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BARTON FINK

1991, Dir. Joel Coen
116 min. Rated R.
Starring: John Turturro, John goodman, Judy Davis, John Mahoney.

Review by Chad Shonk

THEORY #1:
"Artificial Hell"


NOTE: This is a seat-of-my-pants, on-the-spot analysis of BARTON FINK by Joel and Ethan Coen. This is written without seeing the film in several months, without any careful examination. I'm not even sure if I believe all I've written; it's just one angle, one way of looking at it.

In a sentence, BARTON FINK is about the pretentious and secluded world in which the artist lives. All of the things that drive Barton crazy are trivial compared to the problems of real life. Barton has no vision of reality, of real people, a fact that is exemplified in his inability to enjoy or write a picture about wrestling. He may know Tolstoy or Chekov or Kafka, but he doesn't know what a piledriver is. Nor is he really willing to learn. He finds the wrestling script project degrading, below him. He is an elitist, a snob, and he shares his elitist view of many that the stage is more artistic than the screen.

What drives Barton Fink mad? Besides the wrestling project mentioned above, it is the trivial that gets to Barton. The annoying bellboy, who is only there to help. The peeling of wallpaper, a slight annoyance to his artistic concentration. The destruction of the image of one of his heroes as an artist (has this character, played by John Mahoney, ever really done anything worth idolizing?) The constant visits by John Goodman's character, who is nothing but nice and friendly, if just a little overbearing. What bothers Barton, I am convinced, is not this man's behavior, but who he is. He is a working class man, a slaesman, someone below Barton's artistic mentality. And finally, there is his writer's block, the worst thing that can happen to an artist: a halt in creative flow. It is even conceivable that the rest of Barton's distractions are merely mental constructs, physical manifestations of his writer's block. But that's a whole other train of thought. So Barton is locked in his own little world (his hotel room), which comes apart (literally, as far as the wallpaper is concerned) at the seams. Barton believes he is in some sort of hell (he certainly looks and acts as such). But what is hell? Barton is certainly not in Bosnia, on the lookout for landmines. Nor is he in a rebellious Central American country, wading in a pool of childrens' blood. No, he has writer's block. Boo-hoo. Barton's hell is relative, and, in comparison to reality, petty and trivial.

Of course Barton's mental hell becomes quite insignificant when compared to the hell he witnesses during the film's final sequence. The slightly annoying salesman becomes a serial killer, the hotel of his torment becomes an inferno, flames and all, and the world that is beneath the artist comes crashing down on top of him. this is real hell.

So what is this all saying? I believe that the Coens are making a comment on the artist and the somewhat naive world in which he lives. i do not believe that the film is an overall condemnation of artists, for they are a needed aspect of society, but maybe a warning, and indictment of the latte-drinking poet-wannabees who think that Nietzche and Warhol are all that matters and that everyone else is beneath them. I think that the Coens see this aspect in themselves (the original idea was conceived when the brothers suffered a bad case of writers' block while working on their gangster picture MILLER'S CROSSING. They are not-very-commercially successful arthouse faves. The critic loves 'em, the common man has never heard of 'em. Maybe that's what Barton Fink is: Beware the power of the common man, the kind that enjoys Stallone movies and wrestling pictures, you high-minded artist wannabes. You are no better than them, just different. It is unfortunate that the majority of people who enjoy this film are just that. They sympathise with Barton, and suffer through his hell. They probably both deserve it.

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