Barton Fink is one of my all-time favourite films. Its subtext is so deep, that its impossible to say that it has one overriding meaning. It is, after all, the mark of the Coens to produce a story that cant be defined in a sentence, cant 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 havent 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 theyve watched and thought about the film, its story and its myriad of meanings. Its also so rife with spoilers it reads like a crib sheet, so if you were hoping for a more impartial, review-like feature then Im sorry to disappoint. Barton Fink was the Coen Bros. fourth film, released in 1991, directly following Millers Crossing. If youve truly wished to understand Millers Crossing, its many facets and intricacies, then youve seen it more than once and youll understand how complex its plot is. So complex in fact, that the process of penning it was enough to temporarily burn the Coens out, and they took a hiatus before it was completed. It was during this hiatus that Barton Fink was conceived and written. Its worth mentioning before I go on that to me, the Coens use film as an interpretative medium; Barton Finks story and imagery may be metaphorical or allegorical of many things. Some readings youll find out there will purvey that its a film about the dangers of living inside ones own mind, others that Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) represents Nazism, and Fink ineffectual left-wing liberalism. Others argue that its 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 Coens 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 doesnt mean that if youve worked in a supermarket your whole life you must write about working in a supermarket, but one cant presume to write about, lets say depression, if one has never suffered depression. A writers work (if its 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 Millers 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, Bartons 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. Theres initial resistance from Barton, whose commitment is to his art. But of course something, whether its 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. Its a single moment of hypocrisy that leads him to L.As decrepit Hotel Earle, but it foreshadows the many that will follow during Finks 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 Bartons fast-talkin, high-trousers producer Ben Geisler, played by Tony Shalhoub, points out) there arent any mosquitos in L.A, it being a desert town. At a parallel, Bartons 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 Bartons adopted mentor W.P Mayhew slowly deconstructs his illusions of romanticism in writing and Audrey, Mayhews long suffering secretary, hammers in the final nail when she reveals that Mayhews writing was actually hers. Barton is driven mad by his own ideals, by the fact that theyre 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 hes 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. Hes not really empathising with his common man here is he? When given the opportunity to sample the pleasure or anguish of his common man, hed 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 I 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 Bartons 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. Theres 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. Im a writer! he screams, I 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 (Cant trade my head in for a new one, Youve got a good head on your shoulders Things 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 Coens are pointing us toward the subtext of their setting; realistic logic is eerily absent within its walls, almost as if the Hotel Earle represents Finks inner-self (and the structure he imposes on himself by accepting the Wallace Beery picture), the Room his mind. Could the Coens be visually illustrating the point, with the Hotel Earle, that experiencing life from inside ones 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 Finks Hotel Earle. If were to give credence to the argument that the Hotel Earle is emblematic of Barton Finks inner-self, then that would insinuate that Charlie Meadows himself is a creation of the writers mind (a commonly held interpretation). Bear with me, cause heres where it starts to go metaphysical. Barton ignores Charlies attempts to relay his stories when they first meet, but if Charlie is imagined, wouldnt that mean that Barton is ignoringhis own stories? Metaphorically attempting to block out his own writers 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. Theres one resounding piece of subliminal evidence to support this theory: the night before Barton complains about the noise from Charlies room, he hears a high pitched, throaty drone coming from next door (which sounds eerily similar to Charlies laugh/cry to which Barton goes on to complain about) but hes 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, hes described forcibly stopping himself from doing it. Is Charlie an aspect of Bartons 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 Ive heard it said that Meadows is supposed to represent the Devil. This argument is certainly not unfounded but in my opinion, its deeper than that. Meadows is a Devil alright, but its too easy to say hes just the Devil. Hes a Devil within Fink perhaps; a visual representation of the source of Finks story-telling, and its fiery reaction to being suppressed. Could this whole relationship be a self-perpetuating metaphor, encapsulating the Coens 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 artists dismayed outcry over the creative lose-lose so often associated with Hollywood. In wonderful Coen bros. fashion, its not clear exactly whos real, whos imagined and who, if anyone, was actually murdered in the reality of the film world. This is definitely one of my preferred readings, but theres another altogether more succinct theory concerning the relationship between Barton and Charlie. Its 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 Charlies 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, theres 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 doesnt have any attention left over). Charlie talks of sexual conquest with his customers but we can safely assume its a lie; an untruth possibly to impress Barton. Whats 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, its 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 Heil Hitler); driven mad by loneliness he latches onto Barton in a desperate attempt at human interaction. He tries to become Bartons inspiration, tries to inspire him, even tries to demonstrate a knowledge of wrestling (insisting upon contact), but Barton remains largely ignorant to Charlies 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 shes anything but common. When they make love, the camera takes us down the drain in Finks bathroom sink; they are now the love-makers on the other side of the wall and Charlies anguished screams at hearing them through the pipes signifies his breaking point. We know what happens next. Theres one sure fire way to get me to re-watch a film and thats to confuse me with the ending. Ive 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 its in his mind. The bathing beauty picture is a piece of mass-produced low art, probably hanging in every room in the Hotel Earle. Bartons increasing obsession runs at a parallel with his attempts to lower his own art for the Wallace Beery audience (today known as Michael Bays 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 Coens 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. Doesnt that then mean that purveyors of film have a certain responsibility to their audience? That this power shouldnt 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 havent touched upon everything thats there, not by a long shot. Barton Fink is one of my favourite movies of all time. Maybe its because Im a writer myself, and I empathise heavily with the central character but Id like to think that its the sheer amount of thinking, inquiring and discovery that Ive been allowed, even years after I first watched it. As I mentioned earlier, thats often the beauty of the Coens for me; their movies arent 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 whove read the film differently and I encourage anyone to get onto the comment box and school us on what your take is.