Barton Fink (1991)

I used to work a lot in live theater and I still hold a lot of love for the medium in my heart. While I was working for theaters, I wrote a play and more recently I wrote another play. The first was kind of teenage angsty and I would need to dig to see if I could still find it. In case your curious, it was a one-act play about a young woman visiting her sister in a mental institution. I cannot remember the general arc of the play but I do remember thinking it was super deep. It had one reading and it was in our high school creative writing class. At one point, the patient whispers something into somebody else’s ear and the person blushes. People asked me what she said and I shrugged and said that it was up to people’s imaginations. This was not a satisfying answer to my classmates. I wrote the whole thing in the lobby of Spotlighter’s Theater (a theater here in town). The second play is kind of a meta-fantasy adventure that has to do with identity politics and my obsession with finding one’s narrative. The point here is that writing scripts is difficult but interesting.

I am completely enamored by the world of Hollywood. At least, I am enamored with the glitzy, positive side of the business. I have been watching movies since I was a tiny tot but I have been interested in behind the scenes information since I was about fourteen. I worked in live theater but I knew people who worked for the Hollywood system (though mostly in Baltimore). It always seemed mythical and larger than life to me. However, I have read enough to know the downsides. The theater is a highly collaborative art form as the cast and crew find the play through weeks (or months) of rehearsal. In film, there is more a series of final decisions. The director does not wield as much ultimate power in the Hollywood system. The studios are always breathing down their necks to make changes. For writers, it is even worse. You work hard on writing a script and then you sell it and they can bring any number of writers to rewrite your work and make it unrecognizable from what sprouted from your mind and heart. Of course, this is all what I have gathered from interviews and articles and I am sure it cannot all be that negative all the time.

First and foremost, this is a period piece written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (popularly known as the Coen Brothers). Period pieces created by the Coen Brothers are a proven commodity in Hollywood and their movies, in general, are things that I will always give a shot. Movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, and Hail, Caesar! are among my favorite movies. Even movies that I did not like as much were far better than other movies that I have seen. This is one of their early movies (their fifth) and it definitely fits in with their best. It is set in Los Angeles in the early forties at a time when the movie business was really growing. The movie follows John Turturro as an awkward yet passionate writer whose success on Broadway earns him a deal to write for Hollywood. Turturro is such a versatile actor. I have seen him as an unintelligent thug, a cartoon monkey, and a racist ass. Here he plays an intelligent man out of his element well. John Goodman is his main co-star and he plays the common man who Turturro’s character strives to write about but finds is different from his assumptions. There is also Tony Shalhoub as a hardened, cynical producer, John Mahoney as a contemporary writer, and Judy Davis as a beleaguered secretary.

This was a very interesting movie and there is not much that I could write here that could spoil the experience of watching it. The movie is notoriously hard to pin down as it could be film noir, horror, or several other genres. In fact, I read after watching that the movie is highly debated and the Coen Brothers have only confirmed a few theories. I have a few takeaways myself. The movie has a lot to with class differences. When we get separated from other walks of life, we start making generalizations and assumptions about people who are different from us. The life of the mind is also a big part of it and how dangerous one’s mind can be. Movies like The Shining and 1408 have tackled the kind of dangers one faces when they get too far inside of their head. There is also a deep unhappiness that can form from success, where we start to feel trapped by advancements that we never aimed for. I also really got a vibe about expectations and when our expectations exceed reality and how disillusioned we can get. There is a lot to unpack in this movie and far more than I have written here. All of it is done in kind of an offbeat, surreal style that just seems to be driven by awkwardness.

Overall, I loved the movie. While the movie does remain something of a strange mystery, I love a good mystery. This will be something that my mind will be chewing on and deciphering for quite some time. The dialogue is strange but also very human in certain ways, similar to The Big Lebowski (which the Coens also wrote). The pacing is unnerving and after a while, I was afraid to see what would happen next but I also needed to see it. Maybe it is because I consider myself a writer, but this movie really struck at the core of me. But I think that in many ways Turturro’s plight is universal, something that everybody faces at different times in their lives. I definitely recommend this movie but do not strain yourself too hard trying to decipher the meaning of everything.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Barton Fink (1991)”

  1. Rowena Says:

    Greetings from the A-Z Challenge. I loved reading your reflection on working in theatre. I was very interested in acting when I was young but life got in the way, but the skills were useful for doing poetry readings.
    My daughter has been to a few auditions and will be playing one of the Cheshire cats in the school musical. It should be so much fun…and hard work. She is mainly a dancer and does all styles. It’;s an interesting world, which I enter with a bit of caution. It’s important not to let the idea of making it override your common sense and personal boundaries.
    My theme for the A-Z this year is Letters to Dead Artists and today’s was B for Botticelli.
    Looking forward to reading more of your posts.
    Best wishes,


    • Wolf of Words Says:

      Thanks! When I write a review I have two goals: 1) connect it with my life and 2) spoil as little as possible. I’m going to have to stop by your blog to see these letters. You had me at Bottichelli.


  2. Tasha Duncan-Drake (@beren_writes) Says:

    I have not seen this one, although I remember there being hype around it. I had no idea what it was about, thank you for letting me know.
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Movie Monsters


  3. Silvia Writes Says:

    There is little more satisfying for the artsy heart than a well-done movie. I haven’t had the pleasure of watching your example here, but the subject matter appeals. I am enamored with the artistic mind in Hollywood, if anything. Thank you. Enjoyed the post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: