“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m not sure any more. I guess I try to make a difference. ”
In the film that bears his name, Barton Fink (John Turturro, Do the Right Thing) is marked by uncertainty of purpose, lingering in limbo between the validation he secretly craves and the lucrative living he openly abhors. After success on Broadway, the playwright eschews his firming foundations in the New York theatre scene to try his hand at the motion picture business, reluctantly willing to take a chance but never quite sure of his decision. The Hollywood world that awaits only confirms his hesitance, as studio executives (Michael Lerner, Maniac Cop 2) crow with confidence, producers (Tony Shalhoub, Quick Change) talk fast and furious, and fellow scribes (John Mahoney, The Russia House) placate their creative hindrances with amber liquids. In a run-down hotel off the beaten path, only his larger-than-life neighbour, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman, King Ralph), offers a friendly face; alas, in his adopted home as in his ever-shifting existence, everything is transient.
Writing and helming their fourth feature after Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen prove the opposite of their fragile, fractured protagonist, employing their arsenal of unconventionalities to craft a work of ambition and assurance. As Fink darts and dallies with indecision prolonged by the ephemeral and unknown, the Coens’ proceed with conviction and coherence, confirming their extensive talents and creating cinematic history. Set in the pre-World War II Hollywood of 1941, their film is lovingly pieced together with exquisite period detail, and affectionately cognisant of its inspiration and influences, yet bold in its moulding of homage and originality into a unique form. That the end result earned the praise that its lead character first shrugs off, then boasts and covets, is an apt epilogue; winning an unprecedented three prizes at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival (the Palme d’Or, best director and best actor), Barton Fink is an unusual shining gem amidst a wealth of content with similar concerns.
Despite appearances, the disparity between the feature’s on- and off-screen realms swiftly decreases, in the Coen brothers’ typical offbeat style. Fink’s struggles may sit in stark contrast to the fortunes of the filmmakers; however symmetry exists in their trajectories – the former sinking despite all attempts to the contrary, the latter using their eccentricities to ascend to increasingly greater heights. As sadness and madness envelope a man trained by the expected, tested by the inexplicable and tricked by the ordinary, the film weaves layer upon layer of themes and throwbacks into a symphony of satire and surrealism. Every anarchic narrative development only enhances its resonance; each incursion of visual and stylistic chaos serves to heighten the complexity; both embody an effort truly concerned with duality and dichotomy.
Indeed, from the instant the audience first glimpses the earnest, nervous Fink waiting in the wings as his play unravels to rapturous applause, to his moment of catharsis 116 minutes later, the character is obvious in his collection of contradictions. He needs yet loathes praise, espouses the worthiness of art and intellectualism yet barely pauses for thought about following the money, is eager to please his new employer yet always acts above the job, and is quick to complain yet won’t back up his protests with the courage of his convictions. All those who surround him possess the same division – from the studio enforcer (Jon Polito, The Freshman) who threatens those below but cowers to those above, to the so-called writing secretary (Judy Davis, High Tide) who boasts the wit and skill in her relationship, but welcomes the comfort of subservience. Fink is overt in his judgement, but oblivious to his own similar stature, with the feature delightfully, delicately and oh-so-darkly exploring – but never resorting to rationalising – the variance.
An array of knowing nods furnish the devilish details, all amassed with speed, skill, flair and finesse. Grounding its central premise in the writing perils and pitfalls of Sunset Boulevard (complete with shades of a murder mystery), its journey of discovery in fellow industry-centric effort Sullivan’s Travels (including the quest to create entertainment that captures the attention of the common man), its ominous Art Deco setting in the labyrinthine twists and turns of The Shining (expressionistic, writer’s block-fuelled flourishes of artistic, untrustworthy frenzy among them), and its mood of psychological malaise in the early offerings of Roman Polanski (as seen in Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Tenant), the film overflows with intertwined allusions. Titles, lines, characters and scenarios all bear resemblance to an assortment of sources – literary, as well as cinematic. Whilst predicated upon the works of others and heightened by such knowledge, Barton Fink still stands alone, surging on its use of the familiar to reveal hidden depths and secrets.
And yet, at the feature’s core sits evident, inherent simplicity: a protagonist with noble but waylaid intentions, filmmakers able to see comedy in absurdist divergences, and performers committed to the idea over their individual standing. It is the combination that drives the film, just as the mixture of muses infuses it with texture, each complementing the other. The feats of the marvellous cast typify the collective ethos, with Turturro at his most desperate and accessible, Goodman gregarious and gifted with eloquent vernacular, and Davis warm and wise in the “been there, seen that way” manner; so too, the intricate aesthetic sheen crafted by Roger Deakins’ (Air America) deliberate cinematography and the Coens’ deft editing (under their shared pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes). Their efforts make a difference, as does the vivid, vibrant final product – and, although not in the way he anticipated, so does Barton Fink.