Barton Fink

Not sure what to think, of Barton Fink.

This is a Coen brothers film, which means it defies genre boundaries and is an all-around strange beast (this is a good thing). The film features the trials of a feted playwright, Barton Fink, as he struggles with an acute case of writer’s block while attempting to come up with a script for his Hollywood paymasters, to which he has reluctantly agreed to work for at the urgings of his agent. The story that often accompanies discussion of this film is that the Coen Brothers came up with the premise of a movie after having themselves been stuck in a protracted writers’ block, but that is probably itself an exaggeration of the real state of affairs.

Barton Fink is an interesting, multi-layered film, dense and ambiguous in that characteristic Coen brothers fashion, with a narrative that features an extreme tonal and mood whiplash at the halfway point of the film. This film is in parts a kind of comedy of errors and a buddy film, infused in parts with body horror and more subtle horror of The Shining variety. But it is also somewhat self-referential in the way it deals with the idea of creative writing. Barton Fink is a story about a writer’s block that arises out of the tension between two different traditions of writing – the high culture works of the theatre, in which Fink specializes, and the low culture products of the Hollywood assembly line.

Fink’s writer’s block arises out of the inherent contradictions in his literary aspirations to write works in the high culture tradition that appeal to the Common Man, an ambition that he frequently expresses in the film. Tasked to write the screenplay for a film about wrestlers, he is bereft of ideas, and is unable to summon a compelling script, unwilling to resort to the use of tried and tested Hollywood formulae. He is unable to write because he wants to write a work of high culture in a low culture format, to appeal to the low culture masses. Indeed, when Barton finally punches out the script in a period of clarity following his lover Audrey’s brutal murder (the source of so-called whiplash), he does so from a position of intense inner pain. Only when he is at his nadir can he draw upon a fount of inspiration to create what he considers his masterwork. But his pretensions are utterly destroyed when Lipnick, the ostentatious windbag Hollywood executive who hires him, hates the script, calling it “a fruity movie about suffering”. Lipnick is the typical Hollywood hack, more interested in the reputational appeal of having an auteur pen a script for his studio, than to have the script actually be something an auteur would be expected to write.

This represents a kind of gulf between the expectations of high and low culture – Hollywood doesn’t want “fruity films about suffering”, it wants sellable low culture products at the end of the day, notwithstanding its pretensions to the contrary. Barton doesn’t understand this – he thinks he has written a work for the Common Man – but really, the work is for high-culture folks like him to apprehend the suffering of the common man from their high perches – the work itself is not meant for the Common Man, despite being written with him in mind. That is Barton’s critical flaw.

It is a depressing conclusion, for sure – Barton has created a masterwork in his own reckoning, but he has written it for an empty audience. He has written a Hollywood film in the high-culture tradition, meaning that no one will watch it. In it is the deconstruction of the assumption that Barton can create the theater for the common man, who, after all, has tastes to which high culture individuals do not apprehend. It is perhaps an almost vindictive lesson visited upon him by his seemingly cheerful neighbor, insurance salesman Charlie, who is later revealed to be a serial killer. Charlie is presented initially as part of the pool of the Common Man, one who listens to Barton’s grandiose proclamations on creating a living theater and who helps him along the way. But Charlie is actually playing a very long game – he turns Barton’s life into a living hell, a literal inferno, clearing the path for him to achieve the clarity that accompanies being at the nadir of one’s emotional state, in order to write his magnum opus. But in the end the lesson is doubly harsh, for Barton has been barking up the wrong tree all this time, writing a masterpiece for an audience who is utterly indifferent to the works of high culture. That is the infernal lesson of Hollywood, a place where pretensions, both deserved and not, go to die in the commercial meatgrinder that is the focus group test.

There is much more to Barton Fink, but the above is my main substantive lesson from the film, and I won’t go into an extended treatise on the film’s other aspects. I wonder, though, what the actual message is. What is the normative stance we should take with respect to who is right – the high culture snob or the low culture pablum? Shall never the twain meet? Is it as simple as being a commentary on Hollywood’s lack of patronage of true art and single-minded pursuit of profit? The film doesn’t give answers, but that’s okay. It suffices that it makes us ask the pertinent questions.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 mosquitoes

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