July 14, 2011 1 Comment
Master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are the subject of a summer-long retrospective at AFI (now through September 5th) featuring many of their greatest works. The film family over at Brightest Young Things (myself included) thought this provided a great reason to write briefly about our most favorite Coen Brothers films. I had to get the jump on Barton Fink. But 9 other great BYT film writers posted their own personal thoughts about other films in the great Coen Oeuvre. I made sure to add a link to that below, complete with a listing of writers and the films chosen. Hope you enjoy — and feel free to comment and tell us what YOUR favorite Coen Brothers movie is!
MY THOUGHTS ON BARTON FINK (1991)
Though it may be their least accessible film for a mainstream audience, Barton Fink remains my favorite Coen Brothers film to date. Not only do I never get tired watching their 4th feature film, but I manage to capture something new or add a new piece to the puzzle with each viewing. Set in 1941, the film stars John Turturro (one of our most underrated actors) as the title character — a Clifford Odets-like playwright who writes for “the common man” and is now the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success reels him in and Barton now finds himself in the surreal and forsaken Hotel Earle, a hellish west coast hotel where he must begin work on a screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But things don’t go so smoothly for Barton as he suddenly experiences a horrible case of writer’s block. On top of this, he must deal with constant visits from Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in a towering performance), his chatty and ominous neighbor.
Feeling the pressure to produce, Barton seeks producer Ben Geisler (a hilarious Tony Shalhoub) for advice and is instructed to seek the counsel from a fellow writer. Barton obeys and meets with famed novelist (and drunk) W.P. “Bill” Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character mirrored after William Faulkner who Barton initially has tremendous admiration for. Barton later calls on Mayhew’s secretary (Judy Davis) and asks her to visit him at the hotel for more help. When he wakes up the following morning to the ubiquitous sound of the room’s mosquito, Barton finds the woman dead in his bed. And so the fun begins.
The Coen Brothers are masters at ambiguity. They rarely serve up all the answers to their viewers on a silver platter, which is one of the reasons why I admire their work so much. They constantly challenge their audiences and let you put the pieces together for yourself. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941 here. The exquisite art direction (especially in the contrast of the Hotel Earle and the luxurious surroundings of the Hollywood elite) by Dennis Gassner is stunning to take in and Carter Burwell’s haunting score adds to the foreboding mood. And as we have come to expect (now 20 years after the release of Barton Fink), the cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins is splendid. Barton Fink is a haunting and yes, oftentimes funny film filled with quirky characters and picth-perfect dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers works. Turturro is mesmerizing as the troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Their scenes together are a pleasure to watch and absorb. The supporting cast is no less impressive – they are fittingly cast and a marvel to watch. The film takes a strong look at the culture of Hollywood and entertainment as well as the process of writing. It is also laden with symbolism throughout (though the Coens have always denied most of it).
I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater when it was first released in 1991 when I was a student at New York University. I went with two close friends who lived in Long Island at the time. They took the train in to see it with me, as we were already huge fans of the Coen Brothers and couldn’t wait to see their new flick. I distinctly remember the overall feeling of disappointment upon leaving the theater, with my friend Chris saying what a tremendous waste of a train trip it was — that we had just witnessed pretentious garbage. I didn’t love it, I must admit. But i was certainly intrigued by it and I told my film-loving friend, “We missed something…we didn’t get it.” Barton Fink is certainly not the film for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’ to be sure. It isn’t the film I would inaugurate someone unfamiliar with their impressive canon of work. It may not be their strongest work, but after that initial screening, it quickly became my most favorite. At the risk of hyperbole, I think the Coen Brothers are without a doubt the finest American filmmakers working today, creating one remarkable film after the next with astonishing continuity. If you’re a fan — and you have yet to see this early work, get ready to be challenged and watch this perplexing, rioutous, dark, and fascinating film.