Blog Directory CineVerse: Lost in your own mind, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Barton Fink...

Lost in your own mind, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Barton Fink...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

If you're searching for a head scratcher of a movie, few are as perplexing and ambiguous as the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink." Yet, collectively, our CineVerse group was able to piece together the broken shards of one writer's sanity and come up with a few theories and insights that better explain this deep, dark, enriching picture.

·       It’s not easy to categorize: it contains elements from many genres, including comedy, horror, film noir, drama, buddy picture, and mystery.
·       It’s quite ambiguous and unresolved, particularly the ending, which is not clear cut. It’s possible that much of what we see in the second half of the picture is imagined, surreal and/or represented in Fink’s mind.
·       The film is very postmodern, in that it “renders the past with an impressionist technique, not a precise accuracy,” according to author Keith Booker. This is evidenced by how evocative the film is of movies from the 1930s and 1940s in its look, style and satirical elements.
·       There is no typical romance, lovemaking scene, epiphany, character or plot resolution, or clear-cut moral or message to be enjoyed here; this is a complex movie with sophisticated themes and an unreliable protagonist leading the way—unreliable in the sense that we cannot be sure that what we think he’s seeing and experiencing is real.
·       It’s quite self-referential in that it’s a story written by two brothers who, while suffering writer’s block while writing the story to their film Miller’s Crossing, create a story about a playwright suffering writer’s block while writing a screenplay for a wrestling picture.
·       The movie features caricatures and allusions to real-life figures like playwright Clifford Odets (Fink), William Faulkner (Mayhew) and Louis B. Mayer (the studio head).

·       High art vs. low art: Bart fashions himself as a highbrow intellectual writer who has to compromise and diminish his ideals to write for mass entertainment (a wrestling movie).
·       The rise of fascism: Roger Ebert posited that the film is emblematic 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.” Consider how Charlie says “Heil Hitler,” and how the two gumshoes have German names.
·       Slavery: there are songs and lyrics used in the film (“Old Black Joe”) that suggest that writers like Fink and Mayhew are enslaved by the film studios.
·       Sharp contrasts: consider the difference between the polished palaces of Hollywood and Fink’s hotel room, the low art of the wrestling movie vs. the high art of Fink’s stage plays, Broadway vs. Hollywood, the obvious differences between Fink and Charlie, the tempestuous waves of the water compared to the blazing hot fires of the hotel, how Charlie says he wants to create a theater for the common man yet doesn’t listen to the common man next door to him (Charlie), etc.
·       The torturous life of the mind.
·       Isolation and alienation.

·       It could represent Fink’s deteriorating state of mind, as exemplified by the peeling wallpaper, strange noises, odd happenings (e.g., murder, mosquitoes), and massive fire.
·       It could stand for Charlie’s state of mind and physical and mental condition: the yellowish/greenish colors and oozing wallpaper glue could represent Charlie’s postulating earache, and the peeling wallpaper his descent into madness/serial killing.
·       It could be a symbol of hell: consider how the elevator and the clerk “rise from the depths,” the repeat of the number 6, the inferno at the end (and how, possibly, Fink made a deal with the devil earlier in the form of the studio boss).

·       It’s possible that much of the movie is purely imagined in Fink’s mind. Consider the evidence: would he actually see the first words of his screenplay printed in the Bible? Would the hotel only be occupied by two visitors? And would the hotel spontaneously combust into flames when Charlie walks down the hall? These images are implausible, which should cause you to question the authenticity of what you’re viewing and, therefore, deduce that many of the events Barton experiences are imagined.
·       Perhaps this is the story of a successful Broadway playwright who has “signed a deal with the devil” (studio boss Lipnick) to be a contract screenwriter in Hollywood and sold his soul (meaning his creative integrity and artistic freedom) in exchange for the chance to be wealthy, famous and respected.
·       Perhaps in reality Fink actually did meet Lipnick, Mayhew, Audrey and even a “common man” shlub like Charlie, and assume that Fink truly is staying in a dumpy hotel.
·       But imagine that writer’s block, creative frustration and loneliness/isolation have mentally unhinged Fink. He begins to envision fantastic scenarios involving the aforementioned people he has met in Hollywood, and these characters take on different roles in his imagination.
·       Thus, what if Audrey represents a source of inspiration and/or an angel on his shoulder, while Charlie is an opposite, self-destructive force—a devil on his shoulder who kills his source of inspiration. Lipnick serves as the Satan from whom Fink cannot escape his own personal hell and indentured servitude as a contract writer. And the two detectives collectively symbolize Fink’s conscience, which has caught up with Fink after he has allowed Charlie to kill his muse (Audrey) and after Fink has stolen/borrowed her ideas (Audrey’s severed head in the box), just as Fink has stolen/borrowed from The Bible.
·       In this reading of the film, “wrestling” is a euphemism for sex and intimacy, something Fink has no experience with and the reason why he is suffering from a creative block when assigned to this project. His intimacy with Audrey (assuming it happened in reality) unblocks him, allowing him to write the screenplay, even though that script is not what Lipnick (or the public) wants.
·       Just as Fink doesn’t want the wrestling plot to be crude and common (possibly contrary and hypocritical to his wish to write about “the common man”), he also doesn’t want his intimacy to be purely physical, crude and mundane.
·       Ultimately, my interpretation is that this film illustrates the challenge of being a writer, artist or creative person—that these people are often taken advantage of, overlooked, underappreciated, and treated like a commodity, especially in Hollywood. Among the challenges of being creative is finding a muse or source of inspiration (fresh, original, good ideas), fighting writer’s block, and coping with loneliness, isolation and alienation. Faced with these challenges, some artists crumble and/or go a little crazy while others find a way to deliver what can be their best work in crunch time. Yet, ironically, though they may be proud of their finished product, it can actually be derivative of their earlier works or those of another artist (expressing the idea that it’s incredibly hard and painful to have an original thought) and, even worse, it may not be marketable to and appreciated by the masses.

·       The strange image of the girl on the beach perfectly mirroring the one in the picture frame could be a statement that life imitates art, as opposed to art imitating life, for Barton Fink.
·       The bathing beauty image is a piece of “mass produced low art, probably hanging in every room at the Hotel Earle. Barton’s increasing obsession runs at a parallel with his attempts to lower his own art for the Wallace Beery audience. The ocean is a white noise---representing the sound of writer’s block,” suggested writer Stuart W. Bedford.
·       Perhaps Fink has been driven insane by the realization that he cannot achieve his own dreams and ideals and that he has betrayed his talent for low-brow art.

·       North by Northwest and other Hitchcock movies
·       Films by Roman Polanski, including Repulsion, The Tenant  and Cul-de-Sac
·       The Shining
·       Day of the Locust
·       Sullivan’s Travels
·       The Godfather (and the horse head in the bed scene)

·       Blood Simple
·       Raising Arizona
·       Miller’s Crossing
·       Fargo
·       The Big Lebowski
·       O Brother Where Art Thou
·       No Country for Old Men

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP