I suppose there could be no better self-proclaimed champion of the proletariat and vehicle of Hollywood satire than a New York playwright. You will find exactly that sentiment in Barton Fink the man. In Barton Fink the movie, that man’s piety and pedantry characterize his so-called writing process as he claims to serve an age-old pretension of art: that it be created for and about the Common Man… as long as that man is plainly uncommon.
Set in 1941 and loosely based on American playwright Clifford Odets, Barton Fink illustrates how a left-wing hero of the working class fresh off his first Broadway hit might not smoothly transition into the role of Hollywood screenplay manufacturer. Indeed Fink (John Turturro) possesses the creativity, intellect, and antisocial personality disorder required to be a respectable writer. But can he write a wrestling film? Such are his marching orders from Capitol Pictures executive Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner).
Fink dutifully sets out to create a first draft and checks into Hotel Earle, a vast Art Deco building with drab walls and long corridors that give the place a surreal emptiness. Under the hapless guidance of a flippant producer (Tony Shalhoub) and an esteemed writer-turned-drunkard (John Mahoney), Fink finds no peace of mind while making big money within the studio system. Finally, the presence of Charlie (John Goodman) as the next-door neighbor, traveling insurance salesman, and possibly Satan himself creates a sense of foreboding throughout and ultimately shows how Fink’s exploration of the mind comes at a steep price.
In typical Coen Brothers fashion, the film rears its head at genre classification and moves to the rhythm of an offbeat drum. The Coens achieve a sustained feeling of unease and unpredictability through sound, tempo, and visual style. Murmurs, hums, cries, buzzes, and rings all permeate Fink’s world within the hotel. A sex scene transitions into a snakelike journey down a bathroom drain. Hotel bedrooms and hallways become apocalyptic spectacles of blood and fire. As he tries to write, Fink’s enthusiasm transforms into desperation, and his inner artistic reverie has become a nightmarish landscape.
What seems like a grandiose exploration of the nature of creativity and the purpose of art really just manifests as the story of a writer whose artistic purity reveals itself as merely self-obsession. Fink claims to work for the Common Man, but only reaches out to others when it would serve his own desires. Instead of listening to Charlie tell stories of his travels, Fink obliviously blabbers on about his own fantasies. What looked like a Hollywood satire story on the surface actually resembles a darkly comedic portrait of a hack.
Sure, Hollywood might be a place where creativity is stifled, art is commoditized, and morals are compromised. And maybe the path from a New York theatre to an LA backlot exists for sellouts and phonies. But perhaps a writer doesn’t need to travel that far to witness men putting a price on the formerly intrinsic value of art. Fink says he understands the Common Man, but he misses the fact that for many common men, the influence of money holds the most built-in appeal.
Film Forum will screen Barton Fink on January 29 as part of a lineup of Coen Brothers films from January 22 to February 4.
If you’d rather not wash your hands, your face and hair with snow, then cuddle up and let your laptop purr with the Criterion Collection’s free feline-themed festival, Cats!, streaming on Hulu this week.
In honor of their release of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Criterion Collection has selected a set of films that feature memorable, albeit not all that friendly, cats. From the supernatural bakenekos in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968) to the beloved pet in Shiro Toyoda’s Shozo, a Cat, and Two Women (1956), the Criterion’s small but varied selection takes a wide-mouthed bite into the dense catalogue of cats on film.
By far, my favorite cat cameo is the black cat that attacks little Ana in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Set in a Castilian village in 1940 during the aftermath of a civil war that resulted in a Francoist victory, Erice’s honey-tinged film operates within a world of symbolism, subtly slipping political commentary past Franco regime censors. In the cat attack scene, six-year-old Ana, whose obsession with a fateful Frankenstein screening drives much of the film, pulls the cat from under the bed onto her lap. Ana’s sweet head rubbing and massaging eventually gives way to rough handling as she asks the cat, “What is wrong with you?” The cat’s green eyes narrow until it twists from Ana’s tightened grasp with a yowl and strikes her. Ana then wipes her bloody finger on her lips and admires the stain in a hand-held mirror.
Ana’s goading captures a certain unthinking malice that I associate strongly with childhood. In a scene not so dissimilar, I lounged on my bed blowing air into my schnauzer’s face until the usually mild-mannered Lacey snapped and bit my cheek. Like Ana I didn’t cry but instead sat fascinated with my ability to create a monster out of something so familiar. Symbolically, Ana’s actions represent a desire for autonomy, which after all is the plight of childhood—or of anyone who is controlled by, say, a fascist regime.