And I Could Tell You Some Stories
Even if you’ve never particularly been won over by Coen Brothers movies, you can’t accuse them of ever talking down to their audience. Even the lighthearted comedies like Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy are quick-witted and lively, uncomplicated without being dumb. Often their films end ambiguously, without spelling everything out for the viewer and tying it all up. They expect you to be able to keep up with what’s happening, and if you can’t, well, they’re awfully sorry but that’s your problem.
Their fourth feature, 1991’s Barton Fink, seems to be daring the audience to figure it out. A person saying Barton Fink is their favorite Coen Brothers movie is like a person naming David Foster Wallace as their favorite author – they might be telling the truth, but there’s also a good chance that they might just be telling you that so you’ll think they’re really smart. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie – it’s a great movie – but good luck trying to explain, in layman’s terms, what exactly it’s about. For what was essentially an exercise to work through a plot development issue during the creation of Miller’s Crossing, it’s dense and perplexing, a dry comedy about show business that also features a serial killer who shotguns two cops to death and gives the protagonist a box that might contain a human head. Or it might not, we never find out. The box might just be a third act MacGuffin, and part of the film’s thick, impenetrable layer of symbolism and double meanings. If Blood Simple was like looking at the inner workings of a finely made watch, Barton Fink is like looking at the same watch, but it’s running backwards. And the numbers have been replaced with runes. And you haven’t slept in three days.
The titular character, played by John Turturro, is a hard sell as a sympathetic protagonist. Pompous, humorless, and condescending, he’s a writer who loftily claims that he’s only interested in creating stories about “the common man,” yet doesn’t seem to know the first thing about him except that he’s poor and ignorant. Based on the strength of one play, Barton is offered a screenwriting contract with Capitol Pictures, where “the writer is king” according to its president, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), but is assigned to write a B-grade wrestling picture. Lipnick gives him no instruction or direction other than to not make it “fruity,” and, unfamiliar with the concept of writing on demand, Barton is immediately struck with an acute case of writer’s block, unable to get past the first paragraph in his script.
It doesn’t help that the studio has put him up at the Earle, a decaying hotel in which the only employees are a bellman who emerges from a trapdoor, and an elevator attendant who appears to be slowly dying. Though a hotel room would seem to be an ideal place for a writer to get some work done, Barton’s only provides one distraction after another. He can constantly hear the other hotel guests, though he never sees them, and the only evidence that they exist at all are the dozens of pairs of shoes lining the impossibly long hallway outside. He’s tormented by a relentless mosquito, even though he’s told that mosquitoes aren’t normally found in Los Angeles. The wallpaper sags and peels, oozing a viscous fluid, as if the walls are covered in diseased flesh. It’s not all that surprising that Barton can’t write under those conditions, but no one at Capitol wants to hear that, and he’s told that he needs to have at least a treatment done within a week.
While looking for some creative advice, he spends time with W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), who’s also on contract with Capitol. A once-celebrated, Faulkner-like novelist, Mayhew is now a raving drunk who can’t finish a script without extensive “editorial” input from his secretary/lover, Audrey (Judy Davis), with whom Barton is immediately smitten. Barton is outraged that Mayhew needs a ghostwriter, even after he all but asks Audrey to do the same thing for him. Light years away from Mayhew is Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the only other resident of the Earle that Barton ever sees. A talkative, jovial insurance salesman, he’s untroubled by such deeper intellectual issues as writer’s block and creative freedom—or at least, that’s what Barton assumes. He’s his “common man” made flesh, someone Barton can admire, while still looking down on at the same time.
Though it’s obvious that Barton’s not really listening to anything Charlie says, he’s also the closest thing Barton has to a friend in Hollywood. He also has Audrey, to a certain extent, until, after spending the night together, he wakes to find her brutally murdered in his bed. Then things go deliriously off the rails.
So, the obvious question – to me, at least – is, is Barton in Hell, after (albeit reluctantly) selling his soul to Capitol Pictures? Well, maybe, and maybe Charlie is the Devil. It would explain why it’s always hot when he’s around. Barton being locked into the contract with Capitol at the end of the movie, churning out scripts that will never get filmed, is a sort of Purgatory, perhaps the most appropriate one for a self-important windbag “auteur.” It might be about that, or it might be a simpler theme, such as the lack of respect writers are afforded in Hollywood, where its perceived that screenplays are just shat out like that afternoon’s lunch. Or it might be poking a hole in the concept of intellectually suffering for one’s art. Barton believes that writing should come from a place of deep internal pain, and that anything else is creatively bankrupt. When Mayhew admits that writing for him is just “making things up,” Barton is nothing short of appalled. Of course, if he understood that not every word he writes needs to be profound and significant, his life would be immeasurably easier.
Or, it could be about the rise of fascism—note that the two cops who are inexplicably hostile towards Barton have very Italian and German names. Or it could be about slavery. Maybe Charlie isn’t real at all. The girl in the picture almost certainly isn’t, but where is she in relation to Barton’s inner world, and what does she represent for him? What is the significance of Charlie’s chronic ear infections? How many wrestling pictures does one studio need to make, anyway?
Virtually every frame of the film seems to contain some sort of symbolism or allegory, and best of luck trying to get the Coens to cop to what any of it really means. In the nearly thirty years since Barton Fink’s release, they’ve greeted virtually every theory about the meanings behind it with either bemused denial or an shrugging “sure, if you want to think that.” Any explanation is correct, and none of them are, but it’s unlikely that the film was written without any sort of real greater theme in mind. They’ve left it to the audience to take away whatever they want from it, and to project their own neuroses and lives of the mind onto it. It’s not for them to do it for you. After all, at the end of the day, it’s only words.