Joel and Ethan Coen’s film “Barton Fink” defies assumption: On the surface it seems to be a period piece, and it is, but most of all it is a genre-blending film. It includes satire and drama, dark comedy and expressionistic qualities. It’s set in the cultural backdrop of the 30s Hollywood scene, with all the glamor and hazy bar smoke included; and an obnoxious neighbor in a seedy hotel played by John Goodman, the man born to play such a role.
Joel and Ethan said they wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink as they were grinding away at the screenplay for another film of theirs, Miller’s Crossing. It is about writers block. And that does sound tiring and dull. But in fact its not about writers block, but about the sidetracking of the author, played by John Turtorro, and his relations with his next door neighbor, Charlie. Barton is a pseudo-intellectual, a wanna-be acclaimed writer who has passioned bursts of creativity; he powerfully tells Charlie, a meager insurance salesmen, how he wants to write for the common-man. The untold stories of everyday life. But when Charlie starts to tell a story, he interrupts, “Exactly!” and shouts something to cut him off, then leading into his next point on “understanding”. The Hollywood folk should stick to B-grade pictures, one thinks, and leave the common-man to the indie-filmmaker. It’s a satire on a writer’s ego, indefinitely. This could be turned around to seem that the Coen’s are giving credit to themselves. That they ‘represent’ the common man the way it should be, as in Fargo and Raising Arizona. But that feeling is not really given, as their is no explicit response or outrage towards the hypocricy of Barton’s actions.
The film has an expressionistic, sort of experimental quality to it. It features a William Faulkner look-a-like as a famous and prospering, but drunk, writer. And it’s a punch in the gut to Barton that this Faulkner look-alike, called Jack Lipnick, can be a master fiction writer and also be a drunk slurring misogynist. The film explores all the edges of a writer’s mind entertainingly and satisfyingly, and although its a bit too Lynchian for some, it is also a very rewarding and darkly funny film.