Friday, November 7, 2008

Barton Fink

Movies with ambiguous endings stay with you forever. Think of the first time you saw Lost in Translation (what does he whisper in her ear!?) or pondering why the birds came in Hitchcock's The Birds, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Broken Flowers, Fight Club, No country for Old Men and even the Dark Knight all present endings and elements throughout that provide intense interpretations and lend themselves as prime subjects for Zoom-In analysis. However, one that presents itself as a highly metaphorical and highly ambiguous film is the Coen Brother's 1991 film, Barton Fink. The first film to win all three major awards (Palme D'or, Best Director, and Best Actor) at the Cannes Film Festival. Also, it was unanimously chosen for the Palme D'or.

The entire film presents itself as a metaphor for heaven and hell. Barton Fink is played by John Tuturo (what ethnicity is this guy!? He plays everything) who is a critically acclaimed playwright who is hired to a contract in Hollywood to make the transition into film. He claims to write scripts for and about the "everyday man." After being offered to bunk up in a Hollywood suite, he insistintly declines in order to stay in an average hotel called the Hotel Earle. When Chet (Steve Buscemi, the hotel clerk) first appears he comes out of a door on the floor after it takes him a long while to reach the top, like if he was ascending from the underworld. - The word "six" is said three times in the elevator. - Hotel Earle can be an anagram of the words Hell and Erato, the Greek Muze of lyric poetry.

Charlie (John Goodman) is Barton Fink's neighbor who Barton feels an attachment to. Most people concur that Charlie represents the devil. Instead, I think that Charlie represents the repressed rage that "common men" trapped in dead-end lives feel. The pealing wallpaper and heat represent the rage stewing just under the surface, the flames are when Charlie's pent-up anger and resentments finally explode to the surface. Barton struggles through writing his first film, with deadlines about a wrestler. He seeks aid in the help of a famous writer's wife (Audrey) who he ends up sleeping with and he wakes up to her dead (slashed, bloody) body next to him. He finds out that Charlie is a serial killer who chops off people's heads from the police who question Barton after finishing his script. The studio hates the script and Charlie arrives at home to his apartment lit on fire by Charlie who kills the police investigators that are waiting for him with a shotgun.

The Hotel beings to burn and the wallpaper (which has been ripping off throughout the movie continues to rip away). Charlie then says my favorite line in the movie, as the apartment is burning to the ground: "If you need me, I'll be in my room." He then says he went to visit Barton's parents on the East coast where he is from and leaves Barton a gift in a box.

Barton leaves the apartment and walks on the beach where he sits down in front of a beautiful women which resembles exaclty the picture of a woman on the beach that has rested on his wall of the hotel room that he had gazed at for realease throughout his time spent there. This brings us to the last lines of the film between the woman and Barton:

Beauty: It's a beautiful day.
Barton: Huh?
Beauty: I said it's a beautiful day.
Barton: Yes. It is.
Beauty: What's in the box?
Barton: I don't know.
Beauty: Isn't it yours?
Barton: I don't know. You're very beautiful. Are you in pictures?
Beauty: Don't be silly.

The questions arise: what is in the box? what does the girl in the picture come to real life represent? and finally what does the wallpaper ripping off mean?

Here are some explainations I have dug up:

First of all this is like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction it is not meant to be known. I have always thought it was Barton's mind. He couldn't write before but once he got his mind back he was free to write away. Also at the end he finds out that Capital Pictures owns him and his mind so when the girl asks if that is his box he responds "I don't know" meaning he doesn't know if it belongs to him or to Capital Pictures.

Now this of course isn't supposed to be taking literally I know his mind isn't actually in the box but it is symbolic of it.


The suggestion seems to be that's it's Audrey's head. Yet, there's a very "Pulp Fiction" aspect to it as well where we're not really meant to know. And yet, more than in "Pulp Finction"- where the mystery remains much more sublime than any attempt at explantion- we seem invited to seek out an interpretation here to find one that is more symbolic than literal. Barton's "mind" or "the truth" are good ones- "mind" could also be interpretted as Barton's creativity or even his soul (much like those slightly tedious interpretations of Marcellus's briefcase- I reckon it works better here.) The only real clues we have are the size of the box and Mudnt's confession that he lied and that it doesn't really belong to him (ie. does that mean it's Audrey's head or something belonging to Barton?)

However, I think it's significant that Barton doesn't actually open the box- therefore doesn't actually release his mind/creativily/soul. The way I like to look at it is that it is that very mystery of not knowing what's in the box that finally releases his creativity (and so leaves the explanation unknown-like Pulp Fiction). The point that Barton also confesses that he doesn't know what's in the box- and therefore might mean that he doesn't know if he still owns his own creativity- is a good one, but it could work on this level too- ie. that he still doesn't know what's in the box and is- perhaps- still feeding of that mystery. Who knows? Do we really need to know? Sometimes unanswered questions are more inspirational than answered ones.

Personally I thought that what was in the box was the head of his parents who he went to visit, meaning that when you go to hell, you bring everyone you know down with you. What did you think?


Rotten Tomatoes give this move a 91% rating

Zoom In Analysis will DISAGREE with this rating and give it a 7.5 out of 10

Although there is a lot of ambiguity and the movie defintly pulls on the critics strings hitting all the right notes, it lacks audience appeal, but a great flick for those who love to interpret movies. If only judging it as a well written story with long lasting affect I would agree with RT, however when popping this movie into a wide appeal audience it won't be for everyone.


mark said...

yeah, this movie is good but not 91% good. 7.5 sounds about right.

i always assumed it was the girl's head in the box, but now im starting to think what else it might be....

maybe the point is that it doesnt matter what your muse is, so long as you have a muse at all. ?

Jenny Fitzner said...

I just watched the movie, and my first instinct is that it is the girls head.

I also agree with the rating of 7.5.

Also... I loved John Goodman in this movie. Perfect for that role.

Sometimes in movies like these, I find myself trying to pick it apart a little too much. I wonder about things that could have just been mistakes in the movie (example: The girl in the picture has an umbrella covering her, but when he meets her, there is no umbrella). I'm also not very good at figuring movies like this one out, so things like the girl with and without the umbrella confuse me. Help?

Brett said...

i agree with the 91%. since the way they rate is that 91% said it was good, not that the critics gave it an average of 9.1/10. i think most people would like it a lot. i was entertained the whole time by the actors and their eccentric characters. everyone was so over the top, it was great. i didnt know until the end sequence with the fire that there was some symbolism going on so i wasn't looking for any of that. but what i was looking at was all the irony about the common man. fink was writing for the common man when he wrote his masterpiece play, but the only people who saw it were the upper class. if things were as the are now, the common man goes to movies not plays. he goes and meets the first common men. charlie and chet. both c's, Common Charlie and Chet? jk. anyway he felt uncomfortable with them all and he couldn't write anything. bart was so far from the common man since half the time charlie was confused as to what bart was talking abou. as he got closer to the common man (charlie), he finally started to write. so he wrote what then seemed to be the best thing he had ever written. the people who hired him hated it. so once he got in touch with the common man his style changed and was different from his old stuff.

i for sure suspect it is the woman, since goodman left the package before he left on his trip and i cant think of who else's it could be or what else it could be.
ever since bart met the woman he wanted her sexually. no matter that she was in a relationship and she wasnt interested, he still insisted. so he finally got what he wanted by sleeping with her. with the death of the fly things had changed. she was killed by goodman (even clearer by watching the deleted scenes with the plugged sink). goodman's will was to kill. so bart got what he wanted, and goodman got what he wanted of her. so in a way she was possessed by both of them.

was there some metaphor about the nazi's. bart was talked about as a jew, and goodman said "hail hitler" when he shot the 2nd cop. also it seems that coen/cohen/kohen is jewish. supposedly hitler and others hated the jews because the jews had the money and the jobs. but of course that was just an excuse for him to do what he did. he must have been pretty messed to begin with and the jews obviously were not at fault. goodman was a murderer. when he met bart he had the tie and said the neighbors drove him crazy. so he had some sexual needs. when he heard bart and the woman through the pipes he was jealous and took her from him.
side question: think he was writing about charlie as the wrestler? since charlie insinuated that. or do we not really care.
what is up with the picture and why is the umbrella not there? loss of protection? eyes open now that he sees/lives it first person?

SmackAMole said...

Barton makes love to Audrey and the camera moves down the sink drain. As it reaches the sewer, the sound changes as Barton savagely kills her.

Charlie is a character in Barton's mind, a big man with a wrestler's physique as Barton struggles to complete his wrestling picture. According to, Mundt Name Meaning: nickname for someone with a big mouth or whose mouth was in some other way remarkable, from Middle High German munt ‘mouth’.nickname for a guardian or trustworthy person, from Middle High German munt ‘guardian’, ‘protector’. Barton's expression is exilaration as he sits at his desk, luxuriously squishing his feet back and forth in his shoes, which are suddenly too big -- Charlie's shoes.

Mayhew is a successful writer that Barton initially reveres, but he becomes disillusioned when he realizes that he is abusive drunk who has sold out writing B-movie screenplays. Finally he is outraged to learn that Audrey has written his last two books. He ends up killing Audrey and saving her head, which he considers valuable because it contained the literary genius that he lacks. Later, the newspaper headline reveals that Mayhew, who Charlie would not even know, has been murdured, confirming that it is really Barton who is a psychotic murderer having also killed has family back in New York.

His psychosis also has a religious theme when he picks up a bible and turns to a passage on Nebuchanezzer and then to the Book of Genesis where he finds the beginning two sentences of his abortive screenplay, which also is a rehash of his play. Confronted by the police detective, he suddenly warns them "Charlie is coming." His alter ego, Charlie the Common Man, just before , says "Heil Hilter" just before blowing his head off.

Barton's fractured personality also includes confused sexuality. He becomes very uncomfortable when Charlie asks if he has a girlfriend and admits that he has never been with a woman giving the excuse that he has been too busy trying to help the common man. He has some homosexual tendencies which are revealed when he learns wrestling moves from Charlie. He fixates on the woman in the picture who is unobtainable and has her back to him. At the end of the movie, he fantasizes meeting her.

He carries the unopened package, confused and denying that he knows what it contains and if it belongs to him.

Anonymous said...

To add to what Brett said, the average score for Barton Fink on Rotten Tomatoes is actually 7.6, very close to the 7.5 commenters here said the movie deserves. Note that the average score is totally different than the tomatometer rating, which just tells you what percentage of critics liked the film.

Matthew Hamilton said...

This film does not invoke your opinion on anything within this film. Except for reality outside of the flat representation we see onscreen. Barton Fink is a comparison of two things:

1. Parody
2. Pastiche

In order to separate us from the historical context, Joel Coen successfully draws a script, stereotypical not only of the time but of screenplays written within the era, a so called pastiche take on how dialogue would have come across within such an era, full of expression. The spoken word and dialogue is nothing more than unorthodox, as if the actors know they are on camera, performing. It is a representation of theatre and cinema. The era chosen is a construct of the original. The location of Hollywood is all about the creation of the fake in order for us to relate to former historical notions of Hollywood Cinema. I mean "Capitol Pictures" you tell me that has nothing to do with capitalism. Hollywood does not make films for the enjoyment of consumerism. Profit is what it thrives upon and this film highlights that with the upmost pretence, by attacking at the presence of authority with the character Barton Fink. Barton is the individual, believing that within the world past references and stylistic conventions, he can keep his individuality in the form of writing a screenplay for the common man. What he does not realise is no matter how many times he starts writing his screenplay, his use of the past creates his future. The new can never be presented from the old. The aspect of originality and the author is gone. The author does not get treated with respect, he is not the most important person anymore, he is dead, despite what the owner of "Capitol Pictures" says to him at the beginning. A postmodernist film that highlights the capitalist society we live in and mocks generic visual style through parody and pastiche. A great film.

ssullivan0025 said...

This was my interpretation. Barton was a man who came from nothing. I am basing that off of he wanting to live in the same life conditions kind as how he got to where he is and also the way he talks about the every man. In my opinion he sold out or in some ways when people give away their artistic creativity for personal gain or money you might say they have sold their soul to the devil. I see a man who is battling in his own head his decision to give away the rights of his creativity and really the one thing that makes him who he is also known as his soul to some. I see this many times from the executive or producer from capitol. This executive to me wanted this guys name to put on top of his film and wanted to change the story to fit his prototypical path to make the most money not caring about the artistic portion of it. Also in the beginning of the movie you can see barton watching his play and you can see that he puts himself into his work and when the executive was telling him what to do he began to realize that he no longer had control of what he wanted to do.

Moving on because there are many things that continue to hit that point into the ground if you watch again. Now I thought it was pretty evident that the hotel he was staying at was in hell. Now I have a couple ideas on that, I think Hollywood in general was hell to barton. This place took his dream which would be to create his masterpiece and it destroyed his hopes of making it. I have never been in this guys position I lack that skill to create such a masterpiece but I imagine out of all the people who go to California to make their dreams come true only a handful actually succeed the way they saw it back home. They say Hollywood will chew you up and spit you out and I think that barton was showing it in an artistic way. It reminds me of life of pi even though it came out before it but I have seen it in a different order once the guy tells you his story then tells you what really happens he asks which one you like better and if it really matters which one he tells you get the same thing out of it sort of .... well I see that here.

Again many things pointing to that for me. As for Charlie I saw him as an inmate of hell, I especially saw that because everyone hates an insurance salesman its kind of a running joke like lawyers so it makes sense he would be in hell then they through in a serial killer as well and makes too much sense to me and the heat they aren't hiding anything.

Now for the finale. whats in the box brad pitt? Again the way I saw it, this was his soul/creativity. I thought it was the ladies head he rattled it around and everything but since this movie takes place in the mind of the writer then everything is possible. its a different universe with different rules like the burning hallway. Also I believe the death of the girl was to symbolize him cutting himself off from relationships to work on his writing until it was done then he goes dancing anyways the box was not charlies and barton doesn't know if its his.... I have the answer to that it is not his the executive or in my opinion if anyone is the devil he is in the eyes of barton as this man owns his soul/creative part of him. So that is why he is carrying it around and when the girl asks him about it he doesn't know if its his anymore? Again its my opinion but I think they used that box to keep the curtain down before the movie took its turn made you think about the head and then when it jumped to another plane you can make your own interpretation.

So recap barton came from nothing and made a great piece of art and sold his talents to capitol in Hollywood. barton struggles with his feelings of selling out and losing his creative freedom (all in his mind). Once he gets far enough into the process you see feelings and thoughts on how Hollywood works and spits people out and how he feels once he has lost who he was. in short how a nobody became somebody and what the industry can do to them.

Anonymous said...

You have the timeline off. Charlie gives Barton the box before he goes to New York, so the parent's head idea doesn't fit.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you are absoloutely right about Charlie giving the box to Barton before going to NY