The Life of the Mind: A Reading of Barton Fink

Its subtext is so deep, that it’s impossible to say that it has one overriding meaning....

Barton Fink is one of my all-time favourite films. Its subtext is so deep, that it€™s impossible to say that it has one overriding meaning. It is, after all, the mark of the Coen€™s to produce a story that can€™t be defined in a sentence, can€™t be pinned down to a single controlling idea. Like the movie's infamous Hotel Earle setting, a Coen Bros. film seems to be very much alive, organic and ever shifting. If you haven€™t seen Barton Fink, or saw it once years back, then I suggest you hit your back button now; this article treats the reader as though they€™ve watched and thought about the film, its story and its myriad of meanings. It€™s also so rife with spoilers it reads like a crib sheet, so if you were hoping for a more impartial, review-like feature then I€™m sorry to disappoint. Barton Fink was the Coen Bros. fourth film, released in 1991, directly following Miller€™s Crossing. If you€™ve truly wished to understand Miller€™s Crossing, it€™s many facets and intricacies, then you€™ve seen it more than once and you€™ll understand how complex it€™s plot is. So complex in fact, that the process of penning it was enough to temporarily burn the Coen€™s out, and they took a hiatus before it was completed. It was during this hiatus that Barton Fink was conceived and written. It€™s worth mentioning before I go on that to me, the Coen€™s use film as an interpretative medium; Barton Fink€™s story and imagery may be metaphorical or allegorical of many things. Some readings you€™ll find out there will purvey that it€™s a film about the dangers of living inside one€™s own mind, others that Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) represents Nazism, and Fink ineffectual left-wing liberalism. Others argue that it€™s an indictment of the old Hollywood vertical integration system. The truth is, in true Coen fashion, it may connote any of the above meanings, or entirely different ones depending on the perspective of the viewer. Symbolism and subtext is rife in Barton Fink and while some may consider it amateurish to attempt to say too much with any one film, the Coen€™s say it all very eloquently, and the mark of Autership cannot be denied. Barton Fink is unequivocally a Coen bros. movie. You must have heard the phrase €˜write about what you know€™. This doesn€™t mean that if you€™ve worked in a supermarket your whole life you must write about working in a supermarket, but one can€™t presume to write about, let€™s say depression, if one has never suffered depression. A writer€™s work (if it€™s worth its salt) should contain a gourmet of those emotions that he or she has sampled themselves first-hand, regardless of setting or plot. Although Barton Fink is set in a somewhat otherworldly Los Angeles circa 1941, and its plot takes it into the fantastical for the third act, I can imagine that much of the sentiment within is relayed to us directly from the Coen bros. personal emotional experiences when writing and creating Miller€™s Crossing. Barton Fink weaves the yarn of its namesake character (played by the inimitable John Turturro), a bold, fresh New York playwright. After attaining critical success with his latest play €˜Bare Ruined Choirs€™, Barton€™s agent informs him that he has received the call from Hollywood; Capitol Pictures wish to sign him to a $1000 a week screenwriting contract, based on his newfound fame. There€™s initial resistance from Barton, whose commitment is to his art. But of course something, whether it€™s the promise of a regular wage or the calling of a much larger stage, makes him forgo his artistic integrity and up sticks to Hollywoodland. It€™s a single moment of hypocrisy that leads him to L.A€™s decrepit Hotel Earle, but it foreshadows the many that will follow during Fink€™s descent into intellectual chaos. Inside the Hotel Earle, Barton crafts himself a personal hell. He forsakes the outside world in favour of an environment that seems almost organic; with stifling heat, peeling wallpaper slick with viscous discharges of melting glue and the constant threat of mosquito bites despite the fact (as Barton€™s fast-talkin€™, high-trousers producer Ben Geisler, played by Tony Shalhoub, points out) there aren€™t any mosquito€™s in L.A, it being a desert town. At a parallel, Barton€™s creative blood is being sucked from all angles by those around him. Studio head Lipnik pushes a B-movie, which requires little creative effort, on him immediately upon his arrival, forcing him to dumb down; the novelist and Barton€™s adopted mentor W.P Mayhew slowly deconstructs his illusions of romanticism in writing and Audrey, Mayhew€™s long suffering €˜secretary€™, hammers in the final nail when she reveals that Mayhew€™s writing was actually hers. Barton is driven mad by his own ideals, by the fact that they€™re slowly being perverted, shaped to conform with the more palatable, interchangeable ideals of Hollywood. Barton believes that by forsaking a more expensive living arrangement and remaining in the Earle that he€™s kept his connection to the regular working stiff (the source of his inspiration). But when he hears Charlie, the larger than life Insurance Salesman living next door, laughing - or weeping, something which is left deliberately ambiguous even in the script - it disturbs his work and he calls down to reception to complain. He€™s not really empathising with his common man here is he? When given the opportunity to sample the pleasure €“ or anguish €“ of his common man, he€™d much rather have it silenced by a voice on a phone than partake. When Charlie confronts him moments later, he cowers, at first unable to read the huge presence before him, but the pair quickly strike a rather one-sided bond. When Charlie discovers Barton is writing for the pictures, he repeatedly utters €œI could tell you some stories€ in an attempt to lend Barton inspiration, but he refuses to listen, cutting Charlie off before he can speak. Barton spouts off about his own artistic desires and achievements, reiterating his insistence to keep his work from (and I paraphrase) €˜suffering and regressing into empty formalism€™. Despite Barton€™s assurances to himself and others that he remains as one with the common man, he shows very little interest in their plight. In fact he seems to regard himself as something more refined than they all together. There€™s nought more common a man than a Soldier, nought more noble a plight, and yet Barton feels more entitled to cut a rug with the woman at the USO dance after he completes his script than a Marine, who ships off the next day to defend America. €œI€™m a writer!€ he screams, €œI create!€ Barton seems to feel that in his case, life should imitate his art as opposed to the reverse. The references to the human head in Barton Fink are numerous, usually made by Charlie Meadows €“ (€œCan€™t trade my head in for a new one€, €œYou€™ve got a good head on your shoulders€ €œThings are all balled up at the head office€). Fink is leading the life of the mind, a phrase which is repeated throughout, screamed by Charlie as he guns down the detectives Deutsch and Mastrionotti. In many ways it feels like the Coen€™s are pointing us toward the subtext of their setting; realistic logic is eerily absent within its walls, almost as if the Hotel Earle represents Fink€™s inner-self (and the structure he imposes on himself by accepting the Wallace Beery picture), the Room his mind. Could the Coen€™s be visually illustrating the point, with the Hotel Earle, that experiencing life from inside one€™s mind can often be torturous? Dangerous even, to ones sanity? Many parallels have been drawn from Barton Fink to concepts explored by Roman Polanski, particularly in his films The Tenant and Repulsion; the characters in which reside in similar personal hells to Barton, their residences also in some way personifying their madness, becoming abstract characters that are tonally similar to Barton Fink€™s Hotel Earle. If we€™re to give credence to the argument that the Hotel Earle is emblematic of Barton Fink€™s inner-self, then that would insinuate that Charlie Meadows himself is a creation of the writer€™s mind (a commonly held interpretation). Bear with me, €˜cause here€™s where it starts to go metaphysical. Barton ignores Charlie€™s attempts to relay his stories when they first meet, but if Charlie is imagined, wouldn€™t that mean that Barton is ignoring€his own stories? Metaphorically attempting to block out his own writer€™s voice perhaps, in order to create something more accessible to a Wallace Beery audience? This happens in bottom line Hollywood virtually every day I imagine: a young writer, brimming with resonant ideas seduced by zeroes into sacrificing his integrity. There€™s one resounding piece of subliminal evidence to support this theory: the night before Barton complains about the noise from Charlie€™s room, he hears a high pitched, throaty drone coming from next door (which sounds eerily similar to Charlie€™s laugh/cry to which Barton goes on to complain about) but he€™s unsure of what it is. Later, after Barton finds Audrey dead, he makes the very same noise himself as a subconscious reaction to the stress. In the script, he€™s described forcibly stopping himself from doing it. Is Charlie an aspect of Barton€™s own personality; the life of the Body, to his life of the Mind? The word Hell is constantly repeated throughout, almost subliminally by Meadows, lending him a satanic connotation, especially after we find out about his penchant for decapitation and his ability to seemingly spout flames in his wake. The hotel catches fire spontaneously when Meadows (by the climax known as €˜Madman€™ Mundt) arrives for the final showdown and I€™ve heard it said that Meadows is supposed to represent the Devil. This argument is certainly not unfounded but in my opinion, it€™s deeper than that. Meadow€™s is a Devil alright, but it€™s too easy to say he€™s just €˜the€™ Devil. He€™s a Devil within Fink perhaps; a visual representation of the source of Fink€™s story-telling, and its fiery reaction to being suppressed. Could this whole relationship be a self-perpetuating metaphor, encapsulating the Coen€™s frustration towards those who would have them sacrifice their artistic integrity? On his journey, Barton meets several conventional characters: Mayhew, the troubled, alcoholic writer; Audrey, almost a femme-fatale; and Deutsch and Mastrionotti, two hard boiled, smart-mouthed LAPD Homicide detectives. One by one, Fink rejects these characters as Charlie assumes control; despite being supposedly complicit in a chain of murders Barton is suddenly inspired, prolific, and finishes his script in no time. But at what cost to his career? With Charlie at the mental reins the script is too high brow, too poignant, to artsy for Hollywood. If we come at the story from this angle, Barton Fink reads like a frustrated artist€™s dismayed outcry over the creative lose-lose so often associated with Hollywood. In wonderful Coen bros. fashion, it€™s not clear exactly who€™s real, who€™s imagined and who, if anyone, was actually murdered in the reality of the film world. This is definitely one of my preferred readings, but there€™s another altogether more succinct theory concerning the relationship between Barton and Charlie. It€™s simply that Barton is a hypocritical, self-important writer living in Hollywood next door to a psychopathic serial killer. Despite their initial altercation, Charlie adopts Barton as his new best friend, impressed by the fact that he writes for the pictures. Charlie falls for Barton in a way and there's a tangible homo-erotic overtone to their friendship, particularly in the scene in which he demonstrates wrestling techniques (his smiling look of encouragement, looking back while on all fours; Barton resting his head tenderly on Charlie€™s shoulder as he maintains a hold €“ Joel Coen himself, in an interview in 2001, said that they consider this a sex scene). Throughout the film, both characters comment on the thinness of the walls and the fact that sound carries along the pipes in the old hotel. When discussing the lovemaking that both could hear coming from another room the night before, there€™s a palpable air of sexual repression from both men. Fink forgoes relationships for his art, unable to sustain a proper romance (he tells Charlie that he gets so wrapped up in his work, he doesn€™t have any attention left over). Charlie talks of sexual conquest with his customers but we can safely assume it€™s a lie; an untruth possibly to impress Barton. What€™s more realistic is that his weight hinders him in the pursuit of romance, probably why he seems so dismayed at being able to hear the love-makers through the walls. That acceptance, that baser human contact is something he needs, but always finds himself alone on the other side of the wall. As he says to Barton, it€™s his cross to bear. Reading it this way, Meadows is simply a serial killer, most likely a Nazi sympathiser (his final words to the surviving detective €“ €œHeil Hitler€); driven mad by loneliness he latches onto Barton in a desperate attempt at human interaction. He tries to become Barton€™s inspiration, tries to inspire him, even tries to demonstrate a knowledge of wrestling (insisting upon contact), but Barton remains largely ignorant to Charlie€™s subtle advances. Rather than accept help from the common man when his deadline approaches - a man who has demonstrated his worth both spiritually and professionally - he turns to Audrey in his time of intellectual need, whose best feature as a writer is that she intrinsically knows structure and she€™s anything but common. When they make love, the camera takes us down the drain in Fink€™s bathroom sink; they are now the love-makers on the other side of the wall and Charlie€™s anguished screams at hearing them through the pipes signifies his breaking point. We know what happens next. There€™s one sure fire way to get me to re-watch a film and that€™s to confuse me with the ending. I€™ve watched most Coen bros. movies several times. Pattern? Throughout, Barton is seen to be staring at the one piece of art hanging in his room: the bathing beauty. She forever stares out onto the surf and Barton often loses himself in the picture, bringing the sound of waves into the diegetic soundtrack as though it€™s in his mind. The bathing beauty picture is a piece of mass-produced low art, probably hanging in every room in the Hotel Earle. Barton€™s increasing obsession runs at a parallel with his attempts to lower his own art for the Wallace Beery audience (today known as Michael Bay€™s fan-base). The ocean is a white noise, for me simultaneously representing the sound of writers block; the inevitable, tide-like feeling of an approaching deadline and the sensation of being overwhelmed, as he is by virtually every character that has influence over him. In the final scene, after the carnage at the Hotel Earle, and his grilling from Lipnik over his high-brow, unsellable screenplay, Barton sits, burned out, on the beach looking out onto the ocean. A woman enters and sits in front of him and she puts her hand to her eyes; the final shot mirrors the bathing beauty picture exactly. Fink stares transfixed, the sound of waves a firm reality this time. And the Coen€™s end it there, pulling the rug out from underneath us unceremoniously and bringing us firmly back into the room. What does it mean? For me, Barton Fink ended on the sentiment that in the end, life imitates art; that film has today, and has always had an immense power over its audience. The power to plant ideas, persuade to causes and change perceptions. Doesn€™t that then mean that purveyors of film have a certain responsibility to their audience? That this power shouldn€™t be used cynically, but instead to further the collective understanding of those who would watch? So there it is: my reading of Barton Fink. I haven€™t touched upon everything that€™s there, not by a long shot. Barton Fink is one of my favourite movies of all time. Maybe it€™s because I€™m a writer myself, and I empathise heavily with the central character but I€™d like to think that it€™s the sheer amount of thinking, inquiring and discovery that I€™ve been allowed, even years after I first watched it. As I mentioned earlier, that€™s often the beauty of the Coen€™s for me; their movies aren€™t easy to read and sometimes end in a conventionally unsatisfying way. This may leave a sour taste for many, but their films (particularly Barton Fink) create a mental playground for an inquisitive mind. What was in the box? What was the significance of the shoes? Why did the walls bleed glue? Were Audery and Mayhew real or imagined? Doubtless this article will create a bone of contention for those who€™ve read the film differently and I encourage anyone to get onto the comment box and school us on what your take is.
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Stuart believes that the pen is mightier than the sword, but still he insists on using a keyboard.