Barton Fink may be a hodgepodge of genres – a satire on Hollywood, a meditation on the creative process, a noir film, a horror film – but it is undeniably a Coen Brothers film. And quite probably, with apologies to the legions of Big Lebowski fans out there, one of their best.
Barton Fink screens this evening as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival’s “From The Vaults” series.
Flush with the success of his first Broadway play, New Yorker Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to Hollywood with the promise of writing for the movies. However, his first assignment is a wrestling picture to star Wallace Beery, a far cry he feels from his desire to write about the experience of the “common man.” Living in a rather run down hotel, Barton meets traveling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, played by John Goodman, who uses and then subverts his usual genial screen persona here. Struck with some writers block, Barton approaches his producer (Tony Shaloub) for advice, who tells him to talk to another writer. That writer turns out to be William Preston Mayhew (John Mahoney), a novelist who was lured to Hollywood years earlier but who has been reduced to alcoholism and can barely write anymore. But as Barton descends deeper into Hollywood he finds himself becoming more repulsed and detached from his muse.
A critical success that stumbled at the box office, Barton Fink remains one of the Coen Brothers more dense films with explorations of the creative process and the dangers of hubris getting in the way of creativity’s true intent. There are allusions that span from Shakespeare to Hitchcock, from Keats to Goethe to Kafka. There’s the irony of Barton Fink declaring that he wants to create “a new, living theater, of and about and for the common man,” and not realizing that motion pictures are exactly that. And of course, there’s the metatextual element that the screenplay was written by the Coens during a three week break from work on the script for Miller’s Crossing.
Students of Hollywood’s Golden Age while find much that is familiar here. In the 30s, studios looked to Broadway for critically acclaimed writers only to assign them to B pictures. Barton Fink has an earnestness that is modeled off of Clifford Odets while the alcoholic Mayhew is inspired by William Faulkner. Michael Lerner’s studio chief Jack Lipnick is definitely a comedic amalgam of the big three studio chiefs of Hollywood’s Golden Era – Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack Warner. But for all its literacy, the film never forgets to engage us in its characters. We feel Barton’s almost confused detachment from the California lifestyle he finds himself immersed in.
Like an onion, Barton Fink has numerous layers and the more you peel away, the more you discover. It is a film that I return to every now and then and almost invariably walk away thinking about something new that I discovered in it.