"Barton Fink" Rounds Up Metaphors and Criticisms about Film Industry with Solid Characterization

Barton Fink

This post is written as a part of the series of "the films of... Joel Coen and Ethan Coen"

Perhaps “Barton Fink” is one of the rarest film to win all three most prestigious categories in Cannes: Best Actor (for John Turturro), Best Director (for Joel Coen), and Palme d’Or, because recently Cannes prohibits film to win more than one award at one time. But it does not matter; you can just say that “Barton Fink” delivers criticism about the struggling life of Hollywood viewed from the religious metaphor of heaven and hell or good and evil. From here you can just say that “Barton Fink” describes how free ideas meet the urge of business matter, and how Hollywood hides the pain and bitter pills that finally build up its glamour under the name of creativity.

After the success of the play he wrote, Barton Fink (John Turturro) gains popularity that promotes him to an acknowledged Hollywood studio. Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the head of the studio, wants him to write for a motion picture: a film about wrestling, more precisely. Lou Breeze (Jon Polito), Lipnick’s right-hand man, suggests Fink to see W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), to get a reference, but it does not help him. Not even his neighbor in the hotel room, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), could help Fink to get out of his severe writer’s block. However, a series of events eventually drag him way further from his writing task.

Barton Fink
Barton Fink (John Turturro) with his typewriter in his "warm" hotel room

To be honest this is the kind of movie I find so hard to put a straight verdict, not only because this is not a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, but also this is the kind of movie I have to spend some hours of googling to fully understand the meaning. “Barton Fink” was written by the Coen brothers when they stuck in writer’s block after writing “Miller’s Crossing”, and I thought they want us to know how they feel about being a writer (especially a screenwriter) by giving us the chance to think, not just to absorb. Then, they expand the topic by giving us the chance to see the conflict of interest happened everytime a film project is about to launch in Hollywood. They want us to understand that creativity is not something you can push to appear suddenly in your mind. And Fink, who is new to the business, is not ready for this. Even at first he refuses the opportunity to Hollywood because he wants to pursue writing for plays. All he knows is writing based on the gut within himself.

But it is not that straight-forward: perhaps the hotel that Fink resides, Hotel Earle, is a metaphor of how uncomfortable your office feels when you don’t feel comfortable with your job. Literally it might be a hell for him. Fink and Meadows never stop sweating, even the wallpaper peels due to the hot temperature inside his room, which chances are because of Fink’s brain never stops elaborating to write something he finds very hard to start. A wrestling picture is, like the studio’s frequent collaborator Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub) said, might only be a B-movie. It supposedly an easy film you can write without putting your a-hundred-percent skill in it. But the mosquitoes keep biting Fink when he sleeps, the picture of a woman on a beach delivers the sound of waves from nowhere, and distraction accumulates into something so big that Fink can’t help but accepts.

Barton Fink
Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) is Fink's cheerful neighbor

And there comes the spiritual reference. Joel and Ethan Coen, from many of his films, love open-ending. “Barton Fink” can be interpreted in so many different ways. Even using its comical style and edgy cinematography, there are thoughts you have to translate or develop in several scenes in “Barton Fink”. Questions are raised, but answers are yours to decide. This might be a flip side for some viewers, because compared to other films by the Coens, “Barton Fink” is so abstract that even Roger Ebert addressed this film as “a black comedy in the tradition of David Lynch”. On the surface, you (and me) will only see that this is simply a film that shows how cruel the filmmaking business in Hollywood, but this article, this article, and this article (beware of spoilers!) reveal that “Barton Fink” hide so many figurative meanings that excite you to watch it again and, after some rewatches, pushes you to take it as one of your favorites.

Of course, while you might not feel really comfortable with the story, you should be attracted by the characters. The Coens love eccentricity in their characters, and Barton Fink—portrayed by John Turturro—is undoubtedly an unforgettable one. Despite of his look, you can see an intelligent man trapped in the spirit of untransferred ambition that, in rare cases, can turn into a rebellion. Barton Fink is not powerless, but his insight prohibits him to stay in his idealism of a scribbler—someone who pursues artistry in his works.

Barton Fink
Authors, bloggers, and all kind of scribblers must agree that writer's block is way too underrated. LOL.

Pardon my two cents, but “Barton Fink” deserves the best place it got in Cannes. Many other auteurs wrote their writer’s block experience, like Charlie Kaufman writing “Adaptation.”, but the Coen brothers successfully connects this topic into an ironic, if not bitter, reality of today’s entertainment world. “Barton Fink” is one of their bests.

Barton Fink

4 out of 5 stars

 ▲  Eccentric and powerful acting by John Turturro, poignant criticisms about filmmaking industry
 ▼  Subtle messages and metaphors might distract viewers to receive the story

BARTON FINK | COUNTRY USA YEAR 1991 RATING Rated R for language and some scenes of violence RUNTIME 116 min GENRE Drama CAST John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub WRITER Joel Coen, Ethan Coen DIRECTOR Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (uncredited) MORE INFO

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  1. Kalo menurut gw sih, justru kekurangannya itu yang jadi kelebihannya, metafor dan subtle message yang nongol di mana2 itu bikin gw jatuh cinta ama Barton Fink.

    1. betul banget tim, menurut gw juga subtle message di Barton Fink ini juga cukup straight to the point, tapi kadang yang kayak gini suka mengurangi nilai rewatchabilitynya hehe. btw keren deh lo bisa udah nonton film2 lesser-known kayak gini haha