Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
The Coen brothers have produced an extensive series of extremely provocative films. That the works emit a jaundiced sense of predominant rationality would seem to be a given. Far less manageable is the specific point of contention, as presumably providing nuance to the mayhem and devastation that ensue. The jammed acceleration that plunges into various horrors of simplistic insistence broaches a dynamic with far more flexibility, if we can only locate the steering impulse. Their hastily assembled classic of malaise, namely, Barton Fink (1991) (having, therefore, an inception in the same vein as Wong Kar Wai’s breakaway from out of a former, unforthcoming project, namely, Chungking Express ), offers a particularly transparent sightline into that overdrive.
The titular protagonist leads off with a strain of self-confident perversity which, in itself, could be equivocal. His journey through the narrative confirms the bleakest of dead ends. Moreover, and most importantly for our special task of fathoming this starkly upsetting saga, he encounters someone decidedly transcending the peculiar lostness, and in such a way as to endow the film with a topspin of reflective struggle as against sensational outrage.
Right from the outset, Barton comes into our taking-on this live-ammo movie, in presiding, from the wings, over the opening of his medieval-titled play, “Bare Ruined Choirs.” At the curtain, the New York audience hails it as being worthy of approval from a boss-metropolis—“Author! Author!” We’ve had a few lines come our way, and they seem well-suited to the sombre, inquisitorial determination of their source. “Daylight is a dream if you live with your eyes closed. But my eyes are wide open now!” As he fleshes out for us, at a post-performance celebration, the wide-eyed idealism he would insist to be bedrock reality, he’s the toast of Broadway for wearing his heart on his sleeve apropos of attending to the gratifications of “working stiffs.” He has a well-rehearsed gambit for his agent (who’s in fact way ahead of him on the matter of how to progress on the basis of his suddenly being acclaimed by a niche market). “I’m not sure I know why I write… I guess I try to make a difference… I’m on the brink of success. Real success! The creation of a new theatre about and for the common man!” Shifting into high gear (while posing a savvy modesty), he intones, “A writer writes from his gut. My gut tells me it’s [the hit’s] merely adequate.”
His agent may be ideologically neutral and unenthusiastic toward reveries about gutsiness; but that very night he fulsomely sells the youngster on the idea of using his hot reviews to make a bundle—for the sake of a war chest to finance the promulgation of his lofty ideas, and for the sake of his agent’s coming into serious cash—as a screenwriter in Hollywood. That move reintroduces the factor of “daylight,” and promptly ups the ante on his gut—that presumptuous sensuality so dubious in light of Barton’s pronounced ascetic propensities. Before we pursue his California and cinematic career, and its hot-house developments, let’s roll the camera back on behalf of getting a bead on the drama’s cutting edge, namely, Barton’s desiccated presence and body language. Simultaneously bloodless and swarthy, he comes to us as a gangling Harold Lloyd—a fellow Sunshine State hack will call him a “buffoon”—(complete with round eyeglasses) emitting an adenoidal, saccharine vocalization of his nice-guy longings. On the other hand, there is his jet-black pompadour haircut the likes of which we haven’t seen since the murky daylight days of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and its perpetually body-averse, peevish protagonist, Henry, the cut-rate fatuity of whose appetites reflects upon Barton’s dodge of paving the way to a future where commonness can predominate with a vengeance.
We’re off to Hollywood, where Barton’s stuffiness takes on the proportions of a rapidly rotting cadaver. Reputed, for good reasons, to be a launch-pad for over-the-top egos and their festering resentments, it does occasionally bring to the fore a modicum of arresting grace, and the film seizes upon that singularity to activate a problematic payload. Consigned to write a screenplay for an entertainment about professional wrestling, the floundering neophyte fortuitously and edifyingly bumps into a fellow screenwriter, named, “William Mayhew,” but unmistakably and unabashedly modelled upon novelist and 1949 Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner, who, during the period depicted (1941), worked there on movies. This figure is especially noteworthy for two reasons, neither of which having to do with the infill segment of “Bill’s” being a disconcerting alcoholic. To Fink, meeting the fabled rhapsodist of tortured souls amounts to a religious experience that, however, soon provides grounds for heresy inasmuch as his hero will have nothing to do with effectively applying his gift for the sake of rescuing lesser beings, and in fact explicitly demonstrates a weakness for not only “social lubricant” but, especially, “building up a levee” against demons, which would seem to have considerably more kick than the prodigy’s frequently conjured silent-melodrama straw-men in the form of rich and callous wastrels who impede the self-satisfaction of stiffs. Arriving at the door of Bill’s film studio office to pick his brain on the intractable subject of movie scripts, Fink, in fact, judging from the ferocious, sexually-charged exclamations emanating from the other side of that door, has happened into a close encounter with Blue Velvet’s “Frank,” and his so-called (by Bill) “Honey,” “Dorothy” (here “Audrey”). That would have Barton doing a walk-on as “Jeffrey,” the callow college-boy on a brief lark (though with more resilient taste for the uncanny than there is to be found in the literary social worker). Audrey, the real prize in this grab bag, comes to the door and, in the course of apologizing for the great man’s lapse, declares, “Bill and I are in love… Please don’t judge us, Mr. Fink.” Hyper-judgmental resentment being the staff of life for our sophomoric soldier of fortune, that would be a role he could never handle, and, as such, a flashpoint for the film’s exploration. On his taking Harold Lloyd-like umbrage (“He’s a son-of-a-bitch!”) to Bill’s bashing her—“Breach my levee at your peril!”—Audrey tells Fink, “I feel so sorry for you… Empathy requires understanding.” And he shows his running on empty by blustering (like the stuffed-shirts in the dramas he favors), “What? What don’t I understand?”
While it’s a comparative slam-dunk rounding up an audience of Lefties back East to make gratifying noises about archaic observances, out in the precincts of the Lakers the shots get much tougher, as our small forward soon discovers. Not that movieland is about the painstaking “understanding” Audrey has broached. Film folk and cops alike revel in anti-Semitic infractions that constitute but a tidbit of the tide of well-honed vulgarity the population’s digestive systems crave. The sun-drenched environs of Los Angeles hold out a salubrious, hyper-physical inducement toward spectacular creature comforts carrying the price-tag of calculative frenzy on behalf of a lowest common denominator. Barton’s penchant for corn—no doubt the reason for his being put on the payroll and so lubriciously welcomed by studio-boss, “Lipnick”—would seem to be tapping into the lingua franca. But his is a strictly literary, Old School corn, unable to accommodate the sensuous upgrades of cinema. In his first interview with the Head Honcho, he admits to having seen very few movies. Lipnick, a master of seeing and limning (with his sharp mouth [truth to tell, much sharper than that of the new hireling]) a silver lining, and thereby tempering crudities to a surprising palatability, after an initial greeting—“Let me at him! Let me put my arms around this guy!”—assures him it’s all for the best, in the interests of imaginative energy and avoidance of any effete notions about filmmaking. “I got to the top with Showmanship! Plus, I’m bigger and meaner and louder than anyone else in town!…The writer is King…We all want it to have that Barton Fink feeling… Can you tell a story? (Mock embarrassment at his temerity) Look at me! A writer in the room, and I’m asking what the goddamn story’s about!…(Ushering him out) Thanks for your heart, Bart.” That lip-smacking articulative self-impressiveness resurfaces at Fink’s hotel, in the form of his next-door neighbor, “Charlie,” a burly “salesman” (Insurance—“I sell peace of mind”), who, on hearing that he’s a writer, contends, “My hat’s off to anyone able to make a go of that line of work” (the jist being writing is strictly a profit angle—the desk clerk, checking Barton in, sings out, “Welcome to Los Angle-ess”; and his new friend must be impoverished). But on hearing he’s “got it made” in movie work, he quips, with a twinkle in his eye, “Is the egg showing, or what?” Barton bristles slightly and wants Charlie to know, “I was pretty well established in New York.”/ “Geeze, I feel like a heel!” Having, then, to let Charlie know about his exciting crusade on behalf of “the average working stiff,” he treats his new friend (and us) to a variant of his populist sermon—“We all have stories… The hopes and dreams of the common man are as important as those of a king.” Funny, though, that when Charlie (as in, “You’re alright, Charlie” [being maudlin, like me]) chimes in, “I could tell you some stories,” Fink blows right past that opportunity, in order to display his ideological frappe—“There I go, on my high horse…But why shouldn’t we get up there?” Juxtaposing the bouncy hucksterism of Lipnick and Charlie with Fink’s flat earnestness speaks to the range of gut or heart or understanding by which this non-Hollywood war movie is galvanized.
That Charlie is a serial killer who intriguingly tolerates his little friend emitting an almost olfactory incompetence (teaching him about the ABC’s of wrestling, he issues a brief apology for roughing him up, and then chips in, “You’re out of your weight class. I’m pretty well endowed physically”), but butchers—and later beheads—Audrey, whom Fink had summoned to his room for help with the script as a deadline looms, speaks further to the difficulties of threading one’s way down this kind of court. Having been not only Bill’s Girl Friday (the hotel is the “Earle,” and the bellhop is a flaccid mole, named “Chet,” emerging from a trap door in a way reminding us of Earl’s occupying that roll-top desk) but having in fact written the last two of the novels he signed (Barton, on hearing of this, can only whimper—like Hildy’s Bruce—“The grand productive days!”) and most of his film scripts (Presumably her impersonations sidestepped the genius’ fondness for the bathetic song, “Old Black Joe.” She refers to the screenplay writing as “simple morality tales,” thereby implying a witty spin, made more definite by the remark, “Some of the scripts were so spirited!”), like Hildy (and Giuliana), Audrey is at a near-loss about men. She overwhelms Barton (the near-celibate) much as Charlie had, and when he comes to next morning she is a bloody mess, reminding us a bit of the prize thoroughbred in The Godfather. Her now-displaced guts had carried her to a modicum of wit; but this was to be a foreshortened run of three-pointers. She does, however, surpass the track record of another Los Angeles contrarian she brings to mind, namely, Kiss Me Deadly’s Christina, whose literary exploits had been confined to reciting the Embroidery Age poems of Christina Rossetti and whose stature as a troublemaker for avatars of cheap gains gets her rubbed out by an old-fashioned windbag, at her movie’s outset. Not, however, before tasking an entrepreneurial guy whose mission statement could read, “Trouble is my business,” namely, working-stiff-with-an-unsettling-difference, Mike Hammer, with the simple-enough-sounding favor, “Remember Me!” That would put good old garrulous (and positively rabid about that peace of mind promised by old-time ideology) Charlie into a remake of Kiss Me Deadly’s Soberin, and Barton (who, being the self-absorbed and self-impressed prig he is, air-balls the remembrance shot) some kind of bush-league version of Mike. That would also be the point of the denouement’s (Malibu beach house-like) flaming corridor, which includes Charlie/Soberin doing what he does so well, namely, slaughtering impediments to his grandiose gratification, in the form of a couple of pesky coppers. (That would also endow Lipnick with qualities of the noir’s sweetheart of a chum to Mike, namely, down-to-earth and expressively inspired, Nick.)
Charlie (a version of whom surfacing at the studio where Barton is given a [black and white] tutorial on wrestling movies, in the form of a burly, moustachioed hulk who does multiple takes of the suitably melodramatic line, “I will destroy him!”) has a conspicuous soul mate in resentment over how ‘rude” and “cruel” people can be on the question of the sanctity of low-key peace of mind. Accordingly, Barton occupies a sort of seedy deco monastery, virtually untouched by the daylight his play sounded so bullish about, where the mouldering walls resist decorative coverings, where cries and squeals slink into his cell and where his initial encounter of Pandora’s Box, his formerly-wrapped-for-travel typewriter, leaves him petrified for days and nights on end, on the verge of taking a plunge into rude film fare. Shuttling back and forth to the radiance of the studio and Lipnick’s poolside, increasingly haggard and humiliated, that frozen spring of popular—“There’s a few people in New York. Hopefully their numbers are growing…”—and populist platitudes displays not only a stunted approach to the often odious features of the public life where his hitherto beloved common man moves about with comparative ease, but a pervasive child-like sense of entitlement to mothering from out of a hitherto presumed to be dominant cultural safety net having effectively expunged those sensual problematics he now stands exposed to. Shedding many tears over his plight and pleading with a still presumed to be benignly common Charlie to help him dispose of Audrey’s incriminating body in his bed—the self-styled people guy, after wailing on the phone to her to rush to his side, having tottered to the door when she knocked, opening it and immediately turning and tottering away without giving her so much as a quick glance, and then muttering, “Audrey, thank you for coming…”; also having received copious solicitude and affection and ribaldry from her with all the attentiveness of a for-sure stiff John (the love-making heard from the bathroom and then from and down the drain)—Fink can’t squeeze so much as a drop of concern for her demise from that pace-setter heart of his and stridently repels the idea that he could be charged with the murder. “I didn’t do this! They gotta have mercy!” That recourse to a gratifying traditional arbiter of justness underlines the fatuousness of his former pompous boast to Charlie, “We’re all alone…My job is to plumb depths…The life of the mind…There’s no roadmap for that territory… Exploring it can be painful, a pain most people know nothing about.” (Charlie had readily dovetailed that adolescent poo, “You’re no stranger to loneliness…”) The night she was murdered for the sake of keeping painful depths at bay, Audrey had touched upon painstaking discernment in face of Fink’s common-sense condemnations of her far from perfect lover. “Don’t judge him, Barton. Don’t condescend to him. I help Bill mostly by understanding and appreciating him. We all need understanding. It’s all we really need.” This would be, among other things, her non-self-congratulatory indication of being alone, due to depths. Finding smallish and fractured affinities in earthy delights was the only play in the hand she was dealt. The only social play. But there were solo moves aplenty. Look at Kobe.
Barton, on learning, from a couple of contemptuous detectives (“You’re a sick fuck, Fink…I guess this dump’s not restricted…”) who were poking around the Earle, the simple facts about Charlie—a not so simple fact that Fink himself recalls during the interrogation being, “He liked Jackie Oakie pictures (more later)—gets into familiar outrage mode (its geezer concomitant having gotten into stride with the rigmarole about tidying up his nest), comes to his desk, checks out, mouth typically agape, the picture above it showing a girl in a bathing suit looking out to the sea (more later), checks out the Gideon Bible in the drawer, reads, “I recall not my dream…It will cut them to pieces…,” imagines his script leading off the Old Testament, bangs out a scenario of a working stiff (a wrestler) and his bittersweet life (in fact a remake of his play, ending with what he seems to consider the stirring flourish—“We’ll be hearing from that crazy wrestler [a fishmonger in the play] and I don’t mean by a postcard!”), calls his agent (“I think it’s really big [Mike having pursued “Something big”]…It’s the most important thing I’ve done!”) who isn’t impressed [more outrage], holds a celebration for himself at a big dance party for troops going off to war—He comes to a friction point with one of those common men, addressing him, “I’m a writer, you monkey…I’m a writer celebrating the completion of something good…This is my uniform!”—shows his not-so-secret weapon to Lipnick, who demurs, with Southwestern zing—“The audience wants to see action! Not some jerk wrestling with his soul!…Not fruity movies about suffering!—and sentences him to do hard time locked into his contract and confronted with a rehab regime clearly not for (prematurely) old men—“We won’t produce your work until you grow up!”/ “I tried to show something beautiful…”/ “You aren’t a writer. You’re a goddamned write-off! You think the whole world’s revolving in that head of yours? You think I care whatever rattles inside that little kike head of yours?” Lipnick has found in Wardrobe a heavily-decorated Colonel’s uniform, and he shows considerable post-Pearl Harbor commitment to violence toward “those yellow little Japs.”
This war-readiness that gorges on violence at the expense of true impact has been memorably keynoted by Charlie’s return to the Earle, after dealing with a spate of trouble at the Head Office in New York. It interposes at the point where Barton gives himself a tribute party while the cops read his manuscript and, with his coming home, post no more flattering reviews than those delivered by the Colonel. Not content with that, they handcuff him to the bedpost (now convinced he’s become a copy-cat killer, modelled on his friend and neighbor), and go out to the corridor to confront the crime wave, signalled in advance by a marked rise in temperature. By the time he steps out of the elevator, it’s déjà-vu all over again, flames licking the walls as they did after Lily opened the nuclear package. He’s got a satchel in his hand, making him appear to be some kind of exorcist, and he’s got patter on his tongue to take a stab at Soberin’s fluency with ancient myths about wrong turns. Ordered to put down the bag, he does so, quickly assembles a shotgun from within and charges toward them, belting out the war cry, “We’ll show you the life of the mind!” He nails one speed bump right away. As he closes in on the second and blows his head off at point-blank range, he goes on to elaborate, “Heil Hitler!” With the place still seriously compromised, Charlie, aka, “Mad Man Mundt,” brushes aside Barton’s umbrage about being deceived, hastily postulates that his aggressiveness is a form of mercy killing—“They put you through hell, Barton. So I just help people out…”—frees him from his (minor) shackles by a self-parody of Samson (dislodging the bed posts), and levels with him (from out of a life of the mind more conversant with the body), “You don’t listen!… You think you know pain… You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. Don’t you know that?”
Very unlike warrior Mike, Fink arthritically wobbles from the flaming Earle, carrying the box Charlie had left with him (in fact containing Audrey’s head—not quite the dashing, glamorous and gloriously doomed embrace of Velda), first saying it contained matters of importance to him, and then latterly admitting he’d lied about that. Barton winds up, in his ubiquitous brown suit and oxfords, at a scintillating beach and seashore. He plops himself onto the sand and beholds a pretty, young woman in a bathing suit, strolling gracefully along the water’s edge. “It’s a beautiful day,” she says. / “Yes, it is.”/ “What’s in the box?”/ “I don’t know.”/ “Isn’t it yours?”/ “I don’t know… You’re very beautiful. Are you in pictures?”/ “Don’t be silly.” She sits down and strikes exactly the pose shown in the picture that hung over his desk and silently spoke to him on many occasions, to no avail. At the end of La Dolce Vita, Marcello, a deflated entertainment insider, encounters on a beach a lovely young girl who once spoke to him to no avail and now speaks once again to no avail. The year after Barton Fink was released, David Lynch released Fire Walk with Me, wherein a young girl shows considerably more spunk than Barton in dealing with a haunting picture on her wall. There, too, Lynch himself did an impersonation of Jackie Oakie. Barton Fink was acclaimed at the Cannes Festival. Fire Walk with Me was booed. But even Kobe gets booed.