A wise man once said that you should never meet your heroes. The idea is that the people we idolize will never be as grand to us as they are in our imaginations. I’ve met more than my share of famous people, and can comfortably claim to have experienced both sides of this. I once performed an impromptu karaoke with a famous '90s pop singer - while she was still famous. I didn’t realize who she was at the time, and she didn’t bother to point it out before leaving. All I knew is that as a musician myself, I was more than a little surprised how well it went.
Viking Night: Barton Fink
By Bruce Hall
January 19, 2017
It wasn’t until my friends picked their jaws up off the floor that I found out who it was. The point isn’t that this person was necessarily a hero of mine, but it was nice to meet someone famous who didn’t seem to care that they were famous. And they didn’t care to the point that they still hung around their old stomping grounds to sing impromptu duets with oblivious college dropouts. On the other end of that spectrum is a certain pro football Hall of Famer who tried to talk me into buying cocaine for him.
Did someone say it takes ALL kinds to make a world? I disagree. There are a few kinds it definitely doesn’t take.
As a musician though, I’ve definitely stuck to that maxim. I’ve never gone out of my way to meet artists I admire. Suppose I met John Paul Jones (Zeppelin rules!) and he was a dick? There’s no telling what a trauma like that would do to my already damaged sense of creativity. Would I be inspired to succeed out of spite? Or would I crawl into a bottle and never come out? Or both? Or for that matter, would I rent a seedy hotel room in Los Angeles and roll around on the floor with John Goodman? The possibilities are endless, but it’s that last one we’re going to discuss today.
Barton Fink (John Turturro) is one of the bright new lights on Broadway, and he’s really uncomfortable with it. He’s a new playwright who’s just struck it big with his first play, and it’s weighing on him. Fink is of a decidedly meek physical presence. But he speaks in grandiose, often pretentious terms about his desire to write honest material aimed at “the common man”. There’s no doubting Fink’s sincerity, but it’s hard not to notice that he in no way thinks of himself as common. It’s not that he isn’t humble. It’s just that he’s secretly almost as impressed with himself as anyone else.
After being offered a lucrative contract to work in Hollywood, Fink weighs his options before reluctantly heading out West. He intimidated about writing for a form whose nuances he hasn’t mastered. He’s also under the assumption that it’ll be easy to adjust. He’s wrong, of course. But at first he’s greeted with enthusiasm by the head of the studio (Michael Lerner) and the producer of the film he’ll be working on (Tony Shalhoub). It’s a wrestling picture, and after moving into a hotel and grinding away at it for a few days, Fink has nothing to show for it. The quick and easy film gig no longer seems like either one.
There’s another saying I like, and that is “It’s always darkest right before it goes completely black.” It might as well have been the first line of Fink’s screenplay up to this point. But then, by way of certain circumstances, Fink meets his next door neighbor, Charlie Meadows (Goodman). Charlie is a traveling salesman, and is a big, warm, teddy bear of a man. And, he has the comforting, genial personality to match. Nobody BUT John Goodman could play him. At first, it looks like it’s going to be a Planes, Trains and Automobiles kind of thing, but the two eventually bond and develop a sort of friendship.
Remember what I said earlier, about how Fink sometimes gets when he talks about his work. Well, the irony hangs thick in that little hotel room as the Broadway writer lectures a traveling salesman about the virtues of being “common.” As Fink laments his writer’s block, the man in the room with the most insight into the problem can’t get a word in edgewise. Turturro deftly straddles the stark, imaginary boundary I just placed between “earnest” and “asshole.” He really believes in his artistic ideals, and the way he describes them would be interesting, if only he’d dial it down from eleven.
The tragedy of course, is that Barton Fink spends so much time talking up a game he doesn’t yet fully understand how to play. At this point in the story you’d be comfortable assuming this is going to be some kind of feel-good thing where Charlie teaches Barton how to believe in himself through the power of wrestling, or something. Well, this is an early Coen Brothers film - did I mention that? Well it is, so no, there’s not going to be any of that Disney crap here. The tone of “Barton Fink” falls definitely in the “dark comedy” category, only with just a dusting of actual comedy.
In fact tonally, the story itself comes across like an enigmatic writer who is funny as hell on paper, but can do little more than smirk and squirm during face to face conversation. It’s hot and damp in that hotel, for some reason, to the point that the wallpaper is constantly peeling and there are mosquitos. Charlie has a disgusting ear infection. Between that, the glue dripping from the walls, and the sounds of constant animal sex from the other adjacent unit, the Hotel Earle is a hot mess.
I mentioned heroes, right? As hot a mess as everything else is, none of it comes close to what happens when in a subplot, Fink strikes up a friendship with his idol. WP Mayhew (John Mahoney) is one of the most respected writers of the day (the “day” being the 1940s), and he has settled in Hollywood with the woman who may or may not just be his secretary (Judy Davis). Mayhew turns out to be very different from the man whose writing Fink respects, and as the narrative darkness of this plot begins to influence Fink’s world back at the hotel, the movie takes on a distinctly surreal feeling.
Which includes, by the way, some of the most tasteful use of Dutch angles I can remember seeing. I notice that in particular with Barton Fink because the second half of the film gets more and more bonkers until you’re not sure whether or not we’re in the same universe anymore. I found myself looking for signposts, trying to get my bearings. Then, finally, the story strikes a landing. That’s all I can say, unless I can think of a way to describe how I feel about it without ruining the content. I mean, part of Barton Fink is a borderline brilliant study in how torturous the creative process can be to the truly dedicated artist.
The other part of the movie feels like it’s getting lost in the woods before, as I said, it strikes that landing. I know - imagine Mary Lou Retton, flipping and spinning her way through your mind now, just as she (always) is through mine. But when she strikes that iconic pose they’ll eventually put on the Wheaties box, imagine she’s bald and has no teeth. You’d WANT to clap, because she Mary Lou-Rettoned the hell out of that routine. But...ew...what?
I just want to prepare you - not just for the nightmares you’re probably going to have tonight, but for how you’ll feel at the end of Barton Fink. Are you okay with a potentially great film making the conscious decision to let some of its biggest plot points play out off screen? Before leaving a surprising amount of it unresolved? I’m fine with unanswered questions, but when so much of what you’ve spent two hours investing in ends up feeling fruitless, that can be frustrating. No doubt, the weirdness that characterizes the last half or so of Barton Fink is disorienting, at first.
But I think when you step back and take the long view, when all is said and done you’ll see some interesting character arcs. Some will seem fulfilling, and some will feel arbitrary. But the common thread holding it all together - at least my interpretation of it - is ultimately satisfying. And I’m not even sure I mean “to me” as much as I do certain characters in the film. Barton Fink is not a Flawless Victory. But like most Coen-related material, it feels a little like Sophocles and Arthur Miller wrote a play, someone filmed it, and that film mostly succeeds on its own terms.
There aren’t many filmmakers you can say that about.