Free play

One might be forgiven for thinking that the Joel and Ethan Coen made Barton Fink in order to dispel suspicions lingering in the wake of Miller’s Crossing that they would like to make a film which took some money at the box office. Miller’s Crossing was a financial flop and a critical success, but it did at least have the required ingredients for a popular movie (a coherent plot, stable characters, action sequences, a smouldering dame, a charismatic lead, etc.): Barton Fink is ambiguous, confusing, lacking in narrative closure, and clearly uninterested in commercial success. It made an unprecedented clean sweep at Cannes, and is regarded as one of the Coens Brothers’ best films.

It appears to be the story of a socially engaged New York playwright, who moves to Hollywood to take up a salaried post with a major studio off the back of his success on Broadway. For a considerable chunk of its running time, it looks like a drama about writing, and about the creative difficulties encountered in working within a commercial entertainment industry. The eponymous Barton Fink’s writer’s block superficially mirrors the creative impasse the Coens reached in writing Miller’s Crossing, during which they produced the screenplay for this film. Fink’s haughty disinterest in his critical success also seems to parallel the Coens’ drift towards the peripheries of cinematic practice. However, they have been at pains to point out that their own relationship with Hollywood has been an easy one, and any contrarian tendencies they may exhibit are clearly informed by more ludic and humorous impulses than their protagonist’s earnest socialism.

An unexpected and inexplicable act of violence flips the movie into psychological thriller territory, a territory the viewer might fondly imagine it inhabits, until its abrupt, unresolved ending throws that interpretation of its narrative into disarray in turn. The result of these volte-faces might have been incoherence, but other, more subtle threads tie the film together. There has never been a symbolist movement in cinema equivalent to those in nineteenth-century art and literature, but Barton Fink, while talking like a succession of established cinematic genres, walks the language of symbols. The persistent mosquito, the image of a young woman on the beach, the decaying edifice of the Hotel Earle in which Fink lodges, the repeated emphasis on downward movement, and many other visual and narrative elements, all contribute to a complex and ambiguous thematic network which seems to be more important to the movie than its characters or its plot.

Further confusion is sown in the garden of genre by the Coens’ decision to dramatise most of the dialogue as comedy. Comedy is never far from the surface in those parts of their oeuvre that I know, even in the largely quite serious Miller’s Crossing, but here it’s the basic material from which they build the narrative, and it is a bold choice, given the decidedly dark and weird setting and storytelling. Satire is a fine thing, but it usually relies on a stable version of the milieu it is lampooning, rather than the twisted horror-fantasia of Hollywood that we are given here. This is the Coen Brothers’ extraordinary talent: they can jumble genres together in ways that might be expected to fundamentally destabilise the capacity of their conventions to bear weight, and they can make it work.

All of this symbolism, and this refusal of narrative clarity, seems to invite viewers and critics to decode the film, to dig away at its complexities in the hope of disclosing its ‘real meaning’. But the Coens have been quite clear in interviews that this will be a futile effort. They built a symbolic structure, but the symbols were not assigned fixed meanings. This fundamental level of ambiguity has led to Barton Fink being labelled a postmodern film. Whether there is much traction in applying such a label is debatable (given that notionally ‘postmodern’ techniques have been deployed in literature and visual art since before the birth of modernity), but it is certainly true that the Coen Brothers’ techniques highlight the ‘free play of the signifier’, and the arbitrary character of any closure of the signifying chain.

All of this hangs together only because it is realised with conviction and technical skill. Roger Deakins’s clever cinematography keeps us claustrophobically close to the action, tightly framed in a way that precludes any real sense of distance or perspective. Johns Turturro and Goodman portray the two central characters with certainty, while the setting swirls around them. The art and costume design are perfectly pitched, helping to create an uneasy, nauseous version of LA that makes the confusing narrative seem very much at home. While the Coens’ earlier work had not been exactly conservative, Barton Fink was an act of real creative courage, in which they succeeded in producing a multifaceted cinematic object, one which continues to generate meanings for as long as you care to look at it.

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