By Michael Kalafatis (Stoke on Trent)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring John Torturro, John Goodman, Judy Davies and John Mahoney.
Baron Fink is set in 1941 and is about a New York playwright named Barton Fink (John Torturro), who after achieving commercial and critical success with his latest play in Broadway he is offered a contract by Capitol Pictures, a studio located in Hollywood. Fink moves purposely to a dilapidated hotel called The Earle in Los Angeles because he does not want to lose his connection with the “common man” and his plight, this theme of the “common man” was an integral part in Fink’s Broadway play and in its success.
In L.A. he goes and sees Mr. Lipnick who is the studio boss and he assigns him to write a wrestling picture and assures him it won’t be a B Movie and that he is interested on his artistic input what he calls the “Barton Fink touch “. In the Earl Hotel Fink finds it hard to concentrate from various noises from the buzzing of a mosquito, the wallpaper peeling off the wall and the racket made by an insurance salesman who lives next door and who eventually befriends Fink. Fink’s main concern all throughout the film is how to approach a wrestling film, how to start writing such a film without any prior experience and at some point he considers himself a one trick pony.
The Earl Hotel is a very important aspect of the film as it manages to evoke a place that is decaying, a hellish place that it literary looks like hell and many things support this idea, like the first time we see the concierge who comes from somewhere subterranean, the hotel is unnatural too warm and it is bathed in green and yellow colors that help to reinforce the idea of a place in the state of disintegration. The Earl hotel can easily be compared with the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining because it becomes an integral part in the narrative of the film, and causes fear to the main character and unsettles the viewers on multiple occasions; it is an outlandish place where horrific things tend to happen inside closed doors without any witnesses.
Barton Fink is mostly concern with high art vs low art or the difference in writing a play and writing for a Hollywood picture and this difference Barton Fink cannot comprehend as he wants to write about the struggle of the “common man”, to write about their everyday suffering and unglamorous lives which comes in contrast with the story of a wrestler who manages to overcome all obstructs at the end of the film, a story that does not resonate with Fink, that’s why he does not know how to write it. Joel and Ethan Coen by creating Barton Fink wanted to show that Hollywood can be a cruel and unglamorous place and can break someone’s talent and aspiration just like what happened to W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) a former novelist who works in Hollywood who Fink asks for help so he can start writing the wrestling picture. Mayhew has written many films and once was a talented writer but he has become a drunkard and has lost any motivation to continue writing novels and just works on any kind of scrips offered to him. This and Fink deteriorating state from the point of his arrival in Hollywood and onwards shows that Hollywood can be a very savage and inhuman place for a creative mind.
The ambiguity and the slow narrative pace can make Barton Fink a film that will not attract a lot of viewers, but it is a film saturated with many layers of symbolisms, and it mostly functions as a surrealistic film, it is like watching a David Lynch film written and directed by the Coen Brothers and decoding its meaning is the key in finding how rich narratively Baron Fink is. At first glance the narrative is very simple like in so many films generic films (low art) but in a close scrutiny it starts to show its rich layers of themes and symbolisms (high art) and this duality makes Barton Fink a satirical film about Hollywood but simultaneously using Hollywood conventions to tell its narrative.