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Barton Fink [RSC Film Club 37]


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This month's film club selection comes from the filmography of Ethan and Joel Coen, as nominated by @djw180.  The winning film is their lesser known 1991 thriller/comedy/noir film Barton Fink, selected by @Con.

Barton Fink

Set in the early 40s, Barton Fink stars John Turturro as the titular character, a hot new playwright who goes to Hollywood to start working on movies.  However, upon arriving he finds that he is being told what to write, and has to stay at the rundown Hotel Earle, which may in fact be hell.  This film has a great, and terrifying, supporting turn from John Goodman as Charlie Meadows, his hotel neighbour, and smaller but memorable roles for the likes of Steve Buscemi and Tony Shalhoub.  

A dark and sometimes surreal film, this has elements that remind me of Mulholland Drive, but with that distinctive Coen Brothers twist.  This is actually my favourite film of theirs and need no excuse to watch it again.  

Angry John Goodman GIF

look upon me

Edited by LimeGreenLegend
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A very good story, which is exactly what you expect from the Cohen Brothers. Some good acting from John Turturro, John Goodman and Michael Lerner (deserved Oscar Nomination) and nice to see John Mahony in something other than Frasier. The plot is somewhat ambiguous, but I think deliberately so It's the sort of story I think you can take what you want from and one I will definitely watch again and probably see something different. The Hotel Earle, where Barton Fink lives in Hollywood is quite mysterious. We only see one other guest and two members of staff. Is it Hell? Well he has kind of sold his soul by giving up writing his meaningful plays that examine the human condition to go and write scripts for cheap films just to make money, and the end scenes are hellish. But is that supposed to be real or represent what's in Barton's mind?

Very well worth watching.



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Barton Fink (1991)


If you are a writer or an aspiring one. If you like storytelling. If you appreciate the art of screenwriting. But you have never watched this film, watch it first and then read reviews so you can naturally come up with what Barton Fink (John Turturro) should write about, especially as the film progresses. It's fun reading other people's perspective on the film but I think it's more rewarding if you allow yourself to come up with your own ideas as you watch it for the first time with little to no references. What I knew going into it was it had to do with a writer who gets a job in Hollywood and is probably going to be under pressure to write something amazing. Will he succeed? Will Hollywood swallow him up and spit him out?

The main reason I never watched this in the past was that I just have this perception that films about writers tend to be boring in general. There is a film with Nic Cage called "Adaptation" (2002), about a writer, and I have been meaning to watch it because I have heard interesting things about it, but I always find myself skipping it. The irony is that I really enjoy the craft of screenwriting, when I watch the Oscars, it's always my favorite category, so you'd think I'd watch every film about writers, and perhaps now I will after watching this. 

What I liked the most about this film was how easy it was to follow. The signature Coen Brothers ambiguity is held back in the first half of the film and I appreciated the absence of dream sequences. Both those elements allowed me to immerse myself in the story as I generally tune out in films when the filmmakers throw random things at the screen and I don't know what is set in reality and what is not. This film waited until the last act to make me wonder what the hell was going on. Yes, I'm talking about the hotel fire. Was Satan himself possessing the body of the Madman Mundt (John Goodman) the whole time of his implied killing spree? Was the hotel in a different dimension, like in hell or purgatory (no firetrucks or fire alarms are heard during the blaze) and is that why the wallpaper glue would melt off? I didn't mind having to juggle all that in my mind all of the sudden, even If I had already formed the opinion that this was not  a paranormal story and everything was happening in reality and not just in Barton Fink's (John Turturro) mind. 

One of my absolutely favorite things was the reveal that Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) was the one who had mostly ghost written W.P. Mayhews (John Mahoney) concepts and even possibly all the novels. I found that so outstanding at that point of the story. I loved the dialogue and acting in that scene with Barton and Audrey because of how much is revealed all at once, Audrey is the real talent, W.P. is basically a drunk abusive fraud, and Barton is letdown by his idol. I just did not see that coming at all, I was guessing that Barton and W.P. were going to collaborate on something amazing and W.P. was going to steal it all for himself and revive his career, leaving Barton to scramble for a new screenplay to write with just hours to go with the studio deadline. So making W.P. useless was hilarious and unexpected to me. Right behind coming in as my second favorite thing in the film was the dialogue of the detectives. Detective Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Detective Deutsch (Christopher Murney) were one scene from stealing the entire damn film. They were so good with their interplay of words and just two solid fun characters to watch, that deserve their own film. I could watch those two solve crimes all day long, they were that funny and amusing. They were a highlight of the film. 

I usually don't like films set in the drab color palette we are shown throughout the film because for me it tends to make slow-paced dialogue films appear to drag out but since the film is set in the 1940's, it kind of made sense. But I did quite enjoy the heavenly appearances of the film studio offices and Jack Lipnick's (Michael Lerner) mansion grounds. Those places and the beach at the end are the only times we see bright sunlight and rich colors.  Speaking of Mr. Lipnick, I thought Michael Lerner knocked that small role out of the park. He was so entertaining. I wish he would have told Barton he was going to need war scripts, once we see him in the military uniform. I thought that would have been funny, to like say "f*ck a wrestling sequel, we need war stories to tell! Don't let me down this time, you f*cking Fink!!!!". 

There are a few negatives I did consider as I watched. One was the lack of explanation as to how Barton slept through the obvious removal of a sleeping Audrey, her killing in Mundt's apartment, and the return of the bloody corpse back in the bed, next to him. I know we are just asked to go with it, but I wish there was a hint that Mundt chloroform, which would probably have been easy to access with the right amount of money, since chloroform did not become prohibited in the United States until 1976. Although, films usually get the chloroform in a napkin to kidnap people wrong as a person needs to be breathing the chemical in for longer than we see in films and then the victim has to be constantly breathing it in to remain unconscious. The film is a bit slow as most people won't think watching a man think about what he is going to write, while mosquitos bite him in the face, is very entertaining at all. Or watching wallpaper fall off while he thinks of what to write. So yeah, this is not for everyone and I don't know too many people I could recommend this to that would come back and say, "I really liked it. Lets discuss it". 

I also disliked that we didn't get to see what the screenplay Barton finally writes is really about. We only get that Mr. Lipnick thinks it sucks because it's too much of a sappy character study. I guess, this is my negative take since I was hoping that the screenplay Barton ends up writing is about an out of shape wrestler that has to take a second job as an insurance salesman and ends up on the road and gets involved in a murder he does not commit. The film gets made, it wins the Oscar, everyone is happy and even richer...except Barton. He is now haunted by the ghosts of the decapitated Audrey, W.P., and his uncle.  I understood the last scene of the film, the woman on the beach poses like the woman in the drawing that hangs in Barton's room, but I wish they did a little more with it. Did the drawing become his muse (he always stared at it) and now she was in the flesh? Did the woman's isolation in the picture remind him of his own loneliness and now he was meeting her exactly how he saw her in the drawing? I think, I would have ended the film with Barton saying to her, "I know you." and then fade to black just to add some spice to the moment. 

Final Verdict...4/5...Despite the general drab setting, I thought the sets were perfect for this story. A fancier hotel room for Barton would have not had the same effect in the storytelling. I loved the cinematography and the shots of the hallway, especially when the shoes were outside the rooms waiting for the shoe shine cart, truly inspired me on something I'm working on and that alone is worth a full point and is exactly why I'm giving this film such a high score. It really put me in Barton's shoes as I was like him, thinking of story concepts he could write about and once things start happening to him and around him, I felt he would have been easily inspired because I know I was. I remember saying to myself, "there! he has his wrestler story. The universe is handing him his story, he just has to apply reality to fantasy now". This has inspired me to really make an effort to watch that Nic Cage Adaptation film before the end of the month now, so that's cool. Bravo to the actors as each one added so much charisma to each moment. One of the questions the film does kind of leave you with is, was some of the things or perhaps the entire thing all in Barton's mind? My opinion is that it is not in his mind and the fire was real as it was a way for Mundt to eliminate the bodies. Technically, Barton didn't kill anyone, and once the detectives depart, why would he want to implicate himself any further, when all he was trying to do was write a screenplay and honor his commitment. There is no doubt that I'm leaving out so many metaphors and meanings to things in the film, like the mosquito, the wallpaper, or why doesn't Barton stay at a nicer place.  I highly recommend this for the writers. But only moderately recommend for the non-writers as you might go to bed pissed off that you didn't get to see about the box and the whole thing. 

Edited by Con
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