Barton Fink (1991)

The Coen Brothers direct John Turturro, John Goodman and Judy Davis in this period comedy horror mystery about a playwright who sells his soul to Hollywood and promptly gets writer’s block.

This. I don’t know what this is. I’ve watched it pretty much every decade of my life and never fully fathomed it. The closest I’ve gotten to a connection is a scene in an early series of The Simpsons were Milhouse is excited about being taken to see an R rated movie. As the car drives off he and his friends excitedly chant “BARTON FINK! BARTON FINK! BARTON FINK!” It has female flesh, violence and swears. Just not how you want ‘em. Not how Milhouse wants ‘em.

Fink a betrayer. Think – the name of the man, a creative man, an imaginative voice without a creative idea. Ink… he’s struggling to put ink on the page. Turturro’s miserable Barton, wrestling to write a B picture after setting the New York literati alight. A scrawny, needy, unloveable performance. The Coens usually deal in dolts… this guy is too smart. Too smart to do anything but repeat past glories. Does he have anything to say? Norville Barnes has his hula hoop, The Dude can really tie a mystery together. The brains though, the thinkers… he’s like a Tom Regan or a Ulysses Everett McGill – they thought they were wise, they look wise, everyone treats them as wise… until they aren’t and they lose it all. Fink though, he just ain’t for nothing but getting slapped about. Maybe he’s most like a Jerry Lundegaard or a Larry Gopnik – pitiful, his life out of control, mediocrity that got too comfortable being the medium fish in a tiny pond.

Goodman’s Charlie “Karl “Madman” Mundt” Meadows though. He could be anyone. The everyman that Fink wants to be the voice of but can’t be bothered to listen to. When he tries to type he hears jovial Charlie wailing through the walls, when he needs distraction he talks about himself to the verbose man. “And I could tell you some stories…” Maybe if Barton listened he would be lost in a quicksand of sex, alcoholism, murder and writer’s block. But maybe he shouldn’t have sold his soul. Yet Goodman’s everyman remains charismatic even when you think he is hell on legs. Hell, the devil, the Hotel Earle. He-ell. On fire.

All the details are present and correct. Roger Deakins brown palette cinematography. Dennis Gassner, the art director, who builds period worlds. He has time travelled us to whatever decade the Coens or Sam Mendes might have a yen to take us. Strange to think he started out on The Hitcher and Earth Girls Are Easy.

Why do the walls drip jizzy goo? Why is the girl in the picture so distractingly beautiful? What is in that box? What has Chet done to deserve his endless shoe polishing pit? Who killed [REDACTED]? Is it about slavery or the holocaust or Clifford Odetts? Art versus commerce? Some of the answers are so obvious yet the Coens never bother to answer them. It is like a sudoku with all the numbers filled in but still ain’t solved. A crossword in a dead language. A blank page with a deadline and writer who only ever had one tale to tell. I don’t care what it is about. Barton Fink is an esoteric exercise, made as pastiche but without a definitive thought in its head. The word “head” was said 60 times in the original script. The studio owns the contents of Barton’s head. The head runs the studio. The Coens first major studio script hit an empasse. They wrote this easily in a self imposed break to freshen their thoughts. Head. This is exactly where their heads where when writing a tangled gangster pic.


Perfect Double Bill: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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