Barton Fink

Barton Fink

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Barton Fink never planned on going to Hollywood. It happened by accident.

To make a movie about writer's block is like learning to drive in a kiddie kart. There is nothing visual about a man in a room with a typewriter. There is nothing interesting about a blank wall. Until now.

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The accident that brought Barton to Capitol Pictures occurred in the theatre. He had a hit on his hands.

The Coen brothers have an eye for strange and an ear for the language of fallen angels. Nothing is as it seems, nor as it ever has been. This is dangerous cinema, the mark of the renegade.

"Why be a sap?" Barton thought, after his first play was the talk of New York. "Why let other guys eat the lettuce."

The setting is Los Angeles, 1941. Illiterate moguls still wield power in the studios. Everyone talks with scatter-gun inaccuracy except W P Mayhew, who speaks like a slow train on a country line, and Charlie Meadows, who lets words flutter from a flagpole inside his skull.

This is Coens' California. It doesn't fit the frame. Michael Lerner, as the boss of Capitol Pictures ("Thanks for your heart, Bart"), is one step from music hall and John Mahoney, as the literary lion, W P Mayhew, caricatures William Faulkner, waylaid by self-destruction.

The story of a naive, serious-minded young Jewish dramatist from Brooklyn being hired by intellectual pygmies to write a B-picture about wrestling is the bait to bring Barton (John Turturro) to the echoing, faded, ghostly Hotel Earl, where he meets Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a larger-than-life insurance salesman, who says, "I could tell your some tales," and does.

The hotel is where dreams and nightmares meld, where the unreality of reality becomes the reality of unreality, where humid breath unsticks the paper on the walls, where sentences flow from the typewriter like bricks, where sounds have menace and objects history, where the skeleton staff behave like survivors from the Marie Celeste, where Charlie says: "Sometimes it get so hot, I want to crawl out of my skin."

The mood is fraught with frustration as Barton can't work, rippling with absurdity as the deal jugglers toss cynicism into the void, wracked with terror as the hotel offers up its secrets. The only hope is humour. However dark, however stained, this must lead to safety, surely.

The film has the maverick nature of originality, constantly surprising, never explaining. The pace is languid, like the air, when not frenetic with excess. Belief hangs suspended.

Turturro's heart-breaking performance and Goodman's monumental presence complement the Coens' ability to invoke atmosphere from imaginary nostalgia, while unsnibbing the trap door and loading the shotgun.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2001
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An intellectual screenwriter comes to Hollywood to write a script for a wrestling B movie.
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Director: Joel Coen

Writer: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub

Year: 1991

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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