Barton Fink (1991)

I adored “Barton Fink”. A surrealist exploration of a writer’s struggles with writer’s block and Hollywood, the film oozes imagery and symbolism begging for varied interpretations, and I’m only to happy to indulge it!

I don’t take the film at face value, I think like a Lynch film it’s operating at a heightened dream-state level of reality, or at the very least more symbolic than literal. The peeling wallpaper, the painting of the woman at the beach, the hotel itself, they’re all signifiers just begging to be examined.

To my mind, the hotel is hell (the heat, the casual acceptance of death, the flames, the number “six” repeated three times in Barton’s scene in the elevator, Steve Buscemi’s hotel manager character taking a long time to rise from underground, the madness of it, etc.) and the film explores Barton’s descent. The film is certainly filled with literary allusions and suggestions; perhaps Barton is like Milton’s Satan, New York his paradise lost, and Hollywood (and the hotel specifically) his hell.

There are a myriad of other interpretations, from Roger Ebert’s reading that the film is an allegorical representation for the ineffectiveness of the intellectual class to prevent or address the rise of Nazism in the 1930s (Goodman’s character even explicitly heils near the end), to the hotel being a metaphor for Barton’s mind (note we never actually see any other rooms). I’m fond for the idea of the hotel being an externalisation of Barton’s mind (note that all the sounds Barton hears outside his room – the sex, the crying, the general roughhousing – are all sounds he creates himself in his room at some point), and I hardly think I have to “pick and choose” between that and the hell interpretation; the text is ambiguous enough to support many readings.

The film oozes symbolism. The peeling wallpaper reflecting Goodman’s character’s ears, further reflecting Barton’s deteriorating mind. The image of a woman at the beach is a recurring motif that, when seen in the ending of the film, shows Barton once again staring at an image, an inspiration he cannot bring to the page. It also displays again that break between reality and fiction, almost like a punchline to end the film on.

It’s easy to overlook the more “basic” things the film does right, when caught up in discussing the symbolism. For one, the comedy is excellent, Barton’s boss in Hollywood absolutely had me laughing. The performances are strong on all fronts, particularly Goodman’s. The set design is critical and absolutely perfect; the hotel is the centrepiece of the film.

Barton is not a man to be admired. He expresses passion to create “theatre of the common man”…yet shows disdain for, and spurns, cinema. It’s staring him in the face the entire film and he never shows any regard for it, but cinema is literally the exact medium Barton is trying to create, a place where the common man loves to see stories and have their stories told. This demonstrates the fact Barton really has no understanding of the common man, exemplified best by his repeated shut-downs of Goodman’s character when he attempts to share actual “common man” stories. He views Goodman’s character, and the common man as a whole by extension, as someone to champion, yet all he does in actuality is condescend to, and ignore, them. He doesn’t truly champion the working class, he just fetishises them.

There’s so much that I’m sure I missed as this was just my first viewing, and I look forward to delving back into the film sometime in the future.

I give it four and a half pages of script, and a box of tacks.

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