Barton Fink, played by John Turturro, is a New York playwright introduced to us at the very moment of his first Broadway success. He looks on from backstage as we hear the final keystrokes of his creation realized, met with thunderous applause and instant adulation. We find him at an after party with demur figures including his producer who excitedly recites portions of early reviews for “Bare Ruined Choirs”. Barton is outwardly unimpressed, even dismissive of the praise so eagerly heaped upon him. With no time at all to digest his first theatrical success, Barton’s agent persuades him to trade the fishmongers of the Atlantic coast for the faux-tanned big shot producers of the Pacific in order to cash in with pictures—to further finance his future odes to the “common man.”
Waves crash against rocks upon a beach, the image of which will figure prominently in Barton’s psychological state—in fact it’s one part of a larger motif of fluids, particularly water, steeping nearly every foot of filmstock. The waves appear to wash in to the carpet of a hellish resort called the Hotel Earl where Barton will reside during his stint with Capitol Pictures. The Earl’s proprietor, named “Chet” and played by Coen regular Steve Buscemi, seems to rise from the floorboards as he places fingertip upon bell to halt its eerily indefatigable ringing. Barton checks in and boards the elevator to his room, instructing the elevator operator with “Six please,” to which he responds “Next stop: six.” The doors open as we hear, “This stop: six,” thus completing the triplicate repetition of the number and subtly indicating that our protagonist has arrived in hell1.
Fink is befriended by a lovable oaf of an insurance salesman by the name of Charlie Meadows—underplayed to an extent by John Goodman who excels in roles for the brothers Coen more so than others. He is introduced to us aurally. Barton is disturbed from his work by the man’s moaning and weeping in the adjacent room so he calls downstairs to complain. We then hear a phone call to Charlie’s room followed by a pan along Barton’s wall to Charlie’s thunderous footsteps approaching. After apologizing for his racket—and offering an oddly homoerotic pick-up line—the two become acquainted over a bottle of rye whiskey. The interplay between the two in their first meeting reveals a great deal of both characters, chiefly Barton’s penchant for dismissing the “common man” while he purports to lionize him. Charlie repeatedly hedges his speech with the phrase “I could tell ya some stories,” only to be immediately interrupted by Barton’s irascible diatribes at each turn.
To dissect a film like this necessitates revealing some twists and turns, so needless to say there are spoilers forthcoming. I doubt this will diminish enjoyment for the uninitiated because the Coens do everything they can from the very beginning to create a searing and palpable sense of oppression and impending doom. You just know at the outset that nothing will work out for Fink. Of critical import to understanding Barton Fink is firstly the titular character’s entangled fate with that of Charlie Meadows. It has been said that Goodman’s character represents a “fallen angel,” or Satan incarnate, or at the very least the “common man” so innocently beguiled by Barton. There is evidence for the devil theory, though I think it crumbles under scrutiny. But he is certainly that common man and to call him a “fallen angel” jibes with this interpretation. He earnestly wants to be Barton’s muse or, rather, sees Barton as an escape from loneliness. He is the fire to Barton’s water—notice that the temperature in the room rises in accord with Charlie’s temper and, of course, literally bursts in to flames at films end while Barton’s sole connection with the outside world (“reality” perhaps) is the picture of the girl on the beach and throughout the film various fluids intersect key scenes2.
Barton is a pedantic pedagogue who condescendingly insists time and again that he represents and writes for the “common man”. His life is “the life of the mind” he tells us. It’s “uncharted territory and exploring it may be painful” he says. Charlie’s desire to help people through his unrewarding and demeaning work as a seller of fire insurance leads him to state ironically and portentously that “fire, theft and casualty are not things that only happen to other people.” All of these tragedies will befall Barton by the hand of Charlie, the only man willing to help him. Of course, when a woman attempts to help Barton, Charlie kills her. He earlier expressed his disgust for sex, or rather that enjoyed by others, when he notes that he can hear the lovebirds several rooms down. So when Barton engages in the act with Audrey (and accepts her as his muse for a wrestling picture) Charlie lashes out. Given this, perhaps a better model for Charlie is to regard him as more of an amorphous force; karma perhaps.
Critics tend to read various motives in to the film. At least one sees Barton Fink as a parable for the rise of fascism—due no doubt to the 40s setting, the names of the detectives3 and Charlie’s utterance of “Heil Hitler” as he squeezes off the final round. The Coens are very playful here, as they are with their liberal use of literary allusions (as to Faulkner and Shakespeare among others), and most critics seem to take them seriously at every turn. Their minds are repulsed by the uncertainty of an inchoate symbolic system. I mean, if the filmmakers insert something metonymic or synecdochic or symbolic, by god it ought to indicate allegory. It ought to mean something, right? But beyond playful suggestions sprinkled here and there, it’s difficult for this writer to discern any larger and consistent criticism of fascism, or Hollywood, in a film whose concerns are supremely personal, even intra-personal. After all, few things are more personal than the creative process itself and one’s conception of reality. “The life of the mind,” specifically Barton’s mind and, perhaps to a greater extent, that of Charlie’s is what interests the Coens most.
The film is dense with symbolism, literary and cinematic allusion and numerous narrative devices so much so that this essay could not begin to encompass its minutiae. This is a film that film lovers will delight in picking apart and all will agonize to make sense of. The film’s inconclusive and enigmatic ending may be the most demanding, but uncertainty pervades every inch of Barton Fink. From the opening shots to films end the camera shifts from Barton’s perspective to a more objective one, such as when we find him observing his own play backstage (and mouthing the lines of dialogue for actors off screen) which then shifts to his perspective as he walks on stage to standing applause. This object/subject dichotomy relates to other themes (prominent among them the writing process itself) while inducing an incoherency or confusion in the viewer which allows one to broach the unstable interior of Barton Fink. And this happens to be the true setting for the Coens meta-narrative—Barton’s head.
If you can wrap your head around that then the film may not seem so frustrating. You might begin to wonder, as the Coens hope you will, whether Charlie is real at all, maybe whether Barton himself is real and beyond that the implications for reality in a film with such object/subject confusion. Plucking Barton from his hell and placing him on the beach to gaze upon the woman from the picture at films end cements this. Has life imitated art or the reverse? What is the nature of this interplay of art and representation and verisimilitude? Has Barton become the common man? And what’s in that damned box?
1 It’s clear that the Coens intended the Hotel Earl to represent hell figuratively at least, yet other critics have suggested a literal representation as well.
2 The man Barton first solicits help from is a famous author and pitiful drunk by the name of W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney). Not only is he soused in every encounter but we first meet him vomiting in a men’s room. Then we have the lovebirds down the hall whose amatory fluids seem related to the ever-melting wallpaper adhesive in Barton’s room.
3 Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch represent the two European powers, Italy and Germany. The Coens admit as much, though they dismiss any larger meaning beyond the tongue-in-cheek nod.