Coen Bros: Barton Fink

Barton and Charlie compare their soles.

THE LITTLE GUY: I don’t like to dwell on the symbolism of Opening Shots, but the first thing we see in Barton Fink is a lead weight descending on a rope, backstage in a Broadway theater. The weight comes down as the protagonist’s career goes up.

Barton Fink finds its protagonist at a moment of transition, socially speaking. He’s just become a success on Broadway and is quite pleased with himself, but is tempted by the opportunity to go to Hollywood and write for the movies. When he gets to Hollywood, he finds that no one knows who he is, no one has seen his play, no one cares about his ideas and he’s back at the bottom of the social order again.

(It was fantasies like Barton Fink that led me to believe that life could be good as a playwright in New York. Damn you, Barton Fink!)

Barton is solipsistic, egocentric, self-important, conceited, delusional, inward, dense and utterly humorless. He has a success on Broadway, a kitchen-sink drama about “real people,” cheered by swanky society types in white ties and ball gowns while Barton thinks he’s struck a blow for the “common man.” Meanwhile, he looks down on movies, is completely unfamiliar with the form in fact, as worthless garbage (this at the height of the studio system, the first “golden age” of Hollywood and the year of Citizen Kane). So he loves the “common man” and wants to create a “real theater” for them, while writing plays for the wealthy to coo over and disdaining popular culture.

(How self-involved is Barton? He’s so self-involved that the actor we hear reciting Barton’s lines onstage in the Broadway theater is the same actor who plays Barton, John Turturro. This play, this production, this theater, this success, it seems, is all in Barton’s head. The theater is all in Barton’s head, just as the Hotel Earle, we will find, is all in Charlie Meadows’s head.)

WHO IS BARTON FINK? Maybe Barton Fink is really just a movie about a delusional playwright who leaves New York, goes to Hollywood and gets into a mess of trouble. But I don’t think so. Symbols and indicators keep piling up and the narrative takes a sharp left turn at the end of Act II, turning Barton Fink from an off-center Hollywood comedy to something darker, creepier, harder to “get” and more cosmic. This is, in fact, the movie that, for me, moved the Coens from the “interesting filmmakers to watch” list to the “all-time great, long-term artist” list.

Barton isn’t just a playwright moving to Hollywood. He’s a “serious” playwright moving to Hollywood, a town that has a phobia of “serious,” a town which, since time immemorial, is where writers go to lose their souls. Moreover, he’s a serious playwright moving to Hollywood in late 1941, as World War II raged in Europe and American involvement was just about to begin. The signs of this are everywhere in Barton Fink, but Fink himself remains absolutely oblivious throughout. Even when he goes out to celebrate at a USO show, in a dance floor filled with uniforms, he utterly refuses to acknowledge who these soldiers and sailors are and what they’re about to go do (in Barton’s defense, the all-goyim army at the USO show recognize Barton as a bespectacled Jewish freak — and proceed to attack him).

So: Barton is a delusional, self-involved playwright lost in Hollywood, utterly oblivious to the world situation as he struggles to write a B-movie. And the movie hangs together as far as that goes, but then there is the question of Barton’s Jewishness. People bring it up all the time, and never in a favorable light. The Jews who run the studio call each other “kike” and constantly cut each other down, while the (German and Italian) detectives who come around in Act III are decidedly more ominous in their dealings with Fink. So, Barton, it seems, is a self-involved Jewish playwright who gets lost in Hollywood as World War II rages in The Old Country. (“Minsk, if you want to go all the way back,” offers studio-boss Lipnick, underlining the connection from Hollywood to New York to Eastern Europe.) He’s a Jew ignoring the Holocaust, writing self-important nonsense while his people are slaughtered by the millions. Even when Lipnick himself turns up in a colonel’s uniform and starts spouting patriotic rhetoric (“Don’t you know there’s a war on?!”), Barton remains firmly in his own head. He even stuffs his ears with cotton to drown out the sounds of the hotel as he writes his meaningless, pretentious, self-important screenplay, as blood dries on his bed’s mattress not three feet away.

If Barton is a self-involved Jew, the mosquito that keeps him up all night is that thing that would keep any Jew up all night in 1941, that niggling, inescapable sensation that something is coming for you, something that wants your blood. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but the mosquito’s buzzing seems to echo the tinny sound of a faraway air-raid siren.

Who gets Barton into this mess? His decidedly non-Jewish agent in New York, Garland Jeffries. And who does Barton aspire to be, who does he look up to? William P. Mayhew, respected Southern Novelist. And, it turns out, a complete fraud.

(Later, Barton will find himself, ironically, becoming more and more like Mayhew — a failed has-been who can’t get his scripts made, a fraud who gets his ideas from Mayhew’s muse, and an early-morning drinker.)

WHAT IS THIS HOTEL? Barton moves into this run-down hotel, the Earle. What is the Earle? There are strong indications that it’s not a “real” place. First of all, we never see anyone there besides Barton, the desk clerk and Charlie, Barton’s next-door neighbor. Secondly, Barton’s room hasn’t been touched in years — almost as though this room has been waiting here for him all his life, that he is the first and last guest ever to stay here.

Then there’s the wallpaper, which keeps falling off the walls, with icky, sticky gunk dripping from it. The same icky, sticky gunk is seen later dripping from the ears of Charlie, making a solid connection between the hotel and Charlie. Charlie mentions at one point that he can hear the couple on the other side of Barton making love, suggesting that he can, in fact, hear everything in the hotel. Later on, Charlie suggests that the hotel is, in fact, his home. All these things suggest that the hotel is a part of Charlie, that Barton, essentially, lives inside Charlie’s head.

(As the wallpaper peels off, the veneer of the mask of the hotel peels away too. It’s not for nothing that the wallpaper catches on fire as Charlie/Karl charges down the hall at the end of the movie.)

THEN WHO IS CHARLIE? Well, first off, we know by the end of the movie that Charlie isn’t Charlie, he’s Karl Mundt, a crazed killer who chops up bodies and keeps their heads. If the Earle is his home, his “head office” (a term Charlie uses in Act III: “I know what it’s like when things get balled up at the head office”), I’m going to go out on a symbolist limb here and say that Charlie is Satan and the Hotel Earle is Hell.

(“You come into my home and complain about about too much noise?” cries Charlie in disbelief, just before setting Barton free from the holocaust he’s created.)

(I might mention here that, just as Charlie is not really Charlie, Chet [the bellman] may not really be named Chet — we only have his word for that, and his business card is a blank rectangle with the word “Chet!” scrawled on it [rather like a movie screen, that blank white rectangle — another blank for projecting a fantasy].)

(The devil Charlie does not challenge his doomed to a chess match — no, he’s a regular-guy, blue-collar kind of devil — he invites Bart to a wrestling match. And soundly trounces him. To make the connection clearer for the audience, the Coens have Barton watch the dailies of a picture called Devil on the Canvas, featuring an enormous man repeatedly shouting “I will destroy him!”)

(It’s ironic that Barton first meets Charlie after he complains about Charlie making too much noise while sobbing next door — for a man who doesn’t listen, refusing to pay attention to suffering [while making it the subject of his writing, of course], he’s got a mighty sensitive ear.)

In Act III, a couple of detectives, Deutsch and Mastronetti, come looking for Mundt, and act extremely threateningly toward Barton. It cannot be a coincidence that the men looking for Satan in the Hotel Earle in 1941 are German and Italian, hate Jews, and end up being destroyed by the entity they seek, any more than it could be a coincidence that Charlie/Karl/Satan mockingly chirps “Heil Hitler” before blowing off the German’s head.

NOW THEN: If Miller’s Crossing is about hats, Barton Fink is about shoes. (And, conversely, heads.) I was watching Barton Fink a few times ago and thought “Barton is concerned about his soul, and there are all these prominent shots of shoes in the movie. Could the Coens be making a glib “soul-sole” connection? And yet, once I had made the connection myself, the whole movie fell into place. Barton moves into the Earle, which is Hell. The bellman, Chet, emerges up from a trap door in the floor, clutching a shoe, the sole toward the camera. Chet, it seems, is a demon in Charlie’s Hell whose job it is to collect souls. Later in the movie we see him moving his shoe cart down the empty hall, that empty hall of the hotel with no one in it, and yet there is a pair of shoes outside every door. The people are gone, the souls remain. At another point, Barton and Charlie get each other’s shoes (Barton finds Charlie’s too big for him). Still later, when studio-boss Lipnick wants to show his devotion to Barton’s purity, he kisses the sole of his shoe.

(Barton first discovers Charlie because he hears Charlie weeping next door, but by the end of the movie it is Barton we can hear weeping alone in his room from the empty, shoe-filled hallway.)

AND THEN THERE’S THE HEADS: The Broadway theater is all in Barton’s head, the hotel is all in Charlie/Karl’s head, Mayhew’s career is all in his head, his muse’s head is (supposedly) in a box on Barton’s nightstand, Charlie/Karl complains about things getting “balled up at the head office,” which is his code phrase for “I’m getting the overwhelming urge to kill again,” but when Mayhew’s muse’s body is discovered he insists “We have to keep our heads.” Lipnick tells Barton twice that his studio owns “Whatever rattles around that fat kike head of yours,” Charlie complains that his head is killing him, just after charging down the hallway screaming “I will show you the life of the mind!” and earlier comforts Barton by saying the extremely uncomforting homily “Where there’s a head, there’s hope.”

SO WHO’S THE GIRL? As Barton writes, a photo of a girl on a beach hangs over his desk. He often contemplates this picture, and then, magically, meets the same girl on the same beach at the end of the movie. Is the girl a siren, an unattainable mirage, there to tempt Barton ever onward onto the dangerous rocks of Hollywood? Why does he place Charlie/Karl’s picture next to hers for inspiration? Is it because, when he first heard Charlie laughing/crying in the next room, his voice seemed to come from the picture? Is the girl just another incarnation of the devil, tempting Barton toward his fate? When Barton meets her, she says “It’s a beautiful day” and Barton, typically, cannot hear her. When he asks if she’s in pictures, she says “Don’t be silly.” Barton, of course, is asking “Are you the same girl who’s in the picture over my desk?” but the girl responds as though he’s asking “Are you an actress?” By replying “Don’t be silly” is she saying that she’s not the girl in the picture, or is she saying that movies are, as Barton has suspected all along, silly? And what does it mean when Barton, while watching the dailies for Devil on the Canvas, hears the pounding sea on the soundtrack? And what does it mean when the shots from Devil on the Canvas are echoedin the USO fight? And why do the grunts and yells from Devil on the Canvas are echoed in the drainpipe the camera disappears down at the end of Act II? Do we hear the shouts from Devil on the Canvas because the pipes are within Charlie/Karl’s head, or because the pipes lead to the sea (classic symbol of chaos), where the girl sits on the beach?

ANOTHER VIEW ON BARTON’S DILEMMA: When Charlie/Karl pulls his shotgun out of his policy case, I am reminded of a lecture I once saw by David Mamet. He told the audience that the purpose of art is “not to instruct, but to delight.” An audience member raised their hand and said, in a very Barton Fink sort of way, “Yes, but doesn’t the artist have a duty to try to change the way people think?” To which Mamet said “If you want to change the way people think, art is not a very good tool for that. There is, however, an excellent tool for changing the way people think — it’s called a gun.”

ECHOES: Barton Fink, like many Coen movies, is about a non-talker lost in a sea of blabbermouths. Barton only talks when he’s feeling confident enough to do so (and then he’s a gibbering moron), but Charlie and Lipnick and Geisler are all motor-mouthed yappers.

Tony Shaloub plays Geisler, and the Coens, apparently, liked the scene in the studio commissary where Geisler counsels Barton while stuffing his face so much that they had him do the exact same scene again in The Man Who Wasn’t There.

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29 Responses to “Coen Bros: Barton Fink”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Do you think you’re the only blogger who can give me that Barton Fink feeling?

    I love the fact that when the Coens got writer’s block while they were working on Miller’s Crossing, they wrote a movie about a screenwriter with writer’s block. (This is why there’s a Barton Arms in the earlier film.)

  2. jbacardi says:

    This has always been my least favorite Coen film, (well, until The Ladykillers anyway) and I’ve never really been sure why. Maybe I need to rescreen it sometime soon.

    • craigjclark says:

      I’ve always loved it myself, and I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen when it was shown at an art film retrospective.

      • jbacardi says:

        I’ll bet it would be more impressive, no doubt.

        I think that part of my problem with it was that I watched it really late one evening, and was really sleepy before it was over.

        • Todd says:

          It’s funny you found it boring, because I liked it instantly, long before I had any idea what it was “about,” and every time I watch it the narrative just seems to fly by, and I’ve never really understood why.

          • jbacardi says:

            Not so much “boring”, but I just started watching it too late in the evening. I really do need to give it a better shot, and I probably will eventually.

            And for some further heresy, even though I consider myself at least a softcore Coen fan, I’ve never seen Blood Simple. So I have much to do, it seems…

  3. schwa242 says:

    I’m going to go out on a symbolist limb here and say that Charlie is Satan and the Hotel Earle is Hell.

    There’s also the number six mentioned three times during Barton’s first trip in the elevator.

    In Act III, a couple of detectives, Deutsch and Mastronetti, come looking for Mundt, and act extremely threateningly toward Barton. It cannot be a coincidence that the men looking for Satan in the Hotel Earle in 1941 are German and Italian, hate Jews, and end up being destroyed by the entity they seek, any more than it could be a coincidence that Charlie/Karl/Satan mockingly chirps “Heil Hitler” before blowing off the German’s head.

    In the same way the two detectives represent Italy and Germany, I believe Charlie is meant to be an embodiment of one view of the United States of that era. Oafish, violent, not what he seems, and willing to blow a few people away and if it helps protect the little guy, all the better. And hey, maybe his name is a play on immigrant roots in America… “Charlie Meadows” replacing the more European “Karl Mundt”. Or am I reaching?

  4. seamusd says:

    Among the top three Coen Brothers films:

    1. Fargo
    2. The Big Lebowski
    3. Barton Fink
    4. Raising Arizona
    5. The Man Who Wasn’t There
    6. Miller’s Crossing
    7. O Brother!
    8. Hudsucker

  5. mattyoung says:

    A friend of mine, former teacher, suggested that the girl is Barton’s muse. Is she in pictures? Don’t be silly. She’s not in pictures, and he really doesn’t belong there either.

    • Todd says:

      But is she Barton’s muse? I would think that the Judy Davis character more explicitly fulfills that function. Or maybe that woman is a false muse, since she doesn’t really help Barton (even though she’s been writing Mayhew’s projects for years).

  6. curt_holman says:

    “THIS is my uniform!”

    But what does Meadows/Mundt mean when says “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” while running down the hall with the shot gun?

    I sort of imagine the scene at the USO taking place at the other end of the room where the brawl is breaking out with Treat Williams et al in Stephen Spielberg’s 1941

    • Todd says:

      Re: “THIS is my uniform!”

      Well, Barton seems to feel that “the life of the mind” is where “reality” and “beauty” happen. (“I wanted to show you something beautiful” he murmurs to Lipnick after he turns in his script.) But Charlie/Karl seems to feel that the “life of the mind” is also naked aggression, homicidal rage and insanity, as the war (that very same day) comes to the shores of the USA.

      (Strange that there are Germans and Italians represented in Barton Fink, but no Japanese, even though the movie takes place during the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

      • Re: “THIS is my uniform!”

        (Strange that there are Germans and Italians represented in Barton Fink, but no Japanese, even though the movie takes place during the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

        As the Coens’ concerns are more toward the European/Holocaust part of The War, perhaps bringing in the Pacific Theatre would have only confused the metaphor.

        And you seem to be the only person I’ve ever read who’s caught that specific fact – the exact timeframe of the film – which always seems to surprise people when I point it out (some reviewers at the time of its release, missing the point, criticized it harshly for being set in 1941 and – apart from Lipnik’s sudden appearance in “uniform” at the end – not dealing with The War).

        I had just assumed for years that Pearl Harbor happens (and is almost entirely unnoticed) over the course of the film, when I finally caught the date (12/7/41) on the slates for Devil on the Canvas on a reviewing (of course, there is also a flash-frame of a modern slate for Barton Fink in this same sequence, which brings up other issues).

        While we can’t always tell how many days pass at several points in the film, it’s very possible that as Barton, Audrey, and W.P. are having their lunch in Griffith Park, FDR is addressing the country, post-attack.

        Also, expanding on your point about the two sides of “the life of the mind” above – I’ve always felt that Charlie/Karl was no Satan, but just what Barton sees him as, The Common Man, just not only the heroic, idealized (and, as “Charlie” proves, fictional) side that Barton imagines, but also the other side of The Common Man, a potential “Good German,” who was more than willing to follow Hitler and kill Jews for him – though the reference in his name, Karl Mundt, hints at other forms of persecution that may await the hapless Fink (who I’m sure somewhere has a CP card in his past). Mundt’s “Heil Hitler” to Deutsch before blowing his head off does, as you note, hint at some kind of recognized kinship.

        My feeling has always been that the film is a vicious self-portrait by the Coens, who in the years prior to Fink (and occasionally since) enjoyed portraying themselves to the press as “populist” filmmakers who just wanted to make “fun” movies for the masses. There was no meaning to their movies, according to them – murder was just “good movie fodder,” babies were just “good movie fodder.” Blocked while writing Miller’s Crossing, they apparently went out and saw the Diane Keaton vehicle Baby Boom (if you believe the stories) and then went and wrote Fink. Perhaps seeing what a real populist baby picture was supposed to look like after the somewhat disappointing returns of Raising Arizona made them reconsider their position as “tourists with typewriters” when it came to knowing what the masses really wanted, and they created a Coen standin (who resembles them physically) to torment by giving him all of their worst qualities, for which he receives a horrifying comeuppance.

        And thanks for a sensible interpretation of the mosquito, which has always eluded me.

        • Todd says:

          Re: “THIS is my uniform!”

          Wow, thanks for this post. The slates in the dailies for Devil on the Canvas had completely escaped me, even after many viewings.

          For the record, however, the returns for Raising Arizona were disappointing only in comparison to the returns for Baby Boom (and Three Men and a Baby). Raising Arizona cost $6 million to make and grossed over $22 million — on a cost-to-gross basis, their biggest hit ever.

  7. Hands down, my favorite Coen Bros. movie of all time. Changed me forever when I saw it in college (Raising Arizona changed me forever a few years earlier, too, but I had no idea what a Coen brother or an auteur or even a cinematographer were back then).

    Have you seen No Country For Old Men yet? Did I miss that post? I’d love to get your screenwriter’s opinion on it, because its last act pretty much breaks every screenwriting rule there is.

    • craigjclark says:

      My favorite Coen Bros. movie fluctuates. For a while it was Barton Fink. Then it was Fargo for a couple years. Then it went back to Barton. Then it went the way of The Big Lebowski and I haven’t really looked back.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve seen No Country once, and haven’t posted on it yet. Mr. Urbaniak wants to see it again and I was thinking I might go with him later. The last act does, indeed, break every screenwriting rule there is — but not every Coen Bros rule.

      • craigjclark says:

        At the screening I attended, there were a couple people who said, “Wait, that’s it?” when the credits started to roll. It reminded me of when I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic opening weekend. I guess some people hate open-ended conclusions.

        • Todd says:

          Well, No Country does more than have an open-ended conclusion — it bitterly frustrates everything the viewer is led to believe will happen. Which is the whole point of the movie. But more on that later.

  8. craigjclark says:

    P.S. – You might want to see about finding another photo to head this entry. There’s an ugly Fortune City placeholder image there now.

  9. teamwak says:

    It seems an apt post with the writers strike going on. The final scenes with Studio Boss having Barton totally beaten and writing for ever for nothing are very memorable. A portent of the future by the Coens?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Pipes and sirens

    “And why do the grunts and yells from Devil on the Canvas are echoed in the drainpipe the camera disappears down at the end of Act II? Do we hear the shouts from Devil on the Canvas because the pipes are within Charlie/Karl’s head…?”

    The pipes are definitely within Charlie/Karl’s head. He makes that explicit when he tells Barton that he can hear everything in the hotel through the pipes. The sounds from the drain connects not just Devil on the Canvas to the hotel, but also link the sounds of the couple next door (what Charlie’s talking about when he says he hears evertyhing) to the implied sounds of Barton and Audrey getting it on at the end of Act II. Also, the camera going down the drain feels like we’re looking into Charlie’s infected ear.

    “Is the girl a siren, an unattainable mirage, there to tempt Barton ever onward onto the dangerous rocks of Hollywood?”

    Again, I say yes. That was clear to me before we even see her in the picture: The first “Hollywood” shot is of big, roaring waves crashing against the rock. Of course, Hollywood — embodied by the Girl — is the real siren, seductive and dangerous.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Pipes and sirens

      Interestingly, we don’t actually see Barton and Audrey get it on. We see her embrace him, and the camera discreetly tilts down to show (what else) Barton taking off his shoes. We see Audrey naked (and dead) the next morning (I’m pretty sure that’s not an intentional reference to The Naked and the Dead, but one never knows), but Barton is still in his underwear.

      There is a deleted scene that shows Barton’s sink overflowing after Charlie has used it — again connecting Charlie (and his stopped-up ears) to the sink.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Pipes and sirens

        Ture. And Barton’s underwear is a onesie, which is hard to imagine keeping on during sex or putting back on afterward. So while sex is implied, it’s not a certainty.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Pipes and sirens

          On the other hand, based on his performance the next morning with Lipnick, they didn’t spend the night pitching story ideas.

  11. dougo says:

    Barton Fink is one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time. (It’s probably #3, but I don’t want to nail it down at the moment.) I saw it in college (at the University Theater in Berkeley) and it was beguiling, but after seeing it again on video I realized how awesome it was (especially as a double-feature with Barfly, which was fortuitously next to it on the video store shelf, and which dovetails with it in many ways). It’s a puzzle movie, with all sorts of seemingly random things that are clearly intentional— and unlike a David Lynch film’s insoluble “dream logic”, it really feels like the Coens have some specific underlying framework that everything fits into to make sense. I wish they weren’t so coy about talking about their movies’ meanings! (I got the DVD in the Tower blowout but haven’t opened it yet– does it have commentaries?)

    I seem to discover a new layer of interpretation after every viewing, yet somehow I never noticed the extent of the shoes motif, or the hotel-as-hell idea. I was more fixated on the heads/decapitation thing– another one you didn’t mention is when Charlie knocks off the spherical wooden bedpost (which then rolls into a close-up shot). And another I just noticed from browsing through the screenplay: Barton taps his head and says “this is my uniform!” to the USO guys. I like to think of the hotel rooms as physical embodiments of Barton’s and Charlie’s heads/minds– it’s more of an existential point about how we’re all prisoners in our own skulls, coupled with the idea of “hell is other people”.

    In your analogy, I think the girl on the beach is an angel, and the beach is heaven. I’m not sure what that makes the diving bird in the final shot, though. Diving for fish, presumably, a callback to the “cry of the fishmongers” from Barton’s script for “Burlyman”, and the actual fishmonger from his play in the opening scene.

    Several books could be written to try to solve this movie…

    • craigjclark says:

      As of yet, the only Coen Brothers films with legitimate filmmaker commentaries are Fargo (by cinematography Roger Deakins) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (by the Coens and Billy Bob Thornton). I don’t count the one for Blood Simple for obvious reasons.

      The Barton Fink disc does have some deleted scenes, though.