GARCIN: Hm! So here we are?
VALET: Yes, Mr. Garcin.
GARCIN: And this is what it [Hell] looks like?
GARCIN: Second Empire furniture, I observe….Well, well, I dare say one gets used to it in time.
VALET: Some do. Some don’t
-from J.P. Sartre’s No Exit
Unlike Upton Sinclair, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Ben Hecht, Dorothy Parker, and a handful of other fine writers, the great French philosopher/novelist/playwright Jean-Paul Sartre never worked in Hollywood. Lucky man. Hollywood during the heydays of the great film studios, run as the personal fiefdoms of autocrats such as Louis B. Mayer, was no place for idealists. A sojourn in La-la-Land tended to either breed disgust with the philistines for whom cinema was a commodity first and art a very distant second or, even worse, self-disgust as the committed young socialists and communists felt themselves being absorbed into its seductive and nihilistic heart. Hollywood could digest idealistic young men and women with the implacable, endless patience of a python digesting a bush pig. It is unlikely than any single film has or will give us a better picture of the philistines, the co-opted idealists, and the disgusted & self-disgusted, than the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991). It’s the cruelest morality tale since Franz Kafka turned Gregor Samsa into a cockroach. The Coen brothers (Ethan & Joel) share both Kafka’s sense of humor and Sartre’s view of human nature: Hell has no need of eternal fires or Iron Maidens—it just needs other people.
Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a young playwright with fresh success on his hands: a social-protest drama about New York fishmongers. Barton is on a mission of salvation. He wants to be The Voice of the Common Man. His will be the Theatre of the Triumph of the Common Man. Barton’s going to “write from his guts and find nobility in the most squalid comers” of proletarian life. There are only two slight difficulties with his one-man crusade. The least important is a $1000-a-week contract offer from Capital Pictures. This means giving up the Wellsprings of the Common Fishmonger for the dubious realties of L.A. Barton’s reluctant but, as his agent tells him, the Common Man will still be around when he gets back. The second problem? Well, let’s talk about doors first.
Doors are really important in this movie. Or rather, the sounds they make when they open and shut are important. You don’t ever want to be around doors that sound like this. Imagine the noise a vacuum cleaner might make tidying up around a guillotine. Although I’ve often written about the musical scores of films, and have made occasional mention of sound effects I’ve never given much thought to art of sound design. Barton Fink was a revelation. There are 20 bars (!) of music in this entire film: The rest is squeaking floors, waves, a mosquito, bedsprings, typewriter keys, pulleys, noises without name. The composer, Carter Burwell, worked with sound designer Skip Lievsay to construct a minimalist aural stage set that lifts Barton Fink from the baroque to the preternatural. If you’ve spent any money hooking your VCR through your stereo, this is the payoff.
Not that the production designer (Dennis Gassner), art directors (Leslie McDonald & Bob Goldstein), set designer (Nancy Haigh), and costume designer (Richard Hornung) were asleep on the job. Almost all received Academy Award nominations from their peers for their work on this picture. They should have won. The Hotel Earle, where Barton very unfortunately chooses to park his typewriter during his Hollywood stopover, is as memorable a creation as Charles Foster Kane’s mansion. From the moment the bell boy (“Chet. Call me Chet. Did I say my name was Chet?”) climbs out of a trap door in the floor behind the reception desk, you know Fink’s in big trouble. Charon’s half-brother is in the elevator, waiting to ferry souls up to a seemingly interminable sixth floor. Sartre’s hell had Second Empire furniture; the Coens’ is 1941 gothic. The Earle’s register says it all: “A Day or a Lifetime”. Some get used to it. Some don’t. Franz Kafka might have felt more at home here than on the sets of any of the films actually based on his works.
Back to Barton’s bigger problem. Is it his boss, movie mogul Jack Lipnick? Lipnick, played brilliantly by Michael Lerner, is a half-dozen of Hollywood’s worst kingpins rolled into one obnoxious, cigar-smoking artistic Moloch: “Why do I run Capital Pictures? I got horse sense, showmanship! I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other **** in this town!” He assigns the Voice of the Common Man a screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture: “Can you tell a story, Bart? Can you make us laugh, make us cry, make us break out in joyous song?”
No, Lipnick’s bad, but there’s something worse. Could it be John Goodman as Charlie Meadows, the affable insurance salesman and possible serial killer in the room next door? Goodman’s certainly big enough to be a problem for the rather fragile Fink. And he does have this disturbing habit of uttering strange, tormented cries at night and whacking his own head really hard every time he’s angry with himself.
Charlie’s a big concern all right. Especially when he comes back as a full-fledged emissary of the Apocalypse. But then, the Apocalypse is just the Coen’s unsubtle way of confronting Fink with his real problem: for all his talk of the life of the mind and the working class, Barton Fink is too interested in his own artistic vision to hear anyone but himself. As the Hotel Earle shudders through Armageddon, the stunned Voice of the Common People pleads, “Why me?” Charlie’s outraged answer is the ultimate damnation:
“BECAUSE YOU DON’T LISTEN!!”
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
The ultimate Hollywood nightmare. The Hotel Earle is the hands-down, most terrifying accommodation since The Shining’s Overlook Hotel and Psycho’s Bates Motel. From the moment scarlet-clad desk clerk Steve Buscemi climbs up out of a trapdoor behind the Earle’s reception desk, you know you’re in for as wicked a treat as the cinema can deliver. This is the best screenplay Stephen King never wrote, and the one Jonathan Swift might have written if he’d ever had the chance to spend some time in Tinseltown. Barton Fink is splendid, savage satire featuring megalomaniacal moguls, predatory producers, narcissistic nebbishes, written-out writers, and sociable psychopaths. In this town where everyone seems to have sold their soul, it’s hardly surprising that the fires of hell sizzle just behind the tacky wallpaper.
John Turturro is unforgettable as the clueless left-wing dilettante who’s too busy obsessing about his need to capture the life of the “common man” to hear anything but his own voice. It’s as if Clifford Odets wandered onto the set of Eraserhead. John Goodman is monumental as the next-door neighbor who’d scare the shit out of Mephistopheles himself.
Michael Lerner as Capital Studios head Jack Lipnick makes the epithet “philistine” seem inadequate. One of the great mysteries of Hollywood has always been how the monolithic studio system, controlled by people like Lipnick, and with its endless abuses and compromises and pandering to the public, could have produced so many great films. Barton Fink celebrates this perverse alchemy by itself turning perversity into art. With the able assistance of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (nominated for 14 Oscars), composer Carter Burwell (nominated twice), production designer Dennis Gassner (one Oscar), and supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay (one Oscar), the Coen brothers have taken the worst of the worst and created a warped wonderland.
A couple of things I learned from Barton Fink:
If you’re staying in a hotel and the wind howls every time you open door of your room, get out while you still can.
If a guy looking like John Goodman wants to tell you story, for God’s sake let him do it.
After a couple of viewings of this film, you really should check out some of the critical writing to discover the subtleties you’ve missed. One example, the sly introduction of the number 666 in Barton’s conversation with the disgruntled elevator operator.