Barton Fink

Going back to the historical context of the film would be very helpful in understanding the ideology and/or values that the film presents. It is important to note that Barton Fink, though released in 1991, is set in 1941 America, which we all know still falls during the Second World War Period. At this time, the United States is still trying to stabilized its economy. Weakened by the Great Depression, being devastated by a war is really not one of the things they would want to happen (American Memory Timeline, 2002). These have greatly affected even the entertainment industries. Many were out of jobs. The budget for production is very low (which, by the way, explains the aesthetics of noir films). However, there is still a need for entertainment, which is suggested in the film. There is a need for escapism. The people's morale should also be boosted.

During the 30s, during depression, through the Federal Theater Project the United States Government lent support to the theater industry, which was falling due to the poor economy and the growing popularity of film and radio. This helped increase production of theater shows as well as increase its quality despite the times. Shows became more affordable as well. However, not everyone can still afford to go to the theater. As seen in Barton Fink, theater was mostly consumed by people from the higher classes of society. It, however, did not close its doors to employees from the lower classes like Barton Fink himself. He really was writing plays during hard times and about hard times. It should also by noted that by the time Fink was brought into Hollywood, the government funding for theater has just ceased.

Cinema, like what was said earlier, is also affected by the times. There were a lot of war movies and, of course, movies that communicate hope and provide escapism during the time of the Second World War (Tim Dirks). This, we now, was also demanded by Capital Films. These films would sell.

It should be easier for Barton Fink to achieve this since he had been a product of another perilous socio-economic time from which everybody would want to overcome. Later in the film, however, we would see that he is dwelling in an experience far from that of a common man, contrary to what he thought. This is where the problem started. His values are those of the Period of Enlightenment which also values freedom (Kant). Kant articulates the motto of Enlightenment: "Have courage to use your own reason!", and to be able to use reason, we need freedom. At the time of war, however, freedom and individual (intellectual) prowess was stifled to give way to the preference and goal of the collective. He was pretty much detached from it all. He was, like what Rolling Stone (2001) said, "in trying to live a 'life of the mind,' [Fink] has lost touch with reality." These also coincide with what Ethan Coen said when he was asked to describe the genre of the film and its similarity with Polanski's work. The brothers said:

Ethan: "Well, wait. I mean, if you had to describe (Barton Fink) generically, you couldn't do better — not that this is a genre — but it's kind of a Polanski movie. It's closer to that than anything else."
Joel: "It's true. And The Tenant is a movie that we're both familiar with and like."
Ethan: "It's also like the 'Person Alone in the Room' genre."
Joel: "Yeah, (Polanski's) Repulsion is sort of like that. There are definitely influences from Polanski, I'm sure."

There are other observations that may be worth exploring. The first paragraph briefly mentions in parentheses that the aesthetics of noir films is also affected not only by its mood and the mood of its characters (which is similar with how the German Expressionism in films functioned) but also by the times when they were created. The aesthetics of Barton Fink is quite bleak which, I think, fits considering that the film is set in the 40s. According to the Coen brothers in the already-mentioned interview (Also link provided below), the film has a considerably low budget. Notice that the film also used artificial lights perhaps to augment what they have.

Here are helpful sites that could lend background and insight to the setting of the film and the values of the characters:

American Memory Timeline
Great Depression to World War II
Federal Theater Project
American Cinema during the 40s
Film Review by Rolling Stone
"What is Enlightenment" by Immanuel Kant

Here is a link to an interview with the Coens prior to the release of the film.

Submitted by 050533

Between Heaven and Hell There’s Always Hollywood!
Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, John Mahoney, Judy Davis,
Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub, John Polito and Steve Buscemi.


"Nothing much makes sense. So, you might as well make whatever kind of movies you want. And hope for the best." - Ethan Coen

Picture sitting in the Coen brothers’ place, in the middle of making the $14 million gangster picture ‘Miller’s Crossing’, and being ceaselessly attacked by writer’s block and the endless distractions flowing into their creative nebulae from the world of flim production.

What would you have done? The Coen brothers played it simple and took a page out of Federico Fellini’s book and put their own spin on ‘8 ½’ with the 1991 release of ‘Barton Fink’, essentially a movie about writer’s block, and forces of conflict inside and outside of the creative process.

Productivity is key for filmmakers of high stature—in 2005, Empire magazine launched a list of ’20 Greatest Directors of All Time’, placing Joel and Ethan at #13. You might know them already from titles such as ‘Fargo’, ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘Burn After Reading’. ‘Barton Fink’ debuted at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, taking the Palm d’Or prize and corresponding awards for Best Director and Best Actor (John Turturro), but we were already warned that this film wouldn’t be one of the more audience-friendly ones that we would watch, and despite its accolade from critics, it only grossed up to $6 million to recover the $9 million spent on its production.

As youths growing up in quiet Minnesota, the brothers were already very much engrossed in the culture of the big screen, and ever since their first miniature production with a Super-8 camera bought from lawn mowing paychecks, they have loved making movies about movies—it is not surprising that they chose the empire of global cinema as a background for this particular picture, as a canopy for the splattering of a number of paradoxes concerning cinema and the reality outside of it.

Perhaps they are even aware of reflexive methodology as part of their preference when churning out films:

Since their formative, for-fun Super-8 experience, the Coens have never stopped playing with cameras. All their films are comedies of a sort, usually of a deliciously dark - and frequently surreal - nature. "We're not trying to educate the masses," they once agreed, and each movie bulges with a sense of joy at the possibilities of life through a lens. The mercurial eye of thier "self-concious camera" doesn't merely observe a scene, but participates - the tracking shot along the bar in Blood Simple that hops over a laid-out drunk; the plentiful point-of-view angles in Raising Arizona. Their uninhibited camerawork and inventive editing is as integral to their work as any one-liner or signt gag. ((“You Know, For Kids!”))

The particular elements to be focused on for ‘Barton Fink’ are reflexivity in the form of postmodern questioning of identity (particularly that of the writer), visible and constructible comparisons to be made within an experiential viewpoint while in the process of watching, and unfolding of real-life circumstances with the use of cleverly-hidden metaphors.
First, we should take a look at the film on a wallpaper surface: that of the character interplay.


a. Barton and Charlie
The part of Charlie Meadows, interestingly enough, was made almost exclusively for John Goodman and his outward best-buddy, family-guy image. Aside from being classified as a film noir and a grotesque comedy of sorts, perhaps Barton Fink can also be classified as a dark buddy film, with the revelation of the deeper consequences of opposite attraction. Barton is the typical neo-intellectual with the dream of creating socially-aware theater, while Charlie is his standard, big-bodied Common Man, ailing from sicknesses of the senses. Both are questioned with regard to intactness of sanity—Barton with his final Wallace Beery wrestling product, ridiculed by Lipnick, and Charlie in his last murderous moments as Karl Mundt. Who are they, really? Who are they supposed to be?

b. Barton and WP Mayhew
It is said that Barton and Mayhew themselves are allusions to Clifford Odets and William Faulkner—the former a playwright of the socialist movement, much like what Barton aspires to be after his treatment job, and the latter considered to be one of the greatest American authors of all time, replete with alcohol abuse problems and rumors of extramarital affairs. However, more than that, Barton and Mayhew represent themselves in rather sad portrayals of authors rendered powerless by broken dreams, outside forces and the calls of sin.

c. The Hotel Earle
This is definitely my favorite component of the movie, and I consider it to be a character as much as Victor Hugo would personify the Cathedral of Notre Dame in ‘Hunchback’, in the sense that it is alive with action. Barton’s intellectual battles happen within his room, as he looks from his typewriter to the picture of the woman at the beach on his wall, while the rest of his surroundings eerily peel and ooze. Charlie himself seems to be the perfect extension of the sensual atmosphere of the hotel, and the audience can almost smell the dirty, rusty, sweaty, stale-piss and vomit smell just when Charlie is in focus, with his perspiring armpits and perennial ear infection, laden with pus. Hotel Earle’s heat and compartmentalization bring out the best and the worst in its residents, and in the climax it erupts and destroys itself in a blaze of fire and blood.

Digging a little deeper into the crafting of Barton Fink’s world, we also come across the existence of certain paradoxes.


a. The body versus the mind, sensual appeasement versus accomplishment
I judge this to be the strongest theme within the film, as it is the most comprehensively covered by the characters and the given events. Though it is most fundamentally seen in Barton and Charlie, it is also visible within Mayhew and the loss of his authorship to his alcohol abuse, and Barton’s consequence of giving into the call of his sexuality and sleeping with Audrey Taylor, only to find himself punished by the appearance of her eviscerated corpse.

b. Dream sequences and pictures versus reality
Sometimes I feel that there is a trend for movies to sensationalize dream sequences and fantasies, especially when the movies themselves talk about the life inside of the silver screen, while reality is regarded as bleak, blunt and harsh. Barton Fink’s world turns this comparison over—it is the world of the cinema that is superfluous and insubstantial, and actors who are advocates of the common man should be empowered, bearing scars of grit upon their shoulders.

c. The common man versus the culture industry
Barton’s ideals are decidedly avant-garde in the context of 1940’s Tinsel Town glamour, and to further his ideological empowerment he involves himself in an industry he considers full of sell-outs. After a hellish encounter with his destroyed embodiment of Common Man, it is assumed that Barton has become a failure, trapped in his ambitions. The audience is given the opportunity to play around with these constructions, after learning about Charlie’s violence and Jack Lipnick’s selfish conformity—which can be considered the lesser ideological evil?

What is the identity of the author? What are his writing tools? How must he immerse himself in his subject matter?
If anything, Barton Fink is meant to be a celebration of ‘the life of the mind’ and its many hurdles—the role of the author is given more than intellectual recognition, but is built up by premises within the atmosphere. Barton is given more tools to further his creation of the ultimate imperfect masterpiece—a typewriter, lovemaking sounds next door, the creepy smell and consistency of stale, peeling wallpaper, and the haunting allure of Hollywood. More than a writer of stories, he becomes a catalyst for them, a questioner of his own ideals, and a survivor of his own nightmares.


© Toronja Maria 073724



"Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind!" - Charlie Meadows/Karl Mundt from the film Barton Fink

The theme of this film revolves around how the authorship becomes present in the film while at the same time is still very surrealist. When in the beginning of the film everything seemed to be normal, something that can ordinarily happen in real life, towards the end, everything suddenly becomes a living hell, literally. Something that’s very surreal as well was when the painting of the girl on the beach that Barton had in a frame suddenly came to life where he was also there present at the beach shown in the end of the movie.I think what’s interesting about this film is that it basically takes a look at the life of how actual writers would go through their jobs. There would be moments when they would really try to squeeze out all the creative juices they have for an article or a script or any material for that matter but seem to can’t get anything a.k.a. writer’s block. Sometimes it’s odd how writers would get their stories during times when they aren’t actually looking for one, times when it’s the least effortful or when it just presents itself right at their face. I liked the film in the sense that the plot kept getting more and more interesting as it went on. I liked Charlie’s character like how he was first so funny, sensitive and friendly then all of a sudden turns into this somewhat devil-like being in the end. I liked the humor in the dialogues especially the one between Barton and his editor and the servant. Those made me really laugh .

What remains to be a mystery still is what’s inside the box that Charlie left for Barton. We all have our assumptions about it (I think it’s the chopped off head of the girl Barton slept with) but probably not revealing what’s really inside was gives more suspense for the audience and leaves them hanging about Charlie’s real motives, his true identity and all that. Though of course it would be better I guess if Barton had opened the box but maybe it was a part of him saying that whatever was inside, it didn’t matter anymore.

A part of me sort of questions the sexuality of Charlie. I’m not sure if he has some sort of liking for Barton because of his high level of concern for him or he’s just a sweet guy in general. Maybe he wouldn’t have reacted so violently towards Barton if he didn’t have strong friendly or not friendly feelings towards him I guess.

Overall, I think Barton Fink is a film that emulates the lives of writers in reality. It takes a look at the struggles that come with their line of work. In the end, when Barton “enters” the portrait of the girl on the beach, I think it serves as a symbolism that we will only be free if we choose to be completely happy. It is a part of us that we have to let go in order to make ourselves become who we truly want to be and live the life we want to live.

-the final scene where Barton "enters" the portrait of the lady sitting by the beach-

I think being an Economics major made me keen on making those connections between symbols in the film and new socioeconomic theories of our time. Among the theories that the picture has touched on, the political thought centered on Marxism was probably the most profound one. At first, it was only apparent in Barton’s character. He was a writer, avid only on writing for the Common Man. It’s interesting how the entire movie seemed to revolve around this political theory, even more so, when both the main character and the audience were immersed in a world that exemplifies the exact opposite of what Barton used to stand up for: the slaves of the new Capitalist Society, the Common Men. The play on the words used for the name of the company is quite hard to miss. Capital Pictures, a Hollywood studio that produces B Pictures, is actually a fitting name in every sense of those two words. Capital Pictures basically makes movies, or pictures rather, that people will go see, pictures that will sell. Being the commodities that these pictures are, it is quite ingenious how the movie was set in the 1940s, when people really did call the movies pictures. The setting might have been appropriate, but the double meaning is undeniable. The word 'pictures' just has a more tangible feel to it, as compared to the word 'film', making it all the more appropriate as a symbol for commodification. With these movies being emphasized as objects for sale, it definitely makes more sense for them to be called pictures. The resonance of this particular theme throughout the film kind of tied up the ideas being proposed into a more solid package.

Speaking of packages, what was in that box? If the contents were really what Charlie claimed them to be, “everything that’s important to a guy…everything he wants to keep from a lifetime”, then it could possibly be another allusion to capitalism. In a way, it presents a negative take on what this economic system does to our society, how men are reduced to the possessions that they have, to their “wealth”. Perhaps a more evident manifestation of the take of the filmmakers on this type of society is seen through the Hotel Earle, which is hell right inside the city of angels. We have convinced ourselves that we are moving towards the right direction, opening up more choices for people as we take on the capitalist system, when in fact, we have been imprisoning the slaves of this society, the laborers, and perhaps, ourselves as well. Right in the core of this well disguised system is a rotting way of life, very much like hell.

Here's a link to an interview with the Coen brothers that might answer some of your questions about the film:

And since the topic of Marxism and Capitalism have already been brought up, here's a link to a fairly "short" discussion of what these two economic systems mean:


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