Found-Again Friday: Barton Fink

It’s got to be better than Beyond Therapy, right?

Why Found-Again? In the words of The Golden Girls’ Sophia Petrillo, picture it: creative writing class, 1993.

There are people in these classes who are, bluntly stated, unreasonably up themselves. The ones who think they need to drink like the Beats to write well. The ones who never seem to depart from a certain subset of “literary, but ‘edgy'” authors in their inspirations. The walking prototypes for the main character in Valerie on the Stairs.

In this class, I managed to get sandwiched between two of these guys, who spent the first half of the semester talking literally over my head about movies and beer and Carver and Updike (Palahniuk wasn’t a thing yet) until I thought I’d pull a Bertha Mason and run mad.

They were obsessed with Barton Fink, and I was soon sick of not knowing why, so on my next trip home I grabbed my friend K. and set up a movie night. My first indication that my movie nights are cursed was my decision to watch The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Barton Fink in the same night. I remember it only as a long night of shared art-film pain (well, that and the revelation that John Goodman is an amazing actor), and I haven’t touched either movie since.

By now, of course, I know there are Coen Brothers movies I like—and even love—so perhaps I was a little hard on Mr. Fink. Let’s find out.

The Premise:  In 1941, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, and it goes spectacularly badly. He has writer’s block, he has a neighbor from hell—perhaps literally?—and he tries to get advice from a washed-up author who is a fictional analogue of William Faulkner, all while slowly slipping into the writers’ version of the Hollywood studio meat grinder. And then there’s the murder.

I was right about one thing all those years ago: the movie can sometimes be a little slow. That said, this quickly shot up from my previous estimation (sort of a dull groan) through “quite bearable” to “good.” It’s a fascinating combination of noir, psychological study, and to some degree a meditation on religion and ideals: Barton’s idea of serving his fellow man doesn’t long survive actually meeting his fellow man, and this drives most of the plot.  Barton Fink is one of those films Found-Again Friday was made for, and I am happy to relieve it of that other word I used to put in the middle of the title.

"She finally gets it! Drink!"
“She finally gets it! Drink!”

The Verdict: Twofold. One, this was a fun rewatching of something I thought might be agony (remember Beyond Therapy?) and provides some interesting backstory and comparisons to the Coens’ most recent release, Hail, Caesar!, since the same fictional movie studio appears in each. The second thing? After having a similar experience watching and rewatching  Mister Frost, I’m starting to suspect I can’t watch a certain kind of film too late at night—art films.  And here I’d always assumed it would be zombie movies…

Might go well with: The Shining, Miller’s Crossing, an explanation of why 90% of typewriters in movies and television are Underwoods. Really, what did Olivetti do to Hollywood?

Next time: The Quests take Hadji for a ride.

J. A.

It reads. It writes. It watches. It researches. It overdoes many of those things!

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