Monday, December 14, 2009
Throw A Rock In Here You'll Hit One
I’ve never gotten around to writing about BARTON FINK, but maybe there’s never been a reason to until now. Seeing it again at this point is probably my first viewing from beginning to end for quite some time but I think the film is always running on a continuous loop in my head anyway. The first time I ever saw it was at the now-gone Coronet Theatre in New York back in August 1991--I think it was opening night. Two hours after the film began I emerged out onto the street feeling absolutely shattered, unable to put into words how I felt about what I’d just seen. Needless to say there have been many viewings after that and I also went as the character for Halloween a few times—yes, I carried a box and whenever anyone asked what was in it I simply replied, “I don’t know.” Maybe a handful of people even figured out who I was supposed to be. Now suddenly the extent to which it’s a true favorite has come to mind as I wonder just how much the whole thing has really seeped into my head (appropriate, considering the movie) over the years. How much do I really identify with this film, this character? Strange but hey, what do you expect a guy in Hollywood who’s just been laid off close to Christmas to think about? At least I don’t have to pretend to care about reality TV anymore. Not that I ever really bothered to pretend. I never cared about reality TV. It has no place in the life of the mind anyway.
Winning the Palme d’or at Cannes in ’91, the film was somewhat famously written by Joel & Ethan Coen during downtime as they were crafting the screenplay to MILLER’S CROSSING. Having trouble cracking their increasingly labyrinthe scenario, they came up with this as a sort of response. Gabriel Byrne’s apartment building in that film is noticeably called the “Barton Arms” and the result of that writers block led to one of their most acclaimed works, even more than the film they were supposed to be focusing on at the time. It may have been eventually overshadowed by some of the pair’s subsequent films in pop culture but at least it did inspire a particularly good joke on THE SIMPSONS and I’ve certainly quoted reams of dialogue from it over the years. I may love their first three films—BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA and MILLER’S CROSSING--but looking at BARTON FINK really does seem like the beginning of a truly adventurous creative path that the Coens continue down today. I don’t know how personal this one film is for the men who created it and they’ve never really said. It doesn’t really matter anyway, considering how personal it’s been for me since that very first time. Even looking at it now, I watch a few minutes now and I can’t shut it off even as if I feel like it’s strangling me from the insides even more than it used to? Am I contradicting myself? Maybe. Did I ever realize that my apartment is, after all, suspiciously similar to Barton’s hotel room where most of this movie takes place? Did I know at the time that I was basically moving into the Hotel Earle? Absolutely. But what the hell does that mean, anyway? Orphan? Dame? Which is it?
In 1941, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is enjoying his first big wave of success with his Broadway production of BARE RUINED CHOIRS. Almost immediately an offer comes from Capitol Pictures in Hollywood to place him under contract. Though he feels that he’s on the verge of something big in New York as he pursues his dream of a theater “by, about and for the common man” he allows his agent to talk him into accepting the lucrative offer. Once in Los Angeles staying in the decaying Hotel Earle Barton meets with Capitol chief Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) who assigns him to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery insisting that “we’re all expecting great things.” Though every sign points to that Barton’s Wallace Beery script is not in any way expected to be anything but a B-picture (in spite of Lipnick’s protestation that “we do not make B-pictures here at Capitol!”) Barton suddenly finds himself blocked, unable to come up with anything and matters aren’t helped by his encounters with famous novelist M.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his mysteriously evocative secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). His attention is soon taken up by his neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) a salesman who seems to represent the ‘common man’ Barton claims to have an interest in. But as Barton soon learns, there’s more going on in the mind of that common man than he realizes.
The film opens with the title character standing backstage as the final moments of his acclaimed play are performed on opening night. When listened to carefully, it becomes evident that the voice heard of the play’s lead offscreen in fact belongs to Turturro, the person we’re looking at. How literally we should take this doesn’t really matter. It could be a subtle joke on the part of the Coens (the voice of the actress heard, incidentally, is Frances McDormand) or it really could just be how Barton hears things in his own head. How much BARTON FINK is seen as a comedy may be up to the individual viewer—the film is overloaded with eminently quotable dialogue that makes it at times hysterically funny (“Writers come and go. We always need Indians.”) but these laughs combined with the Kubrick-Polanski vibe the Coens are going for helps to give it all a continual feel of unease and dread which at its darkest makes it ultimately, completely despairing to me.
“It’s really just a formula, you don’t have to type your soul into it,” is what Davis’ Audrey tells Barton as he desperately asks her for help but he can’t see any other way to do it and the idea of rich fat-cats excited, positively thrilled to find out what he’s got for them just makes him freeze. Whether what he ultimately gives Lipnick is really any good or if it really is just another version of his ‘fruity’ play, no matter what the studio chief says, is left slightly ambiguous. He says that he feels it’s his best work and, really, that’s all that matters. He earned the right to hang on to some form of dignity after everything he’s been through. When the character, crying, tells Charlie Meadows “You’re the only person I know in Los Angeles that I can talk to,” I sometimes know exactly what he means and it makes me want to burst into tears myself. Of course, we know that Barton hasn’t exactly been the best person to be in a conversation with, trapped in his own head. “Empathy requires understanding,” Audrey tells Barton and he can’t seem to get anyone to understand what he’s going through maybe because he can’t do the same. You could say that the Hotel Earle represents the warring factions of both Barton and Charlie’s minds coming together, eventually resulting in, well, an inferno that can’t contain itself once secrets are revealed and things can finally be put down on paper.
There’s not a bad performance, a bad moment from a single actor, even those with just one line. Turturro in his Cliford Odets/George S. Kaufman guise (the dialogue in BARE RUINED CHOIRS is strictly Odets, but just go look at a photo of Kaufman) is absolutely astounding in what may be his signature role and he’s probably never received enough credit for how good he really is. At times the character is blatantly unlikable—hell, every now and then there are glimmers that make me almost hate him in spite of how much I don’t want to—but the cumulative effect of the (literal?) hell that he goes through always gets me to be all the way with him through this torture. (And, though I think I’ve said this in the past--even more than MILLER’S CROSSING someone really should double bill this film with BRAIN DONORS). Goodman also does some of his best work, making his salesman, decent, likeable…and well, something else that we totally believe. This was the period for Judy Davis when she was kind of the thinking-man’s sex symbol, taking on this role in two 1991 films that prominently featured typewriters, and she’s brilliantly, scarily funny making every beat, every glance she has speak volumes (why did she get lost in the hell of bad TV movies and who knows what?). That long pause she has when she states, “I know this may look….funny,” to Turturro drives me crazy each time. Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner (who recently appeared in the Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN in a role that seems deliberately the exact opposite of this one), John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub and Steve Buscemi are each fantastic down to the smallest details as well and I could easily reel off favorite moments from each of them.
Never a film widely appreciated by the general public, the under-the-radar influence of BARTON FINK has continued through the years if only as a perverse in-joke—the code name for the Wachowski’s MATRIX sequels during production was THE BURLYMAN (the “scenario” Barton comes up with) and naming the ship used in each film the Nebuchadnezzar could have been taken directly from the title of W.P. Mayhew’s novel that the author autographs a copy of for Barton. Not to mention how for years the Coens have hinted in interviews that they would want to make a sequel to the film called OLD FINK and they’re just waiting for John Turturro to be the proper age for. Is this another Coen Brothers joke or are they serious? I’m still not sure, but I can safely say that I can’t think of any other sequel that I would be as excited to see if it ever happened. Or maybe I’m just living my own sequel as I reside in my own version of the Hotel Earle, dreaming of a beautiful girl staring out at the ocean as I sit here not trying to finish a screenplay that has no one waiting to read it. Anyway, as I sit here trying to figure out what to say about this film about writer’s block, I realize that I’ve been blocked too. Maybe I’ve been blocked for a long time, I don’t know. As of a few days ago, I’m not even employed anymore so maybe this should be a chance to do something about all that. I think I may still even have that box I used to carry around on Halloween somewhere around here so maybe I should put it on the desk here in front of me. After all, we eventually need to be reminded what it’s really like to live the life of the mind. “You’re very beautiful. Are you in pictures?” “Don’t be silly.” That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to an answer as well.