A portrait of a tormented writer, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, set in 1941 Hollywood, holds up as an accurate depiction of both the grueling, non-collaborative creative process and the skewed dynamic that comes with being employed by anyone in a creative facet. Of course, the film covers a vast array of themes, all connected to one another, and far too many to wrap your head around during the first viewing alone, but like any great film, that’s also the fun of it.
It follows our titular playwright (John Turturro) as he migrates to Los Angeles after being hired to write a B-grade movie about wrestling. Writing “for the common man,” but appealing to the snobbish aristocrats of New York, Barton Fink thinks very highly of himself and is initially hesitant about taking the job in LA. But after his agent persuades him, he agrees. He’s put up as a resident in the Hotel Earle, a rundown hotel with apparently many patrons, but none of whom you ever see. That is, except for Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Barton’s overbearing neighbor, an insurance salesman who gets acquainted with the writer one night after Barton reports to the front desk of loud laughter coming from Charlie’s room.
The film tackles the question of how a writer can write about such grounded ideas if he’s apparently so out of touch with reality. Barton might be a stereotypical writer type, but also one who wasn’t so uncommon back in the 1940s, or even today perhaps: a self-absorbed individual with heightened delusions of grandeur for the importance of what he does. Barton is a man with philosophies that are rooted in ideals rather than self-aware realities, ostensibly aiming to write for the “common man,” yet never wanting to take the time to figure out what that actually means. And when he finally is handed a common man like Charlie, he itches to leave instead of taking notes.
Believe it or not, there are real creatives like this. Disconnected from reality and the actual common man, it’s these writers who so often architect the films and shows that help to shape the ethos and zeitgeist of our culture. They plop down at a desk in a room by themselves for days, weeks, and even months on end and attempt to speak on humanity. And what’s worse is we usually buy what’s being sold.
Barton doesn’t see how both Broadway and Hollywood are driven by money. While theater is much more intimate and a more direct way for the audiences—and raving critics—to see the culmination of a writer’s work, cinema is literally “for the common man.” However, our protagonist expresses contempt for this medium and views it as inferior because of its very audience.
Throughout the film we see how Barton’s writer’s block affects his work on his screenplay. Trying to find inspiration to write a movie that’s merely supposed to be popcorn entertainment, he seeks the help of his favorite author, W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a drunk has-been who offers nothing useful, except to provide our protagonist with a cautionary tale.
The head of the studio, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), almost literally brown-noses Barton prior to receiving any sort of finished draft, and yet every single action is disingenuous. He “fires” employees to flaunt his power and satisfy Barton, yet these employees are seen very much at work the next time they meet. He tells the writer he’s going to send him to a better hotel rather than the rundown Hotel Earle, but this never happens. He’s the kind of phony Hollywood type exaggerated perfectly to the extent that only Joel and Ethan Coen would take it.
The Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink in three weeks while having “writer’s block” themselves during the writing process for Miller’s Crossing, which was released a year earlier. The Coens have a way of making all their movies feel tailored but also rough and indie-like, and 1991’s Barton Fink, the first featuring cinematographer Roger Deakins, might be the most incisive vision they’ve ever had.
The final act informs us that this is, indeed, an allegory, as artsy decisions end up getting in the way of logic and plausibility—and yet, that is so very apropos to the themes of the movie, isn’t it?
In the 1940s, Hollywood was at the height of the studio system, where producers were the de facto “directors” on a production most of the time, and it was their vision that came to fruition more often than it was the actual man behind the camera. This all changed over the next few decades, going away for good in the late ’60s with the New Wave of Hollywood, but still there were certain dynamics in place back then that trickle down even today when it comes to the writer-producer relationship.
Barton Fink attempts to show the differences in the cultures of New York’s Broadway and Hollywood’s film industry, but also how they’re very much the same. More than anything, the movie expresses the idea of how talent often gets overshadowed by a proven formula, and that auteurism is often rendered as a futile way to make a profit. Barton Fink only earned a measly $6.2 million at the box office upon its initial release, with the term “box office bomb” attached to the film.
The themes here are so very deep and dynamic that you can continue to think about this movie long after its over, and even upon second or third viewings. But this is what makes Barton Fink such a beautiful film—like a painting to sit and interpret, and one of the most enjoyable versions of that metaphor in the cinematic medium. After all, there’s always more to the picture.