and Best Actor awards was Roman Polanski. In the 60s and 70s, Polanski directed a series of supernatural films featuring lonely protagonists who resided in odd apartments or houses. Though classified as horror films, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant all had an undercurrent of dark humor running throughout--a sensibility shared by the Coen Brothers.

In Repulsion, the protagonist is (metaphorically) raped by her house. She isn't just sexually repressed--she's horrified of sex. Barton isn't as far along, but there are hints at this type of behavior. He shies away at Charlie's ribald salesman talk about his sexual exploits with his clients. He appears uncomfortable and disturbed when he witnesses or overhears any sexual acts. It takes a muse (Audrey) to unclog him--both as a writer and in sexual terms. I'm not ruling out that I'm reading too much into the sexual repression. It's probably best to say that it's alluded to, but is not a key theme.
The Big Picture
Kristian B  

The Tenant is another surreal story of a loner inhabiting an apartment. In this case, he's convinced that his neighbors are trying to change him into the previous tenant--a woman who committed suicide. His apartment is a menacing breathing thing, and his neighbors are scrofulous dissemblers who complain about the noise. In its tone, it resembles Barton Fink. We often laugh at our protagonist's discomfiture, and the ending is comparably bizarre.

Other similarities to Repulsion and The Tenant:

I think there's enough similarities to say that some of them are intentional homages. The Coens love to reference earlier movies--recall how the ending of Miller's Crossing evokes the last scene of The Third Man as a woman at a cemetery walks past a man who has killed someone she loved who had pretended to be dead.

All of these references, potential themes, and autobiographical connections add up to a film that resists a quick synopsis and digestion. Each time I watch Barton Fink it reveals more, and I enjoy it more. See it the first time to revel in its exuberant performances, dead-on Hollywood satire, and luscious cinematography. Then watch it again to soak in the finer and more obscure details.

Review © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1991 Circle Films, Inc. All rights reserved.