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Cinophile: BARTON FINK

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It took a while for this column to reach a movie by the Coen brothers. It’s partly because they have such a wide range of work to choose from – nearly all Coen brothers films gain a cult following. Movies such as The Big Lebowski and Fargo have some die-hard followers.

But Barton Fink, one of their less-celebrated movies, is a microcosm of what makes the Coens so great. It’s a blend of colourful characters, absurd situations, attention to detail, a dab of the mystical and a current of dark humour running through it. It’s something nearly all of their films have in common (I have no idea where to put Intolerable Cruelty), but few bring together completely.

Fink is a writer of successful plays in the early Forties. His success draws the attention of a big studio and he is hired to become a scriptwriter in Los Angeles. Here Fink quickly comes in conflict with his ideas about writing and the work expected from him. But Barton Fink is not about a writer’s agony. That’s just a red herring.

Barton Fink is a Faustian tale, so it’s about someone’s soul being for sale. Many stories about tortured writers are Faustian in nature – Stephen King is quite fond of the theme, as seen in The Dark Half, Misery and Secret Window. Other examples include Adaptation, Stranger Than Fiction and The Naked Lunch.

But Fink’s artistic struggle is just a sideline to the movie’s larger themes. The writer sells his soul when he decides to try his hand at movies, a choice Fink does reluctantly, but he only realises the actual consequences as the darkness closes around him.

There is an overarching symbolism around purgatory and hell that run richly throughout the movie. One could say Barton Fink is just a bunch of compatible ideas thrown together inside a convenient and well-worn Faustian jacket. This movie does not feel quite as clever or meditated as other Coen movies that explore the soul, such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

But it is their first earnest exploration of this theme, one that would show up a lot more in the future. The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There all touch in the subject with a supernatural twist.

Even more contemporary examples, such as Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man also ponder the price of a character’s values and sacrifices against a world that always seems to be winning the fight.

It is true that Barton Fink is in many ways the lesser Coen brothers movie. But the strong acting, good pacing and top-notch production still takes it a notch above more peers. You could say that Barton Fink was a little bit of the Coens slumming it – and they still come out shining.

It’s the Coen Bros fan’s movie: a revealing glimpse of their raw talent and a guide to what they would produce in the future. Even though the pair enjoy quirky comedies, they do brooding the best and – with the exception of their debut and the ultra-moody Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is the first true sign of just what the Coens are capable of.

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Barton Fink was written by the Coen brothers during the development of their crime noir Miller’s Crossing. The pair were struggling with the latter’s complicated layers and decided to take a break from it. They moved to New York from Los Angeles for several weeks, putting together Barton Fink over that period.
The main role was written specifically for John Turturro, who was working with the Coens on Miller’s Crossing. They later decided to mould a role just for John Goodman, who they had worked with previously on Raising Arizona. Goodman’s return to a Coen Bros film would be the first of many: he has appeared in six of their movies, the latest being Inside Llewyn Davis. Another hand-picked actor was Steve Buscemi as the hotel clerk – he has starred in five Coen feature films.
The movie was a critical hit, sweeping various art house awards. It was so successful at the Cannes film Festival that movies shown there are limited to winning two categories. It attracted three Academy nominations in lesser categories, but didn’t win. Sadly audiences weren’t as captivated and Barton Fink bombed. But it resurged as a cult film and the Coens have been pondering a sequel.
Barton Fink’s Faustian elements are often hidden. For example, a close look at the pages of the Gideon bible in Barton’s room shows a script written over it. The number six is mentioned at three different times during one of the elevator scenes. In fact, the hotel maybe an allegory for hell. The Coens started the story by thinking of a hellish motel they visited while making their first movie, Blood Simple.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: July 13, 2015

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