When I first saw Barton Fink in the early 1990s, I was blown away. There were a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious was the pointless symbolism. For example, the ending seems to weird people out. Barton (John Turturro) is sitting on a beach, looking at the real-life image of a young woman that has been hanging on the wall above his typewriter throughout the film. Should anyone think it is intended to mean anything, Barton asks her, “You’re very beautiful; are you in pictures?” And she replies, “Don’t be silly!” It’s probably the funniest joke the Coen Brothers have ever come up with. She’s not in pictures; she’s right there!
There’s much more of that in the film. But the other thing I liked in the film was that Barton is such an unlikable character. Now, that’s probably not true in an absolute sense. But he’s rather too much like me, without my good points. For example, “I do listen!” The first time I saw the film it was cathartic when Charlie (John Goodman) tells Barton that he messed with his life because Barton doesn’t listen. I’d spent the movie up to that point being so annoyed that Barton was always cutting Charlie off. Sure, Charlie has stories he could tell, but Barton isn’t interested in hearing any of them.
A New Look
I’ve watched Barton Fink a number of times over the years, but it’s been a while since I have. Every time I thought about watching it, I was put off at the thought of spending two hours with this unpleasant character. But I put it on last night, for reasons I can’t fully explain. And I was really struck with one scene. It’s after Barton has finally managed to write his wrestling picture. And it’s the best thing he’s ever done. So he goes out to a dance hall to celebrate.
The place is filled mostly with military men and he gets into a confrontation and starts ranting, “This is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!” And a guy in the Navy decks him. But this act of violence sets off the tension in the room (it is the eve of World War II, after all). And as Barton lays on the floor, a brawl breaks out between the Navy men and the Army men. These are the common men that Barton is writing for.
It was the first time that I really saw Barton in a positive light. He’s still pretentious — still lost in his own world. He’s still utterly uninterested in the world as it is. Clearly, he should have stayed in New York writing plays for the common man that only the rich come to see. His trip to Hollywood is a trip to the real world. And that world is made explicitly hell as Charlie, with a shot gun, marches down the hallway, which is aflame, killing two cops and shouting, “Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!”
Developing a Feeling for Barton Fink
I have to admit to feeling a bit like Barton. Hollywood is made up of two kinds of people. There are the military men who seem well summed up by the Elvis Costello line, “If it moves then you fuck it, if it doesn’t then you stab it.” There is also Charlie, a serial killer, but one who seems to see murder as an act of mercy. He also explicitly says that he wishes someone would do the same favor for him. These are the common men that the
“pictures” are created for.
The other kind of people in Hollywood are those who work in the “dream machine.” They are probably best represented by Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), the producer of the wrestling picture that Barton is writing. He might as well be producing lawn fertilizer as films. But you see his life perfectly encapsulated at lunch where he drinks whisky and a big glass of milk. Despite his ranting and appearance of power, Geisler is a man who could use some of Charlie’s mercy.
Barton Fink is more naive than anything. In fact, he’s a little exasperating. The one person in the whole film that it is easy to identify with is Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). I love when she is trying to help Barton with his script. She says, “Barton, look, it’s really just a formula, you don’t have to type your soul into it.” And that’s about it. What’s exasperating is that I know that there are things I write for myself and there are things I write for money. And the fact that Barton doesn’t understand or accept that makes him more relatable. I was like that too — in my teens.
The Dark Side of Art
Barton Fink is a lot like Sullivan’s Travels. In that film, Preston Sturges presents a director who is known for his comedies but wants to create serious and important films for “the common man.” Then some very bad things happen to him and he decides that he wants to continue to make comedies. The film ends with Sullivan saying, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”
But Barton has been through a literal hell. His girlfriend has been murdered. So has his family. His career is over. There’s a good chance he’ll be convicted of murder. The film ends with him sitting on the beach with the head of his murdered girlfriend. And all he’s gained from the experience is confusion.
It’s very possible that’s the best you can hope for. Because the world is evil. And there’s no reason for that. Theologians have been trying to figure that out for centuries and have made no real progress. And artists who try to create something more than pure entertainment end up like W P Mayhew (John Mahoney), drinking the world away, or Barton, lost in a sweet picture he once saw.