by Douglas Messerli
I had ordered the movie to see if I still felt the same way about the failures of the film that my companion Howard and I discerned when we first saw the film in 1991. Discussing the movie—my memory puts us in a Korean Restaurant in Los Angeles dining on Japanese cuisine—we both felt that the Coens had destroyed their often well-written and beautifully filmed work by throwing out a series of false associations, symbols, and narrative possibilities to purposely thumb their nose at both the critics and ordinary viewers. What did the vague Biblical references of to the Book of Daniel, hinted at in the film’s scene when the Faulkneresque writer W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) gives the central figure, Barton Fink (John Turturro) a copy of his newest novel, Nebuchadnezzar and, when, much later in the film, Fink comes across the words from Daniel, while working on his disastrous screenplay, in his hotel room’s Gideon’s Holy Bible:
way people are trained to watch movies, to seek a “comprehensive
If throughout most of this odd horror film, Fink is unable to produce the script of a wrestling movie, the film itself, nonetheless, plays out a possible scenario through the interchanges between Fink and Charlie, good wrestler and bad wrestler. While it may seem, at first that Fink is a “good” wrestler, despite his inability to wrestle with any reality, and Charlie is the bad wrestler, living in an alternative universe as Karl “Madman” Mundt (a name that might remind one, in fact, of the moniker of a professional wrestler), it is Charlie who can really wrestle. Only he can solve the problems that Fink faces: it is he who disposes of the hacked-up corpse Fink awakens to find in his bed; he alone faces down the cops who would arrest Fink, and he who kills them; and he is the one who finally frees Fink from the bed to which he has been handcuffed. He is, as he claims, a “big” man compared with Fink’s small, nerdy, cowering frame.
If we presume that Charlie is also the murderer of Audrey Taylor, Mayhew, and others— perhaps even Fink’s family members—given the film’s goofy structure, we have as much evidence that Fink himself may have “destroyed” them—if not in “reality,” certainly in his pretenses of reality as revealed his plays. In a film about film, about dreams within dreams, there is no possibility of separating what we might describe as real and what is fantasy. All becomes a kind of illusion—just like the fire that flares up upon the hotel walls without consuming them—and the struggles we are witness between the “good” wrestler and the “bad” wrestler represent, perhaps, the struggles that Fink must undergo within his own mind as he is gradually forced to come to terms—at least subconsciously—with the lies he has been telling himself.
The question remains, obviously, whether or not Fink as a survivor of the battling ordeal, has really learned anything. We can only wonder if his wrestling with devils has allowed him the ability even to listen to truth. If Fink has been deaf, so too, apparently has been his ultra-ego, Charlie, who suffers throughout from an ear-infection. Through the struggle, moreover, we come to perceive that, in his mistaken notion of Charlie as a “common man,” Fink has, in a strange way, come to love the terrifying homicidal oaf. Indeed, the relationship between the two—even as the police imagine it—is perversely homoerotic. Charlie, we remind ourselves, remains at film’s end Fink’s only friend.
If Charlie were the “common man” that Fink has perceived him to be, it would surely mean that the everyday human beings of our world are all truly monsters—which they may well be, given the inverted notions of commonness that Fink espouses. We can’t know whether or not the final script that Fink is finally able to create anything of worth, having apparently overcome his writing block. Lipnick’s declaration that the script is still “a fruity movie about suffering” suggests that he has not changed, at least, his literary perspective. But fruity here, while it suggests “queer” or “arty,” might also imply a sense of “fruitfulness,” a ripening of vision.
If nothing else, the experience hopefully has expanded our vision. If Fink is now a slave to a system which will allow him no further contribution to its definitions of life, we are, at least, now free to, even encouraged to, evaluate the situation. Suddenly, watching this film yesterday, it not only no longer mattered that Fink had not yet opened the parcel. Rather, I prayed that he carry that package with him throughout his life (the part and parcel of his own still undefined experiences) without ever opening it. For, like Pandora’s Box it might contain all the evils of the world, allowing them to escape. Given the specter of World War and apocalypse facing us at film’s close, we might suppose that Fink indeed has, once the credits rolled by, attempted to peek into that package.
Meanwhile, the filmmakers allow him one more chance to resolve the problems he has with his vision—difficulties with seeing made so obvious through his heavy, black-rimmed eyeglasses. At the seashore, Fink suddenly comes upon the very girl he has daily looked-upon in the picture hung upon his hotel-room wall. Clearly, he still has difficulty hearing, as she attempts to praise the lovely day. But can he now comprehend, when he absurdly asks her, “Are you in pictures?” that her answer, “Don’t be silly,” should not be understood as a negative. For obviously she is “in pictures,” as he has observed in the frame in his room; she is clearly also in “pictures,” if you define that word as “movies,” just like the one we’re watching her in now. If she has previously seemed to be simply looking out into the horizon, carefully shading her eyes from the sun, we might now perceive as scanning the horizon for the future, attempting to discern what might lay there. In his devotion to his notion of the “real,” I am afraid, Fink will have to pick apart that piece of twine holding in the parcel’s secret to witness that dream of the Gorgon once again. But at least we have the hope that he might just sit for a while and take in the sun—with no sailor, or fisherman, or even fishmonger in sight. It’s such a lovely day that no other “reality” can possibly match our nearly empty gaze upon a gaze.