Max Bledstein

A Serious Investigation: The Coen Brothers’ ‘Barton Fink’ (1991)

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Leading up to the release of Hail, Caesar!, Vague Visages explores the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Like director John L. Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ 1942 classic Sullivan’s Travels, the titular protagonist of Barton Fink longs to tell the story of “the common man.” But whereas Sullivan embarks on a journey to understand that story, posing as impoverished to experience life amongst the working class, Barton gets far away from it by taking a lucrative screenwriting gig in ritzy Los Angeles. He hopes to temper his choice by living at the Hotel Earle, a run down joint distant from the world of Hollywood glitz. But unlike Sullivan, he doesn’t find himself eating in soup kitchens or working in labor camps, and the contrast between their experiences highlights the reasons for Sullivan’s eventual success and Barton’s terminal writer’s block.

Even in the Earle, Barton doesn’t appear to take much interest in the lives he claims to hope to understand. When jovial insurance salesman Charlie (John Goodman) knocks on his door, Barton reluctantly agrees to have a drink with him, but he views the encounter as an unfortunate distraction from his work rather than a valuable research opportunity. Barton happily delivers a soapbox rant about his writerly mission, then doesn’t want to hear the stories Charlie attempts to share. The Charlies of the world are exactly the kinds of characters Barton want to elucidate in his work, yet he doesn’t respect the man enough to take interest in the details that could fuel an elucidation.

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Life amongst the working class isn’t the only kind of experience Barton lacks. He often looks longingly at the picture of a woman on a beach in his hotel room, and she is, at first, the only conduit for whatever sexual desire he may feel. He finally talks to a real person in whom he has a romantic interest, the enticing Audrey (Judy Davis), even asking her on a date, but his hopes are dashed when he finds out that she’s in a relationship with his writerly hero, W.P. Mathew (John Mahoney).

And so, Barton is stuck. He’s been assigned to write a wrestling movie by big shot exec Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), and he can’t get beyond the incomplete action beneath “FADE IN.” Given his highbrow intellectualism, Barton is unfamiliar with the genre. But rather than seeking out other wrestling films for inspiration or getting what he can out of Charlie, Barton turns in the opposite direction of the working class he purports to be the interest of his fiction. He goes to lunch with producer Ben Heisler (Tony Shalhoub), yet another pillar of Hollywood riches, where he meets Mayhew. Stunned by his good fortune, Barton eagerly plans a follow-up meeting with Mayhew, hoping to get whatever help he can, provided it’s not from a source he deems to be beneath him (i.e. Charlie or wrestling movies).

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Of course, the alcoholic writer can’t give Barton the help he needs, and he continues to flounder over the script. With a deadline getting closer and closer, he calls Audrey, who at least does him the favor of bringing him closer to human experience: they have sex in his hotel room. Perhaps even more helpfully, she shatters his illusions of artistic integrity by informing him that she’s made significant, uncredited contributions to Mayhew’s work, leading him to the epiphany that the literary life might not be what he thinks.

With his prior restrictions loosened, Barton is finally in better shape to write, even with the specter of Audrey’s dead body looming over him. He bangs out the script, possessed by the ability to at least write something he hasn’t had since moving to Hollywood.

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Is it any good? Lipnick sure doesn’t think so. The Coens leave the actual quality of Barton’s movie more ambiguous, but the fact remains that the script gets an unconditional red light from the studio and stays unproduced. Sullivan’s time with the working class allows him to realize the manner in which he must achieve his goal of reaching them, and Barton’s seclusion yields him only a (possibly awful) screenplay most of the world will never read, yet alone see in its intended form.

Lipnick’s cruel punishment at the end of the film, keeping Barton in the Hollywood system which fuels his problems, ensures that he won’t have the experiences he needs to do the writing he desires. Talented as he may be, Barton is cursed by a self-inflicted distance from the life that will facilitate the production of the work of his fantasies. Unlike Sullivan, Barton doesn’t have enough genuine interest in the subjects he hopes to create to ever represent or reach them in a meaningful capacity. He’s a tortured writer, and one whose torture will only keep perpetuating itself.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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