[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WK0WjWlVO9w[/youtube]My first screenwriting instructor told our class not to write movies about writers, because their work, unlike the activities of cops and criminals, does not contain the dramatic action that movies require. Maybe he was right, at least as far as popular appeal. “Barton Fink,” written by Ethan and Joel Coen and directed by Joel, only grossed $6 million domestically at the box office. On the other hand, it won the Palme D’Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the awards for Best Director and Best Actor (John Turturro), and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Turturro’s Barton Fink, like the real-life Clifford Odetts on which Barton is based, is an acclaimed, politically liberal New York playwright whose new socially conscious play champions “the common man,” and who is lured to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter in late 1941. The movie is partially about Fink’s case of writer’s block when assigned to write a “wrestling picture,” which reportedly mirrors the Coen Brothers’ own difficulties completing the script for “Miller’s Crossing.” As Fink states in the film, “I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain.”
Arriving in Los Angeles, Fink lives in isolation in the creepy Hotel Earle. While trying to write, he is distracted by strange noises, including a pesky mosquito. His room’s wallpaper keeps peeling from heat and humidity (the latter of which would seem unusual for Los Angeles). When Fink meets his gregarious yet off-kilter neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Charlie’s profuse sweating mirrors the sweating of the hotel itself. Fink then tells Charlie, “the life of the mind, there’s no road map for that territory.”
As in many other films (“The Godfather” comes to mind), Los Angeles is portrayed in “Barton Fink” as a sun-drenched utopia of shimmering swimming pools and green vegetation. Inside his art deco Capitol Pictures office, manic studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), a despot in the tradition of early Hollywood studio chiefs such as Louis B. Mayer, at first fawns over Barton, telling him, “we need more heart in motion pictures.” Lipnick’s producer, Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub) is a rapid-talking aneurism waiting to happen, who becomes Barton’s reluctant supervisor.
On the job at Capitol Pictures, Fink meets fellow studio writer and famous Southern author William Mayhew (John Mahoney). Mayhew, who is based on William Faulkner, is now a barely functional drunk. His assistant, lover, and dutiful caretaker, Audrey (Judy Davis), a Southern belle who could make a New Yorker like Barton weak in the knees, turns out to be responsible for much of Mayhew’s work.
Lipnick’s and Geisler’s frenetic desire to crank out low culture, formulaic “B” wrestling pictures in a machine-like manner, and their treatment of Hollywood studio writers like Mayhew and Fink as slaves whose opinions do not count, contrasts greatly with Fink’s proletariat-oriented sensibilities. Indeed, Mayhew is writing a movie entitled “Slave Ship,” while Lipnick tells Barton, “the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” Not surprisingly, Fink, with the wrong clothes, hair style, and attitude, never fits into Los Angeles. In one scene at a USO dance, the bespectacled, dark-suited Fink, who feels free just for a moment, is soon called out as the only man on the dance floor not in (a Navy white or Army khaki) uniform, and a brawl results.
In another theme common to many movies about this city, “Barton Fink” depicts Los Angeles as a place where dishonesty and false fronts prevail, not just in the movie making process itself, but in the studio offices and elsewhere. A number of the characters in Barton’s Los Angeles have put up false fronts. Lipnick tells Fink from the poolside of his opulent home, “if I had been totally honest, I wouldn’t be within a mile of this pool unless I was cleaning it.” Then, toward the end of “Barton Fink,” Lipnick, who is from Minsk, appears in a military uniform, telling Barton that he has been asked by his adopted country to join World War II as a colonel. However, Lipnick’s military garb is from Capitol Pictures’ wardrobe department. This contrast between the “real” New York City and the “phony” Los Angeles, represented visually by the sepia tones of the former and the lightness of the latter (except for the prison-like Hotel Earle), is reminiscent of Woody Allen‘s treatment of New York City and Los Angeles in “Annie Hall.”
A mysterious picture on Fink’s putrid-colored hotel wall of a woman on a beach, looking out at the ocean, her back turned toward the viewer, feeds this contrast. Fink is captivated by the picture. What does she represent? A non-Californian’s romanticization of Los Angeles, with its essential elements — the sun, the sand, and the pretty girl? When the picture is imitated by a “real” woman on a “real” beach at the end of the movie, viewers might question whether it was just a vision in Barton’s mind, and, therefore, what was supposed to be “real” in the film all along. Was the Hotel Earle really just the interior of Barton’s — or Charlie’s — mind?
Near the end of “Barton Fink,” in a near-biblical apocalypse that is by now a Coen Brothers signature, Charlie, whom detectives have identified as serial killer Karl “Madman” Mundt, reveals his madness. As he shoots his way down the hotel’s flame-engulfed hallway, Mundt shouts, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” And that is perhaps just what the Coen Brothers have done.
(See the rest of the L.A. movie series here)