“I Will Show You the Life of the Mind!”



The thing that’s always been confounding to me about Barton Fink is how condemning it is. Not just condemning, but brutally, horrifically condemning. Not a one comes out of it unscathed. Not a one.

From their very smart start with the crime noir Blood Simple in 1985, Joel and Ethan Coens’ infectious love for cinema has been apparent. This love is evidenced in the way they appropriate genres of the past; how cinema of yore envelopes them. For a while, they even went so far as to cop the “don’t call us artist” front of golden era directing titans John Ford and Howard Hawks, sans the crank factor of those guys. All the while, there was of course no denying that those guys were in fact always artists, straight-up and true. So why the persistent denials? Why the shame?

Now that the Coen brothers are older and directing titans in their own right (not to mention writing and producing titans), they’ve relaxed on the bit, embracing a more open acknowledgement of their very unique place in the Hollywood ecosystem. These are the rare few who get to make their own movies, their way. Whether it be comedy or drama, their touch is unmistakable.

Most anyone who knows the work of Joel and Ethan Coen know that they are of a singular brilliance. Also, they’ve been lucky. How lucky? They got to make Barton Fink, that’s how lucky. It’s been said that Hollywood loves to portend to guilt and confession over its persistent dream-crushing narcissism and smiling dishonesty. In their subsequent industry-skewering effort, Hail, Caesar!, Josh Brolin’s studio “fixer” actually attends religious confession compulsively, unable truly to grasp his complicit role within this system. At least, though, he understands on some level his need for spiritual cleansing. One can only imagine how, when hanging around the L.A. lot of the Coens’ fictitious Capitol Pictures, “the sins of the fathers” might permeate the place. Indeed, Capitol Pictures is the very same wretched film studio in Barton Fink, depicted a decade or two earlier. But, suffice it to say, Hail, Caesar! is every bit not the twenty-plus-years-later in-form follow-up to Barton Fink just as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Ruturn reportedly isn’t to the original 1990-91 Twin Peaks.

John Turturro, in a downright ingenious bit of casting, is Mr. Fink. With his Harold Lloyd glasses and Eraserhead hair, he manages to be the embodiment displaced vulnerable smarm. A renowned playwright and off-stage sensation of the theater, he is lured to Hollywood by moguls hungry to exploit “that Barton Fink feeling”. It’s Hollywood, and Barton is bitten by the bug, alright. Only, the bug is a big nasty mosquito, forever in search of blood. It leaves more than one mark.

All too soon, however, the feeling, bearing his name or otherwise, goes away. Or, more accurately, fails to ever arrive. Assigned to writing an undignified “wrestling picture” to star the burly actor Wallace Beery (Beggars of Life), any inkling of inspiration saps away, almost as though the Burbank zoning boundaries includes an invisible anti-originality filter. The blank page in his typewriter taunts him. The hotel he’s quarantined in is eating his soul. The fabric of reality is becoming infrared. But, at least he’s got a friend in self-proclaimed “common man” Charlie (John Goodman), an insurance salesman living across the hall. He even entrusts Barton to watch his secret box. Yessiree, F. Scott Fitzgerald never had it so good.

Barton Fink is an amusingly uncomfortable sideways sneer at this town that’s been the hub of this art form the Coens, ever the Minnesota boys at heart, love so much, in which they’ve attained such rare artistic freedom. In such, they’re loath to turn a blind eye to the common man. Their Hollywood is an inhabited festering boil where everyone’s a transient, no one is to be trusted, and at this time, there’s a war threatening to eat everything. (True of both the early 1940s of the film and 1991, in which they made it).

John Goodman crashes with John Turturro in BARTON FINK.

It’s been said that the Coens were suffering from writer’s block themselves when this film came about. If so, it joins Fellini’s 8 1/2 on the list of great if greatly uncomfortable writer’s block movies. It’s also relatively safe to assume that just as The Big Lebowski seems to be a crazed decompression after making the more level Fargo, so too might Barton Fink be in relation to its immediate predecessor, Miller’s Crossing. “The life of the mind” may be a precarious thing, but the Coens seem to let no spark go untindered. They will burn up with screens with whatever they’ve got, be it crazy comedy or twisted drama, both “common” and highly artful. They help to shatter the high art/low art divide, even through their headiest films, such as Barton Fink.

Nevertheless, they are an isolated case. When it’s de rigueur for the high minded inteligencia to fawn over the art of “the common man”, that condescending mentality so often ultimately results in a toxic divide. What should be a bridge enabling greater understanding and empathy is warped by the beholder to suit a need for superiority. From the early popularity of animator Walt Disney (adored as a simple artist of the Midwest) to the current critical reception for Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (a heist comedy set in the southern NASCAR world, bearing just enough of a leftist agenda) so much of “the Art world” has come to be recognized for this, its dark side. Subsequently, art itself, as a viable and necessary thing, is corrupted. It is a corrosive corruption that’s eaten a ravine of both inaccessibility and refusal on behalf of “common” folk.

Movies were supposed to change that. Suddenly, around the turn of the previous century, there was a miraculous new technology that enabled visual artists and technicians to recreate the phenomenon of dreaming – for the masses. After all, everyone dreams, regardless of one’s social status. Yet, by the 1940’s, the art-class inteligencia had either moved away from cinema, or had made too many failed inroads into cinema. Consequently, we end up with the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks denying their artist hand as though it is a mark of shame. By the time Barton Fink‘s primary “common man” character lashes out in a fiery and murderous rage, it is the hard-line vengeance of a million Trump voters.

Just like that, the tables are turned. Never mind that it’s the precocious stooges who were simply trying to make sense of things that are the casualties. Barton Fink himself gets away with only a talking-to and a crushed soul. There are, as it turns out, many lessons to be had with his namesake film.

Too bad it was too doggone artsy for the common folk to bother engaging with in 1991. But not really; not at all. Barton Fink is a fascinatingly oblique piece of work, something heretofore unseen by the Coens; maybe anywhere. Any moral center and easy identification may be elusive, but the world of the film is so palpable you can almost small the mold and ego. This despite its gaudily, busy immaculateness.  

Perhaps, then, 2017 is the right time to revisit Barton Fink. All we critics could do at the time was nominate it for some awards, with only the French going so far as to actually award it. (Three-time winner at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, including a unanimous granting of the top prize, the Palme d’Or).  However well anyone was able to comprehend this nightmarish puzzle of ego and undoing back then, it must be more resonant now.

Kino Lorber has supplemented their hi-def version of the film with several newly created interviews.  First among them is a fourteen minute chat with John Turturro, a soft-spoken but engaging affair. The most unforgettable, though, is the interview with costar Michael Lerner, as honest as it is unruly. Suffice to say, his personality really comes though… Next up is a twelve minute talk with producer Ben Barenholtz, and finally a shared piece with longtime Coens’ composer Carter Burwell, and sound engineer Skip Lievsay. Kudos to KL for going the extra mile in making this Blu-Ray extra special. Also included are the deleted scenes previously available on the old 20th Century Fox DVD edition. As for the look and sound of the film itself, I have no complaints. Through its presentation of the Coens’ intended sights and sound, the inner-horror and isolation of it all is fully felt.

Briefly, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a fine ying to Barton Fink‘s yang, a new documentary called Obit., also released this month by Kino Lorber. Obit. is as profound a film about writing as Fink is about not being able to write. Just as the Coens show us the life of the mind, the maker of Obit. has taken an interest in the life of the life. This is as unlikely and fateful a double bill if there there was one. Chalk it up to the difference between Hollywood and New York, or male and female directors, or what have you; there’s room for all. Just don’t look in the box.

The life of the mind is a terrible thing to waste, or to have wasted. Barton Fink is condemning alright, almost as condemning as Barton Fink. There’s a beautiful bluntness to its sharp edges, and a beautiful edge to its sharp bluntness. It’s a challenging movie that wormed its way out from the dark recesses of a century of crushed hopes, failed careers and hollow successes. The Coens show us that the creative spark can come from even the most desecrated of places, a spotless dream place where yet more dreams go to die.