Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Barton Fink

scanning the horizon
by Douglas Messerli

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (writers and directors) Barton Fink / 1991

By an accident of Netflix shipping, I received the disk of Ethan and Joel Coens’ film Barton Fink the same day I saw Birdman in the movie theaters. Watching the Coens’ film yesterday, accordingly, I suddenly perceived how related the two films were, particularly in their presentation of the inherent battles between the perceived differences between Broadway and Hollywood, centering in Barton Fink not so much upon the approaches to acting as to those of writing and perceiving.

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:
                 And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldean:
                 I recall my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and 
                 its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be

     This, coming soon after the woman with who he had just had sex, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), has been just been discovered in his bed, her body hacked to pieces, suggests that her murder may have something do with the central character’s inability to comprehend the reality of the strange new world into which he has been plunged, a world of truly nightmarish dreams. Since Taylor may have actually been the secret author of Mayhew’s novel, the significance of this event seems even more fraught with meaning, almost taunting the film’s audience with their own inability to make sense of the movie’s plot, of the cinematic dream shown to us upon the wall of screen. Yet, by movie’s end, the brothers make not even the slightest attempt to clue us in.

     What does the suggestion that all the events of this film occuring just prior to the U.S.’s sudden entry into World War II through the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor have to do with Fink’s fateful encounter with the Hollywood system? What do the numerous references of this film to the arising Fascism in the world Fink experiences—the investigating policemen’s (named Mastrionatti and Deutsch) taunting remarks (“Fink. That’s a Jews name, isn’t it? …I didn’t think this dump was restricted.”) and Charlie Meadows’ (John Goodman) shout, just before killing the second policeman, of “Heil Hitler”—have to do with Hollywood in which Fink finally becomes entrapped?

     If we were simply miffed by the lack of interconnections, some critics, such as M. Keith Booker, lashed out at the Coens for what he saw as the writers’ accusation of Fink and other leftist intellectuals for their lack to oppose the rise of fascism: “That the Coens would choose to level a charge of irresponsibility against the only group in America that actively sought to oppose the rise of fascism is itself highly irresponsible and shows a complete ignorance of (or perhaps lack of interest in) historical reality.”

      Our reactions were not nearly so self-righteously fashioned. I recall, instead, that Howard and I felt let down by the fact that Fink carried about with him a box wherein might or might not lay the hacked-off head of Audrey Taylor. Never are allowed to look into the box, however, we must watch the film go to its grave without revealing anything about the parcel’s contents. For us, these vaguely provocative incidents all suggested that the Coens were more interested in playing with their viewers, with, metaphorically speaking, sticking their tongues out at their audience, than in fully exploring the symbolic and metaphysical possibilities they had set up.

      I think it should be apparent to readers of My Year volumes by this time that I am in any sense demanding that the Coens’ film utterly explain itself or that the movie’s ending be filled with ultimate revelations. I too, prefer, what the brothers describe as ambiguous realities. At the time I had not read their own comments, but if I had, I might let Joel Coen’s own words stand as a condemnation of their art:

                     It just seemed a kind of amusing. It’s a tease. All that stuff about
                     Charlie—the “Heil Hitler!” business—sure it’s all there, but it’s
                     a kind of tease. …In Barton Fink we may have encourage it [the
                     way people are trained to watch movies, to seek a “comprehensive 
                     analysis”]—like teasing animals at the zoo. The movie is in-
                     tentionally ambiguous in ways that they may not be used to seeing. 

It’s that view of seeing their audience as “animals in a zoo,” I’d argue, which angered Howard and me. It all reminded me of a very precocious fellow student in one of my University of Wisconsin undergraduate classes, who, no matter what we read, needed to remind us that he had read the complete Tristan Shandy and Finnegans Wake. Nothing we were struggling to say could ever compare with that! Everyone in the class hated this self-congratulating prig, including the teacher! That pompous challenger characterized to Howard and me what we found too often in these brilliant filmmakers’ work, a kind thumbing of their collective noses of our meager attempts to make meaning of their cinematic masturbations. If they didn’t really care, why should we?

     This time through I suffered their somewhat cynical, would-be elitism with much more patience. In part, because the film is such a beautiful thing to observe, the acting so consummate, and, when the movie does intellectually bother to truly engage us, the work quite brilliantly challenges our imaginations, I liked Barton Fink better this time around.

     First of all, the film is, like many of the Coens’ works, quite funny. The world of Barton Fink, well-established in the first few sequences, is so filled with self-important proclamations of weighty meaning, while the “great American play” he has just created is so obviously dreadful that it is hard not to simply to let out a whoop or hoot of derisive laughter. Playing upon Clifford Odet’s dreary realist dialogue from Awake and Sing!, the Coens spoof the “brute struggle for existence…in the most squalid corners” in Barton’s play Bare Ruined Choirs with the clunking, clanging ending: “I’m awake now, awake for the first time!” “Take the ruined choir. Make it sing!”     

      Too pure to sully his art with movie writing, Fink is evidently lured to the equally perverse office of studio mogul Jack Lipnick, who, in his absurdly officious attempts to embrace “high art” as embodied in Fink, reminds one a bit of the Marx Brothers’-inspired creation Mrs. Claypool/Margaret Dumont, a woman whose would-be elevated vision is as cloudy as a ditch of standing water in Enterprise, Alabama. Lipnick—a sendup of Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack Warner combined—has the brains of a jackass combined with the instincts for survival of a cobra. If for him, writers, as Warner once described them, are just “schmucks with Underwoods,” the heightened intellectual world to which he pretends, is to be hallowed, as, later in the film, he proves by kissing the foot of the clueless author.

https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQkUd9ar-aq7OV-QxneYAvkPdIxI6gV-qPAUAymlzAmHIMTCWC7     The fact that, in real life, the majestic writer Faulkner was actually hired to script a wrestling film for actor Wallace Beery, was simply a too perfect tidbit of information for the Coens to ignore, particularly since they had also wrestled in high school. But by assigning it to the self-proclaimed preacher of the common man, Fink/Odets, the brothers turn that fact on its head. Despite the Olympian heights of his reputation, after all, Faulkner, particularly with a little bourbon in his blood, was ready to take on nearly any writing challenge.  Fink, on the other hand, who sees writing as “coming from a great inner pain,” has seen so few movies that he cannot even imagine what the “formula” that his mentors keep suggesting might be. Beginning his film, like his previous play, on the lower East Side of New York City with the sound of the fishmongers clamoring through the air, Fink’s would-be wrestling film goes nowhere simply because he has no imagination, no ability to write anything outside of his own child-like experiences.

     What the Coens, quite cleverly make clear, is that, despite his desire to represent the common man—whatever that might be—he has no more knowledge of the everyday world in which his heroes might exist than Lipnick, sitting on his chaise lounge by his Bel Air mansion pool. In fact, Lipnick knows exactly what the common man, he believes, really wants: a story about a good wrestler and a bad wrestler who battle it out, with maybe a little love interest or an orphan mixed into the plot! Fink, raised in the hothouse environment of leftist politics and the New York Theater world, is, not so surprisingly, a true elitist, unable to perceive, at least in terms of the Coens’ vision, that it is the movies which represent “commonality,” not the Odets’ Broadway stage with its imitations of everyday life. The “formula,” or the stylized dream-like representations of reality, my offer more sustenance to our collective desires than a pretense of ordinary day-to-day existence. It’s the difference, as I have long argued, between Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, the reason why Willy Loman today appears as a sad cartoon of forgotten past and why Stanley Kowalski remains for us a figure bigger than life.

     Fink’s problem, as his name reveals, is that he snitches on human experience, he “informs” us about certain people and events—the way some celebrities, such as Williams’ director Kazin, told the McCarthy committee about the communists—instead of actually experiencing and living the life of a common man. Fink, in his isolation from and abandonment of everyday experience, is the greatest elitist of all.  As his next door neighbor in the dreary Earle Hotel, Charley, later accuses him, he is all talk, a man who speaks grand ideas without listening to anyone from whom he might glean any truth. Since he is unable to hear the common man, how possibly might he be able to express such a being in his dialogues?

     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.        

Los Angeles, October 28, 2014Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2014).

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