Barton Fink (1991): To Become the Common Man

Barton_Fink_(1991)

“Barton Fink,” was once an impressive film. I also have yet to see a bad Coen Brothers film so it may be that everything they make is gold since they put so much time into shooting a scene and exploring the mind and motivations of their characters while keeping an overwhelming theme of loneliness and isolation.

“Barton Fink” was directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The story involves Barton Fink, a playwright whose successful Broadway show Bare Ruined Choirs leads to some folks in Hollywood wanting him to write the script for a wrestling movie. Once he arrives he finds he has none of the support network he had in New York and that he is completely alone except for his neighbor Charlie, who isn’t all he appears. He soon finds things even more complicated as his writer’s block continues and he finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, from the shots of the broken down and later burning hotel, to any time you are seeing things from Barton’s point of view or you see his anxiety and isolation taking hold. The room is big but can be made to be confining, the hotel is beautiful but is made to bleak…that is the beauty of the cinematography of this film that the Coens and Roger Deakins pulled off.

The Music – The music is very minimalist, which serves the plot really well since it gives us time with the characters and creates tension when it needs too. There are some great piano pieces that I plan on listening to later for my own writing. Carter Burwell did great!

The Characters – Characters are usually the strongest part of most Coen Brothers Films, and this movie continues that.

Chet – Steve Buscemi makes a brief appearance at Chet the Bellhop who is miserable and unhappy. Every word he does is a passive aggressive jab and his character looks miserable. He is our first glimpse of how Hollywood spits people out and destroys the common man.

Audrey Taylor – Judie Davis plays the primary love interest for the writer W.P. Mayhew and Barton Fink. In the case of Mayhew she isn’t respected but it is only in it out of a savior complex and the fact that she built him and wrote most of his work. She is a wonderful and trapped character (like most of the folks in the film). We see her escape with Barton only for it to end in her death…Her death actually means something too since she is one of the few better people we meet.

Ben Geisler – Ben Geisler is the producer who is pretty driven and tends to see past most of the crap around him. He also doesn’t care about anyone truly outside of the films he produces. Tony Shalhoub is great in this role as he calls out Lipnick and the studios for how they don’t care and use everyone. He also advises Barton to get advice from another writer which drives the story forward.

The Detectives – The guys are completely Noir, I love their speech patterns as they insult Barton to give them information they can use to find where Charlie Meadows went since he is the serial killer who has been killing women (who fit Audrey’s description) and taking their heads. They are detached as everyone around Barton but are good in their roles as they aren’t completely antagonistic.

Charlie Meadows / Karl “Madman” Munt – Charlie Meadows is the every man and the muse who Barton denies for sometime. He is expressive about his work as a salesman and Goodman was perfect for the role as he’s so jovial and kind of Barton who is a nervous wreck most of the time. The Reveal that was he was the serial killer was powerful too as he admits he only let Barton live because Barton never listened (before he frees Barton from the beadpost he chained him too). He may have killed Barton’s family and Audrey’s head might be in the present he gave Barton before leaving. In that way we don’t know if he’s just mad or if he is in fact the killer, though most signs point to him being the killer given his shooting down of the detectives and everything he implies to Barton. He’s a pretty great character and antagonist. One of Goodman’s best roles.

Barton Fink – This is the best role I’ve seen John Turturro do, which makes me want to see him in more films. He was great in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” but I haven’t ever seen him as the lead character until this film. He is great at playing the nervous writer who fetishizes the common man (doesn’t listen to anyone share their story and will interrupt them to go off on the idealized common man and how noble his profession is) until he’s found he’s become one. For much of the film he isn’t able to connect to anyone except for Charlie, who used him to kill Audrey and he briefly connects with a woman at the end who may be the woman in the picture above his type writer making the illusion of connection around him complete. He is a character who is unable to stand up to himself even after his work is insulted by Lipnick and Capital Pictures, it’s really his stubbornness that keeps him there and fear, which illustrates how by the end he has become the common man trapped in a job he doesn’t want anymore being used by those around him.

The Themes – The themes in this movie are wonderful…the biggest is that of integrity and the connection to the common man. Barton Fink is seeking to tell the story of the common man but it is so involved in himself he’s unable to listen or empathize until he is chewed out and spit out by the studio in turn becoming the common man. He also finds that he was wrong in his idealization of the people as Charlie was really the serial killer Karl “Madman”‘ Munt who killed Audrey and countless other women before taking off their heads. The movie reveals the false faces of the common men like Charlie and also of the higher ups like Lipnick the leader of Capital Boss pictures who has been lying to Barton the entire time.

The Message – One of the core messages of the film is that Barton was right about writing and that Mayhew and making stuff up was wrong. Good writing comes from a place of suffering and pain and Barton is unable to finish his script until than. The world doesn’t want that though as represented by Lipnick who rejects it as “fruity,” and is shown to be as false as Mayhew and the films he desires. It’s a pretty great critique of Modern Hollywood now even as it’s far easier for million dollar schlock to be produced and green lighted (Emmerich and Michael Bay as examples) than for pictures that have character and a deeper meaning. It also shows that if you stay true you to you and the experience of your experiences that you can create something great, even if nobody recognizes it.

Okay/ The Cons: Lipnick – Lipnick is a two faced guy who tells people want they want to hear but in the end cares nothing about the integrity of art or the well being of his employees. In this way he is a great antagonist, but we have no idea why he is this way as his motivations are never truly explored. Not a con completely, but given how well most of the other characters are explored, I wish he’d been given more motivation.

W.P. Mayhew – The drunk writer who just writers for the sake of writing and putting out schlock because it pays the bills. The guy is miserable and slave for selling himself out and his integrity and he’s an abusive drunk to boot as he hits Audrey on one occassion we see. I get he is broken and apparently he’s married to a “Broken” wife which is why Audrey is trying to save him…but I never cared for the guy. The theme of detachment doesn’t serve his character, though I guess that’s the point since his great work didn’t come from any real place.

This is one of my favorite films, but not the perfect Coen Brothers Film. It has great themes, characters, music and cinematography…but some characters who are antagonistic aren’t as explored as they could have been. That’s really the only big problem I can find as the critique of films produced nowadays still stands, as well as the importance of integrity in art and the importance of empathy and connection. If you like the Coen Brothers or are looking for a good drama, I highly recommend this film. John Goodman and Turturro are fantastic as the leads and have some of the best moments in the film. It is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. One of my favorite films and another great Coen Brothers movie.

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