As with young Irish gun Kenneth Branagh, whose Dead Again is the summer's most stunning achievement and a fully successful resurrection of the Muscle-bound Hollywood Romance, the truth about Ethan and Joel Coen lies in the past.
But while countless critical search parties aimlessly spelunk for the Coens' source-stream in the caverns of Forties melodramas and vintage gangster films, more-savvy cinema detectives are urged to stick closer to home, and to turn a magnifying glass on David Cronenberg's 1988 creep-show Dead Ringers. Allegedly a portrayal of psychopathic twin gynecologists, Dead Ringers could just as well have been a biography of the Coens. Though they're actually just brothers (Joel, at 36, is two years older), the Coens have cultivated an insular, off-putting body of work (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller's Crossing)that moves to entirely private rhythms, films that alternate between intensely static think-pieces and cheap-thrill free-for-alls run through with slapstick and gore.
The newest addition to the Coen oeuvre, Barton Fink, is in some ways the pair's most typical outing. Assailed since Blood Simple by narrow-minded reductionists who dismiss them as skilled but heartless technicians, the brothers have finally surrendered. But they've surrendered brilliantly, and with terms. Dismissing Barton Fink as another feature-length masturbation is like buying a car at sticker price: you'll still be able to get around in the world, but you'll be poorer than everyone else, and you'll feel foolish.
John Turturro, who is fast becoming the cinematic equivalent of the college music charts, plays Barton Fink himself, a Clifford Odets-type playwright in Forties New York. Severe and serious, Barton writes lovingly about the tribulations of the working class, and though the tony crowd doesn't understand the fire he feels for proletariat beasts of burden, they love his work nonetheless. He's the toast of the town, the man of the hour. He's the Big Apple's golden boy.
But most important of all, he's a hot prospect for Hollywood. If there's one thing the studios want, it's talent, preferably with a capital T, and they waste no time in dangling the big-money carrot in front of poor Barton's honorable nose. Just come to Tinseltown, they say, write a few scripts for us, and we'll reward you handsomely. Despite his grave self-conception, Barton accepts the offer and flies west, where he checks into the eerie Hotel Earle, a lavishly decorated residential lodging flavored like a perversely comic hybrid of The Shining and the nightmarish short stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. In the lobby, epiphanies are sculpted out of silence; in the rooms, elliptical noises bleed through the walls. The hotel letterhead reads "A Day or a Lifetime." No one feels comfortable in the Earle.
Well, almost no one. No sooner has he moved in than Barton meets Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), his jolly insurance-salesman neighbor. Thrilled to finally meet a working-class lug, Barton befriends Charlie, and Charlie returns the favor by helping Barton put his screenwriting jitters in perspective. Those jitters, which begin with only a vague notion that writing for the movies means selling your soul to the Devil, intensify through a series of hilarious scenes in which Barton meets studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). All overemotive, fleshy Jew, the hot-under-the-choler Lipnick wants to commission the great artiste to work on a Wallace Beery wrestling vehicle. "We definitely want that Barton Fink feeling," he tells his numbed charge. "And I guess we all have that feeling, although since you're Barton Fink, I assume you have it in spades."
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For young Barton, who flounders through his L.A. nightmare like an Eraserhead take on The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock, that feeling comes to closely resemble writer's block, and the only solace lies in his burgeoning friendship with Charlie, as well as the thrill of meeting W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney). A Southern prose legend who relies heavily upon rhetorical foliage and his pocket flask, Mahoney's Mayhew is a savage parody of William Faulkner, who came to Hollywood to work on To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and a host of lesser films. Awed by Mayhew's presence, Fink is also compromised by a mounting interest in mounting Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis, fresh from her portrayal of George Sand in Impromptu), the great writer's severely pale personal secretary.
In many of the Coens' films, the supporting roles are more boldly drawn than the principals, and Barton Fink is no exception. Mayhew and Charlie are wonderful creations, flawed but endearing characters that make Barton seem thin and petty by comparison. When Barton demeans Mayhew for his alcoholism and profligacy, or condescends to his fat pal under the pretense of commiserating ("To put it in your language," Barton tells Charlie at the conclusion of an excruciating windbag spiel about the artificiality of contemporary drama, "the theater becomes as phony as a three-dollar bill"), he comes off as ponderous and trite. For a hero, he's got a lot to learn.
But heroism seems to have a different meaning for the Coens. In fact, it seems to be based on a formula of optimal manipulatability, and in that sense, Turturro's performance, often maniacally false, is perfectly executed. Reliant upon essentially hollow characters built to fit into elaborate human Rube Goldberg devices, the Coens continue to raise the stakes on cold-calculation direction and aggressively alienating micromanagement. As usual they cram their frames full of clever period dialogue, deliberately belabored cinematic daring, and shameless cribbing (a pan down theater ropes pinched from the opera-house sequence in Citizen Kane, a mural-backdropped cafe lunch lifted from Godard's Vivre Sa Vie). And as usual, the approach works brilliantly. Barton's writer's block neatly digests its comic possibilities before sliding into more menacing territory, into sex, death, bloodshed, insanity, and an enigmatic brown-paper parcel.
Despite Goodman and Lerner's booming ursine performances, the film demands hardly a sliver of emotional investment in its characters, and not a single scene passes without a reminder of the presence of the creators. The Coens are an acquired taste, certainly, but they know how to synthesize suspense and intellect as well as anyone. And as mindfucks go, Barton Fink is good sex indeed.