“Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind. Ahhhhh!”
After his Coen debut in “Miller’s Crossing” where he had a key monologue out in the woods where mob men execute their victims, John Turturro was ready for leading man status as Barton Fink. Of course, this doesn’t mean a trip to the A-list but certainly a headliner of one of the most independent films the Coen brothers would be involved with (and that is saying something) and also, one of their more “out there” movies.
“Barton Fink” feels personal to Joel and Ethan Coen. Fink is a Hollywood screenwriter who, of course, is fighting for his vision on his scripts. The system of Hollywood, i.e. the men behind desks, are trying to corrupt him. The towering film critic Roger Ebert had thoughts on the Coen’s including this consistent theme in their work: “If there is a favorite image in the movies by the Coen brothers, it’s of crass, venal men behind desks, who possess power the heroes envy. Maybe that’s because, like all filmmakers, the Coens have spent a lot of time on the carpet, pitching projects to executives. In ‘Blood Simple,’ the guy behind the desk was M. Emmet Walsh, as a scheming private detective. In ‘Raising Arizona,’ it was Trey Wilson’s furniture czar. In ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ it was Albert Finney, as a mob boss. In ‘Barton Fink,’ it is Michael Lerner, as the head of a Hollywood studio. All of these men are vulgar, smoke cigars, and view their supplicants with contempt.”
The proceedings start in New York City where Fink is a renowned intellectual playwright. He is tempted to go to Hollywood and told by his agent that he could make $1,000 dollars a week or maybe $2,000 a week to write a wrestling picture. Big money in 1941. Fink has an existential struggle. His ideals are wanting to create theater for the common man but in the end, the money and prestige win out in his soul. Moving to Hollywood and staying in an eerie hotel, Fink meets Jack Lipnik (Lerner) of Capitol Pictures who encourages Fink to begin writing his wrestling picture screenplay on a typewriter in his hotel room.
That’s when things really start, er, happening. As one watches, they will begin to wonder how much of “Barton Fink” is actually taking place in real time or how much is simply the tortured writer’s mind. After all, that is the entire point of this film and why this is so personal to the Coen brothers who are writer’s themselves and have mostly tried to buck the Hollywood system (with a few exceptions) in their career.
John Goodman is also staying at the hotel and portrays an insurance salesmen named Charlie Meadows. He has long and strange conversations with Fink including about the life of the mind. Toward the end, when the hotel is on fire and Goodman is running down the hall with a shotgun screaming, “Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind” we still wonder how much of this is supposed to be in literal reality.
One of the compelling things about this film is a picture that hangs above the desk where Fink’s typewriter sits in his hotel room. It is a picture of a woman sitting on the beach with waves crashing in front of her. Carefree and leaning back with her right hand shielding her eyes from the sun, she glances out to see. At times throughout the film, Fink hears the sounds of waves crashing. This will all be important to the overall theme once you arrive at the end. Speaking of which, I have now seen this movie twice in my life (the first time with my friend’s Mike Mason and Franklin Choate back in college). Both times I have laughed out loud at the very last shot before the credits roll. You will too. The ending is quintessentially Coen.
This is may not be the Coen’s very best work but that does not mean that the movie is not good or interesting to watch. If anything, it serves as a window into what the Coen’s themselves think of Hollywood (hint: not too highly).
Lester Lauding Level: 3/5
Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)