Barton Fink 4.0 stars

Movie poster


The Coen brothers (director Joel, producer Ethan, writers both) cut right to the heart of the role of the artist in Hollywood. They are too much artists themselves, however, to abide any idealizing or universalizing of their proxy on screen: a Broadway Bolshevik (modelled roughly and rudely on Clifford Odets) whose hot new dramaturgical ode to fishmongers has made him the toast of the town and has won him an invitation to Hollywood and a chance to broaden the spread of the gospel. There are also, less prominently, a drunken Faulknerian figure and a studio mogul à la Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, take your pick. This combustible blend of the historical and the mythical Hollywood — the specified year is 1941 — yields a movie that does not just fill up a screen for ninety minutes to two hours, but one that helps to fill up a void (coming within hollering distance, possibly, of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, whose year of release — coincidentally or not — was 1941); one that adds something fundamental and durable to the cinematic stockroom; one that creates something that you can imagine someone wanting to look at fifty years hence. The formal layout of the movie rests on a pattern of repetitions and resemblances, of equivalences and variations, of echoes and distortions, that gives the thing a Byzantine elegance. (Besides imparting any structural elegance, the pattern also mirrors the title character's declining mental state: establishing connections, finding significances, noticing similarities, etc., with a literally lunatic obsessiveness.) The déclassé Hotel Earle, where the writer has plunked down his typewriter, has a Byzantine elegance all its own. And the minutely observant, tirelessly investigative photography of the place — the endless corridor, the sag of the mattress under the weight of a suitcase, the arc of peeling paint on the ceiling over the bed, the colorless wallpaper glue melting in an autumn heatwave — creates a piece of architecture as alive and characterful as the apartment in Repulsion. John Turturro, John Goodman, John Mahoney, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner.

Duncan Shepherd

Rated: R


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