Movies, like dreams, are the life of the mind, and Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991) is one of the most mysterious, paradoxical minds of all. The story— a bizarre mix of classical filmmaking and abstract surrealism— is about a critically acclaimed playwright turned screenwriter who is battling expectations and writer’s block while the pressure from a major Hollywood studio mounts, as does the temperature outside. “We’re all expecting great things from you,” the executive cryptically says. But just like good screenwriting, Barton Fink is more about what it doesn’t show, than what it shows. It’s what’s on the other side of the peeling wallpaper. It’s what’s outside the frame. It’s what’s inside the box. It’s what’s inside the head. Hell, it’s what dreams are made of! This dream just happens to be more of a strange nightmare, the lingering unsettling kind that you can’t quite shake after you wake up.
Dreaming aside, Barton Fink is an exquisitely made movie that boasts an all-star cast, all providing superlative performances. The most noteworthy of which is Michael Lerner’s, whose portrayal of an alpha, silver-tongued movie executive is both outrageously hilarious and frightening at the same time. The cinematography offered by Roger Deakins is crisp with a golden glow (speaking to the “Golden Age of Cinema”), and contains all of the playful camera movement typically found in a Coen Brother’s picture. The art direction is apt, especially in terms of the creepy, dust-layered, seemingly secluded Hotel Earle that acts as another character unto itself. And in addition to all of these well-executed elements, is a baffling screenplay that makes you think you know what’s going to come next, but then suddenly goes in a completely different direction. It is ripe with visual rhymes and echoing motifs, consisting of an uncountable number of references to boxes and heads, including the Eraserhead-like hairstyle of Barton, the mysterious picture frame that constantly prods us to look deeper, as well as the ominous package left behind by John Goodman’s character. By end, all of this poetry and perplexing depth almost makes you want to pull off your own head (pun intended).
But there is yet another thing this movie does— and perhaps this deals more with its commentary on Hollywood— and that is it creates a paradoxical tension between the creator and the subject. Between Hollywood and the Audience. This duality is exemplified in the relationship between John Turturro’s Barton Fink and John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows. On one hand, Barton’s passionate appeal to making more stories about the “common-man” comes off as arrogant, judgmental, and condescending. Though his intentions may be well placed, they are misguided. “You think you know pain, but you’re just a tourist with a typewriter.” This seems to suggest that the insular Hollywood is clueless, and is thusly misreading and misrepresenting its audience completely. Or as Charlie clarifies: “You don’t listen!” With this, the Coen’s are either saying that the audience is stupid, and that they desire only formulistic, easy to understand movies; or that Hollywood doesn’t give the audience enough credit for being smarter, and therefore should provide more thought-provoking material. Whether that’s what the “common-man” actually wants or not, I can’t say.
And as I write this, I realize Barton Fink, the movie, would be laughing at me right now. Laughing at me for writing this. Laughing at me for reading so much into it, and trying so desperately to interpret the various meanings. I admit this; I say this, because the movie explicitly tells me so. It’s written in text, in the Bible, so it’s clearly important. I even paused the movie to be able to write this text down:
“And the king, Nebuchandnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”
My initial reaction to this strange text is that it is absurd and ironically reflects the absurdity of an eager viewer like me trying to desperately interpret this movie. It’s like trying to recall and interpret someone else’s dream for them, simply by dissecting the way they are eating their salad at lunch. It’s absurd. But this text also self-reflexively comments on writing in general, and in particular, writer’s block. That is, writing isn’t the physical act of typing words into a typewriter, or even seeing words on a page. Writing happens before that. It happens in the mind. It is the intangible challenge of recalling an unknown distant dream, making known that dream unto yourself, and then interpreting it in a way that appeals to all, even the “common-man.” To be unable to recall this dream, however close to the tip of the tongue it may be, is to be stuck as a writer. It’s to be me at the end of this movie.
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