Hollywood lore has it that the Coen brothers were having a tough time writing Miller’s Crossing decided to take a break and ended up writing Barton Fink in three weeks. Man that must have been one hell of a three weeks because this film is nothing short of fantastic.
Barton Fink is played by John Tuturro. On an aside, like so many other cast members of this movie, Tuturro also appears in the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski. Fink is a successful playwright who is approached by Hollywood to leave his native New York and go on the writer’s Hollywood safari to write B-movie wrestling pictures. At first Barton is reluctant to go on safari, as he fears it may separate him from ‘the common man,’ whom he pompously regards as the source and reason of his creative outlet.
Fink does accept Hollywood’s high-priced proposal, and checks in to L.A.’s Hotel Earle, a resident’s hotel where he intends to write. The Hotel is essentially run by “Chet” (Steve Buscemi also in The Big Lebowski) who informs Barton that one of the Hotels fine amenities is a free shoe shine. After meeting the studio executive, Fink sits down to work but suffers from a serious case of writer’s block. He becomes torn between his love of creating art with meaning, about and for ‘the common man,’ as he regularly puts it, and the demands of his new Hollywood masters, who are expecting a bestseller formulaic wrestling picture. Looking for anyway to break his block, Fink begins to look around and venture out into his surroundings. Perhaps he will even meet a few people.
Enter John Goodman who plays Charlie Meadows, Barton’s hotel neighbor. Charlie is a charismatic insurance salesman, and becomes a confidante and source of inspiration to Fink. Fink comes alive when he converses a common man like Charlie, who is supportive and provides comfort in the desolate, and soulless atmosphere of the Hotel Earle and his California surroundings in general.
The Hotel Earle becomes one of the strongest, most disturbing elements of the film. It is eerie and unsettling, and it’s overall dark and depressing atmosphere is adequate housing, symbolically speaking, for Barton Fink, who is suffering from life-affirming lows and struggles linked with the creative process, ‘The life of the mind’, as it’s referred to in the film. The Hotel Earle and the mind of Barton Fink are the same – cold, lonely, unsure, messy, and unpredictable. Eventually the Hotel literally becomes a living hell—fire and all. Be that as it may, one could go on for days about the symbolism displayed. The wallpaper peeling in the hotel room that represents Fink’s mind, analogies offered by the very film Fink is working on, references to slavery as metaphors of the studio’s ownership of Fink’s creativity, along with other strong yet accurate accusations of the Hollywood machine (the studio head exclaims to Fink: “This is a wrestling picture, the audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling. They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his own soul!”)
Barton Fink is an intelligent, funny, and powerful story, with dark elements of multiple genres and layers of various meanings, symbols, and representations. It can be viewed as a strange film, not one to forget in a hurry, but pleasing, as much as it is unnerving. It stands alone as an example of great film-making, and is certainly one of the finer offerings from the Coen brothers.