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Barton Fink (1991)

by on 2011/03/05

“Where there’s a head, there’s hope.”

* * * *

I frequently pray to the patron saint of Barton Fink when I feel insecure about my writing. I pray even harder when I am staring at the wall silently berating myself for not writing better or writing more or writing at all.

Barton Fink is a movie about writing. A very, very scary movie about writing.

Played by John Turturro, Barton Fink is a playwright with pretensions, with a capital P for proletariat. He writes for the “Common Man” – stories of the little guy, tales of the average joe public, cries of the fishmonger.

You get the picture.

With hair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the wild-eyed single-mindedness of a zealot, Fink’s experiences success on Broadway with his play about fishmongers living, loving, learning.  An armload of positive critical reviews, he receives an invitation to go to Hollywood.

Fink finds himself in Los Angeles, checking into the Hotel Earle.  This art-deco dive seems suffused by a kind of steamy, sticky lifelessness. A filthy-fingered bell hop Chet, played by Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge) greets him.

The hotel’s motto, “A day or a lifetime,” is strangely ominous.

In his hotel room, now well and truly cut off from his previous life, Fink is alone. Well, not entirely. The key supporting player in this neo-noir masterpiece written, directed and produced by the Coen brothers, is the seedy Hotel Earle itself, or more specifically the wall. The oozing, wall-paper-peeling wall.

Fink’s introductory meeting with bombastic, bipolar, bi-winning employer Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the head of Capitol Pictures, offers little guidance or comfort to this strange man in a strange land.

Fink’s commissioned to write a boxing picture – “a big movie about big men in tights.”

Back again in his room, Fink can’t seem to write a word. Correction: Fink manages to write one paragraph – one – about a tenement in the early morning and the cries of fishmongers.

His typewriter becomes sinister an object of fear and despair. Blocked and peevish, he hears howling cries through the wall.

Enter the brilliant John Goodman, playing a sweaty, desperate insurance salesman next door Charlie Meadows, to apologize for the noise through thin lips and clenched teeth. In one of the most mutually condescending conversations ever filmed, Meadows and Fink swap tales and life views.

The sweating Meadows and the oozing wall make up Fink’s entire social circle until Fink meets W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), fellow writer and Fink’s idol, in a washroom. Again, more precisely, Fink meets Mayhew vomiting like a champion in a stall. Also under contract with a film company, Mayhew, vomiting notwithstanding, is NOT.OK.

Mayhew’s secretary and lover Audrey (Judy Davis) takes pity on the lonely Fink. The third wheel on a drunken lunch, Fink realizes his hero is an inveterate, violent alcoholic. Judy Davis was absolutely born to play the long-suffering, agonized writers’ moll. “We all need understanding. Even you tonight, it is all we really need,” she tells Fink.

The ensuing events are pure hellfire and poetry.

This addictive, terrifying, insane movie is why I pray to Barton Fink.

I frequently talk when I should listen.  Sometimes I search blindly for a story when there’s an epic going on next door.

“I sure do forget myself sometimes.”

* * * *

116 minutes

Rated R for John Goodman with a shotgun …and the foley sound effects in support of the vomiting (and more vomiting)

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