Barton Fink

(Joel Coen, USA, 1991)


Small Object A

It could be argued that the filmmaking team of Joel and Ethan Coen alternate genre films with genreless ones. Both Blood Simple (1984) and Miller’s Crossing (1990) are films steeped in the history and conventions of particular story-telling genres (both cinematic and literary), respectively the pulp thriller and gangster fiction. Raising Arizona (1987) and Barton Fink are a different proposition; they do not trace out the lines of a single genre, nor are they cut-and-paste assemblages of successive "quotations" from different genres – which would be a fashionable but woefully inaccurate description of their method.

Calling Barton Fink a "film with no genre" (in the way that Raymond Durgnat described Robert Altman as a "man with no genre") does not mean that it is a film without references to previous movies, their genres, plots, auteurs, iconographies and oft-told tales. Indeed, like all the Coens’ work, it is stuffed with such references almost to the point of being wholly constituted from them. It is as if the Coens see their essential artistic vocation as one of an elaborate "rewriting", reweaving, re-imagining of other, pre-existing books and films. Thus Barton Fink would be the residue of a dream-work that brings together the novels of Nathanael West, Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), biographical stories about famous writers in Hollywood, Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and doubtless much else. But, in essence, it is faithful to no particular model or genre.

Barton Fink is a film that burns up bits of many genres as fuel for its maiden voyage into a zone without genre. A certain kind of quietly wild, hallucinatory fiction-spinning is a higher principle for the Coens here than genre. The film has an anything-might-happen-next air and a faith in strange associative leaps that take the plot in unforeseen directions, qualities which recall another of Durgnat’s remarks on Altman (specifically Three Women [1977]): “insofar as dreams resemble free association, they disrespect genres”. (1) Yet it is not (as one might have expected) an especially kinetic, spectacular or visceral film; continuing the tendency towards "classical" restraint practised in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is almost a chamber piece, and certainly the Coen’s most engagingly thoughtful film to date.

The critical discussions of the Coen oeuvre which have so far appeared are rarely interesting or persuasive. This is because, on the one hand, when reduced to bare (and painfully familiar) thematic propositions, the films can seem astonishingly banal. Blood Simple is about the "return of the repressed". Raising Arizona shows simple folk dreaming of a better life. Miller’s Crossing dramatises the paradoxes of trust, loyalty, friendship and love. Barton Fink invites one of the great non-questions of art cinema: how much really happens and how much is Barton’s fantasy? On the other hand, the post-literary invocation of the mannerist, hyper-kinetic Coen-Raimi "house style" as a pure cinematic event complete unto itself is clearly wearing thin both as a critical stance and a mode of filmmaking (viz., Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family [1991]).

What is so difficult to pin down and adequately account for in the Coens’ work is the strange form that their films take – a form that might be described as the simultaneous combination of an apparent meaningfulness with an insistent hollowing out of any directly articulable meaning. This form gives their work both its dreamlike ephemerality and its uncanny emotional resonance. This is not a new form in cinema, but it is certainly one that has evaded most styles of criticism. We find it, supremely, in Buñuel (whose Belle de jour [1967], like Barton Fink, makes airy nonsense of the question "what’s really happening?"); and also in the least assimilable of Bertolucci’s films, like La Luna (1979) and The Sheltering Sky (1990). Indeed, Robert Phillip Kolker’s typical critical slur on the former – that in it “the recurrence of the image of the moon … raises it to the point of symbol with nothing to symbolise” (2) – should be taken as the triumphant motto of this almost subterranean filmmaking tradition.

Thus, one must approach the matter of what Barton Fink is "about" with caution, if not trepidation. For it is not simply "about nothing" – neither just a joke on those critics out hunting for the same old "big themes", nor exactly (as Tom Ryan has argued) a sly, modernist expose of the cinema medium as “the supreme illusion”. (3) For a dream is never simply an illusion, and Barton Fink is a dream-film par excellence – indeed, it is a frankly psychoanalytic film, in the freest, most creative and poetic sense.

For perhaps the first hour, Barton Fink seems to be about not very much at all. We observe the life of the "serious" writer Barton (John Turturro) amid the gaudy realities of 1940s Hollywood, including a gregariously vulgar studio boss Lipnick (Michael Lerner), a gone-to-seed novelist Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his long suffering partner Audrey (Judy Davis). The "real people" beyond these characters of tinsel town are represented by Barton’s neighbour Charlie (John Goodman, in a marvellously physical performance). For a long time, the film plays out a fairly elementary diagram of mainly comic contrasts: Barton’s hypersensitivity against the system’s callousness; then, from another angle, Barton’s self-importance and probable artistic delusion against Charlie’s salt-of-the-earth naturalness, and Audrey’s down-to-earth pragmatism.

All this turns out to be an elaborate set-up for a much more interesting film. Once the story tips explicitly into the territory of dream, fantasy and psychodrama, everything before it takes on a different, retroactive function. Suddenly, it becomes nightmarishly clear that all the elements of the story exist as various sorts of projections of Barton’s inner complexes and problems. Barton brings all events into being, whether as wish-fulfilment fantasy, compensatory mechanism, or pure speculative projection. Like Severine in Belle de jour, Barton’s unconscious hurls those around him into damnation, and then benignly rescues them, willy-nilly (so that, in one especially improbable scene, Lipnick kisses Barton’s feet after firing his assistant Lou [Jon Polito], while later it appears that Lou has been miraculously re-hired).

Jean-André Fieschi has said of Buñuel that “this cinema of manifold fictions is not a narrative cinema”, since any attempt at synopsis inevitably and artificially delineates what is in fact a complex dream-logic. "Unfolding" narrative analyses (what most film critics pursue) offer “verdicts on a meaning still under litigation” and “reduce that meaning to meaningful intent”. (4) Barton Fink is very alive to the superimposing, backward and forward, paradoxical hyper-logic of the unconscious. In one brilliant associative chain of sequences, the trauma of Audrey’s death unexpectedly breaks Barton’s writer’s block; yet (as Richard Jameson has observed) the film maintains a perfect, delicate ambiguity over whether this passionately outpoured script is "really" genius or junk. The Coens know that, since either judgement would be purely subjective (the script is bound to be genius to Barton and junk to Lipnick no matter what’s actually in it), neither position can be endorsed as narrative "truth". And this strategy takes us to the very heart of the film.

Barton Fink is about an individual subjectivity that grows so big it believes it comprehends, contains and creates the entire world – in short, egomania, or as the film calls it, the monstrous “life of the mind”. Barton as writer (richly comparable to Jack Nicholson in The Shining and John Gielgud in Resnais’ Providence [1977]) stands for all artists who share in what has often been construed as the fundamentally "evil" impulse of art – to steal from the world and make it the mere material of an egocentric design. The Coens simultaneously follow the path of Barton’s mad ego as it hauls in the world, and prepare for the terrible moment when this world, in all its overlooked and seething reality, will takes its revenge on the artist’s folly of creation.

Thus, against the “life of the mind” – too much head – the film arrays the signs of a reality which is all body: peeling wallpaper, leaky ears, an unstoppable ocean of blood. In Barton’s phantasm (which is the film itself) troublesome heads get chopped off by Charlie as he obligingly metamorphoses into a serial killer; while sex and death swill and growl around together at the bottom of a hideous drain pipe down which the camera travels. As Barton struggles ever more fiercely to hold his ego or his "self" together, the world around him fills up with mock-horrific images and revelations of a "truth" according to which no self is whole or secure or singular: Audrey confesses to being Mayhew’s ghostwriter; the rushes of a random "wrestling picture" obsessively replay the same brute signifiers of obscene shouting and bodies crashing to the canvas.

Egomania forgets the real world – at its peril, as we discover in Barton’s case. It travels to the extremes narcissism, self-delusion and paranoid projection. Yet Barton Fink explores still another fact of this dream-logic when it admits the possibility that, at the height of his individual delirium, disintegration and psychosis, Barton might in fact receive privileged access to a true vision of the madness and horror of History itself. This is the extraordinary insight that the film grasps at in its climactic apocalypse (no doubt inspired by a comparable fatal vision in both novel and film [John Schlesinger, 1975] of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust): we could call it a kind of social or political psychoanalysis, aiming to express the profound interconnection (so hard to convincingly locate) of the large-scale forces of history and the small-scale actions of ordinary individuals. Barton Fink‘s epigraph could be this phrase from Joyce’s Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken”.

Much of the latter half of Barton Fink revolves around a certain mysterious box. I will be neither the first nor the last critic to invoke psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theoretical concept of the petit objet a ("small object a") to discuss this pesky prop. The petit objet a is like the famous MacGuffin of Hitchcock’s films; it is that curious plot device, that little nothing, which seems so empty and banal, but by which, nonetheless, the whole story and all the ambivalent desires of the characters are driven. For Lacan, it is a symbol (which can be equally tragic or comic) for that which eludes our feverish attempts to comprehend it, that which forever gratingly escapes our clumsy and doomed attempts to map and confine our "selves".

I don’t expect the Coens are avid readers of Lacan, but they certainly have their own poetic understanding of the petit objet a. The box in Barton Fink not only remains a damn mystery as it moves from hand to hand and place to place, it also never really "belongs" to anyone who gives or receives it. Charlie’s ominous remark (“by the way, it isn’t mine”) and the off-hand query of the girl on the beach to Barton in the final scene (“is it yours?”) mock the attempts of the protagonist or ourselves to definitively attach any "identifications" to this impossible object, whether personal or symbolic. The box behaves as if it were an item in one of those especially irritating and endless dreams where every bundle of elements uneasily comprising a person, thing or situation slowly becomes "unglued" – and there’s also a lot of glue that won’t stick to the wall or hold any two things together in Barton Fink.

This is not the first objet petit a in the Coen oeuvre. Mark Horowitz recounts in Film Comment how, when Gabriel Byrne inquired as to the significance of the fugitive, windblown hat in Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen merely, drolly replied, “the hat is very significant” (5) – which returns us to the essential meaningful meaninglessness of the Coens’ work. The objet petit a is not just a recurring device in their films. It is the very emblem of the cinematic form which they practise, this form which artfully raises all to the point of symbol with nothing to symbolise. In the last, unforgettable moments of Barton Fink, there suddenly materialises before the hero’s eyes a tableau he has often stared at on his wall: a woman on the sand, with her back turned, looking out into the ocean.

Still, mysterious and disquieting, this apparition is like a perfectly abstract diagram of the drama of identity we have so far witnessed, distilled down to the bare bones of a witness, a scene and an elusive signification. Left abruptly at the calm centre of Barton’s storm we may, however, detect the faint echo of a larger and no less calamitous reality. For, to again adopt Fieschi on Buñuel, “This fictitious setting in which the unremitting prosecution of ignorance is played out is a surrogate for other stages, where other forces clash with other arms.”

MORE Coens: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There

© Adrian Martin January 1992


(1) Raymond Durgnat, “Foreword: The Man With No Genre”, in Norman Kagan, American Skeptic: Robert Altman’s Genre-Commentary Films (Pierian Press, 1982). back

(2) Robert Phillip Kolker, Bertolucci (London: BFI Publishing, 1985). back

(3) Jean-André Fieschi, “Luis Buñuel”, in Richard Roud, ed., Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980). back

(4) Tom Ryan, review of Barton Fink, The Sunday Age, 19/1/92. back

(5) Mark Horowitz, “Coen Brothers A-Z: The Big Two-Headed Picture”, Film Comment (September-October 1991). back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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