directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
You know when I learned who the Coen Brothers were? It was 1991, when Barton Fink came out. I had just moved to San Francisco and was an undergrad student at SFSU and I was reading the SF Weekly or Bay Guardian, waiting for a literature class to start, thumbing through the free weeklies and reading about what was new and what was hip and the article caught my eye.
I’d seen Raising Arizona (1987) and Blood Simple (1984) but I don’t think I really knew who Joel and Ethan Coen were, would have remembered their names, whatever. But reading about Barton Fink and recognizing those other movie connections, I was interested to go see the movie and did, I think at the Kabuki, and confirmed them for myself as major filmmakers.
Oddly enough, though, I don’t know if I’d ever seen Barton Fink again since. I’ve watched many of their films over and again but not Barton Fink.
Set in 1941 and starring the nearly Eraserhead-haired John Turturo as the titular New York Jewish playwright-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter, the film dabbles in the self-reflection of the movie-making industry and the crises of creative sparks. Or does it? The film is also possibly another great amalgam of Coen-esque red herrings. What is it really about? It’s kind of hard to say.
John Goodman is terrific as the charming, insurance selling possible serial killer who shows up in the next room over from Fink’s in the rat trap hotel in which is sets up shop. The film features a lot of bit parts for interesting character actors to pull some very funny over-the-top performances bulging with weirdness.
More than anything the film has a wonderful aesthetic and cinematography. I remember reading about them doing 100 takes to get a shot right where a marble-like bauble rolls perfectly into frame for a close up. Back in 1991 this seemed a real hallmark of their filmmaking. Original scripts, amazing cinematography, high level strangeness and quirkiness.
Tuturro’s Fink is a pompous, self-loathing liberal artist who believes in social change but has no connection to “the working man” to whom he assumes such affinity. Goodman’s affable neighbor is both the real deal, a genuine working man who “has some stories” but also a dark figure whose stories aren’t probably the ones one might have assumed. Does the blurriness of his character offer any redemption for Fink or just show him all the more what a sham he is. Or is he a sham?
They succinctly send up the WPA style of writing that was the American voice of the 1940’s-1960’s in its glib literacy and high-feeling.
It’s strange to not see a movie for so many years, to have such specific memories of it, still.