Full confession; I’m nuts for the Coen Brothers. I mean, who isn’t right? Their kooky and dark style is the stuff of legend in American cinema of the last three decades. Joel and Ethan Coen are –pure and simply- American treasures. Then why did their rivetingly original work in “Barton Fink” not get nominated for Best Picture of 1991? Don’t get me wrong, the nominees were top notch; Jonathan Demme’s masterful “The Silence Of The Lambs”, Oliver Stone’s fictitious but gripping “JFK”, the landmark in animation that was “Beauty And The Beast” and Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy”. Did we forget the fifth nominee? .. Oh right ! This was also the year that Barbara Streisand’s middling “The Prince Of Tides” –starring a never worse Nick Nolte as a man that falls in love with his psychiatrist- got a questionable Best Picture nomination. Yikes, talk about missing the boat.
Oscar could have gone for riskier more memorable fare. I can name at least ten movies that were a hundred times more deserving than Streisand’s sap fest; John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood”, Martha Coolidge’s “Rambling Rose”, James Cameron’s “Terminator 2”, Ridley Scott’s “Thelma And Louise”, Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King”, Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” or, hell, even “What About Bob” starring a hilarious Bill Murray. King of them all, Joel Coen’s “Barton Fink” which resonates as deeply as any movie from 1991.
Coming off a surprising Palme D’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, Joel Coen’s movie satirized the 1940’s film business. Playing the titular character John Turturro was magnificent as Barton Fink, a writer with values of not selling out his art - yet he gets offered a big time Hollywood contract to write a “wrestling picture” and can’t decline the money. He is an artist out of touch with reality, trapped in a city out of touch with reality. Ouch, no wonder Hollywood didn’t nominate this incendiary masterpiece. “Barton Fink” bites the hand that feeds it and then some. Turturro’s Fink cannot connect with wrestling whatsoever and gets a bad case of writer’s block in the process. We follow Fink wherever he goes and wherever he takes us; is it all happening in his subconscious?
This is a film that admirably –and confusingly- mixes reality and fiction into one solid blend. However the film is a hard sell; For all the things that do happen in this movie, nothing really happens: John Turtutto's Fink is thrust into one bizarre situation after another, confusing us in the process. To call this movie a mindfuck would truly be an understatement and I do however mean that as a big, fat compliment. It’s like the surrealism of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” mixed with the trippy writer’s block of Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”, two movies that were clearly inspired by “Barton Fink”.
This is a sly, nifty little film; taking something as drab and unspectacular as a run down hotel room and turning it into a cave full of tiny, distracting wonders. The hotel Fink stays in to write his “wrestling picture” is an important part of the Coen puzzle. Whether it’s the well chosen items on the wall, the maddeningly metaphorical paintings, the buzzingly annoying flies, the slurpy noise of peeling wallpaper or John Goodman’s insane next door neighbor, the Coens choose every small little detail for a reason – which is why multiple viewings of “Barton Fink” are a must and can in fact enhance your appreciation of the maddeningly intricate script.
The story was inspired by Joel and Ethan’s own bout of writer’s block. While trying to pen their gangster film “Miller’s Crossing”, the brothers suffered such severe writer's block that they took a break from writing. During the break they wrote “Barton Fink”. “Barton Fink” one upped their gangster classic by being the gutsiest, most artistically realized movie of their career. Later would come such classics as “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men” but the Coen brothers have not made anything as narratively complicated or risky as “Barton Fink”. Oscar be damned, the film speaks for itself.