Criterion Prediction #279: Barton Fink, by Alexander Miller

Title: Barton Fink

Year: 1991

Directors: Joel Coen 

Cast: John Turturro, Judy Davis, John Goodman, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub

Synopsis: A nervy, celebrated playwright, Barton Fink (Turturro), is lured from the comfort of his life in New York’s theater scene by the promising prestige of working in the moving picture industries. A fish out of water, haunted by the blank page, Fink contends with his alien surroundings and even more bizarre people that populate the hustle of Hollywood in the early forties. 

Critique:Barton Fink, Barton Fink, Barton Fink!” Cheers Bart Simpson’s friends as they drive off from soccer practice; for some of us, that’s one of the first things that come to mind, the slightly negligent but humorous trademark of many on-the-cusp millennials who can articulate the better part of pop-culture through a cipher of references from The Simpsons.

I love writing about the Coens. They give us so much and don’t break a sweat in the process. Their style is a playful code and you don’t crack it; you get lost in it. But the recurring theme that I keep going back to with Barton Fink is that the art of seeing is dangerous.

It has a brainwashing effect that we, as the viewers, are subjected to; the madness of the clapperboard is a little contagious. Fink seems to be in a panic instigated by the onslaught of leotards and pummeling bodies, triggered by the repetitious line “I will destroy him!” The lens of his glasses, not unlike a camera, is a flickering reflection of moving images tattooing his brain. It’s like a Ludovico test; Fink is squirming. I don’t think the wrestling dailies cause it nor does it indicate that he’s above the medium. But it’s that brainwashing event that is cinema. This triggers the dynamism that goes far beyond the “laugh/cry” binaries of early drama but the complicated weaponizing of images where we get into propaganda and the idea that, at 24 frames per second, the brain is seduced into thinking that pictures are moving and how dangerous people in positions of power can manipulate this idea to suit their agendas. A film can do more than make you laugh and cry; it can disgust, arouse, incite and awaken thoughts and emotions previously unknown. Suddenly, this collective experience of going to the cinema, a public and private event, is intimate and dangerous. After this seemingly torturous event, our titular writer returns to his room and we see two words on the page, indicating the wanton inspiration felt. 

“Orphan?” 

“Dame?”

Since we’re playing in the compassionate, exaggerated, non-judgmental, compassionate, low-fly zone of Coen characters, Fink is relatable, sympathetic and frustrating; his decisions are neither gratifying nor understandable. Like so many, he’s human; a beautiful, brilliant, flawed and talented human. We get pulled so deep into his overall mental state that we don’t realize the kindly next door neighbor might be a serial killer or that our nation is teetering on the precipice of World War II. Is it the weight of creative anticipation, the potential burden of bearing your soul through your writing or just Barton Fink being Barton Fink?

Given the context of the period, the main character’s identity and the apocalyptic finale, where a towering man of fire comes roaring through corridors, obliterating everything in its path, when you consider all this, Barton Fink becomes tremendous. 

Why It Belongs in the Collection: Barton Fink is an underrated title from the Coen Brothers. The film underperformed at the box office and, while receiving critical acclaim, it seems like one that was lost between Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona and Fargo. Given the stature of the Coen’s and their presence in The Criterion Collection, the inclusion of Barton Fink wouldn’t be a stretch; while there is a Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber, it wouldn’t be unlikely for it to brand a spine number. It was the same case for Lost Highway. 

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