Barton Fink remains a go to favorite for film buff debates whether it be waiting in line at a film festival or shouting louder than any of you realize at a bar as things escalate. Why you ask? Because damn near every single person (or at least those that like to dive a little deeper with their film viewing) that watches this film leaves with a wildly different interpretation of exactly what it all means. Is it a clear cut Freudian metaphor as we watch Barton work to keep his incessant subconscious, sex-obsessed mind at bay whilst exhaustively stretching his conscious self paper thin attempting to understand what exactly a boxing film might look like? Is it a vicious satire attacking the likes of William Faulkner and his notorious flings with many ladies who were not his wife while he penned ineffectual screenplay after screenplay in Hollywood? Is it a goofy, oft-too-literal descent into a hellish nightmare being led by the sweatiest John Goodman we’ve ever encountered? Is it (as the Coens would like you to believe) a simple story of one man trying to write a screenplay in a visceral hotel that is probably the best written character in the film that means absolutely nothing apart from what you’ve seen? Is it empty vapid pastiche to Hitchcock’s Notorious? Is it an allegory of the continuing persecution of Jews under the ever-punishing thumb of Nazi Germany? I give a resounding ABSOLUTELY! to every one of these theories and every other one I will assuredly encounter.
Barton Fink ranks as the funniest, meanest, (maybe excluding the outright sadistic hilarity that the Coens enjoy when torturing their protagonists in Burn After Reading and A Serious Man) most dense, most impenetrable, easiest to access, most intelligent and blah blah blah that this infuriatingly talented duo has plopped in our brain space. Will many a film buff, casual viewer and even my Mom argue with me on this point? Of course they will and they are completely right. And so am I. The Coen Bros. have a distinct ability to encourage (or outright demand) that every person watching bring every bit of their baggage, life experience and self-indulgence inside the theatre. A Coen Bros. film is interactive (excepting of course those perfect, cold films that exist so we are in awe of their talent; No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis. But wait, what does the ending to either one mean?) and really wants the audience to lend their messy selves to the stories unfolding. Perhaps this explains my fiercely personal reactions to the films that leave me feeling closer to these fabricated, often overly esoteric creations than I do to many humans I’d call friends. While at the same time, many of those close friends feel nothing but cold and amoral distance when watching the same films.
What does this endless babbling all mean? Why should one film cause such a stir amongst all that see it? You tell me. Watch it and fight with me. Join the conversation. Watch with the knowledge that this won the Palme D’Or, Best Director and Best Actor in 1991 at the Cannes Film Festival. Then watch it without that knowledge. Realize that with every single viewing, you are experiencing a very different film. Does it go so far as to be an ever-shifting Rorschach test? Of course it doesn’t. But, also of course it does.
- Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center