The Coen brothers are not Christian artists, but they are masters of their craft. And, while they appear to pay close attention to every detail in their stories and use every subtlety to advance their story, like most postmodern artists, they avoid being too specific about the meaning in their films. So, even though I am bringing my own preconceptions to their work that sees things likely unintended by them, I celebrate truth wherever I find it.
Barton Fink (1991)
“I’ll show you the life of the mind!”
The lore surrounding this film is that it was born out of a period of writer’s block when the Coen’s were writing “Miller’s Crossing.” That makes sense since it is all about a writer suffering through a block. Many consider this film to be deep and riddled with symbolism, but I would argue that it is more of a commentary on all that “meaning in art” through the use of symbolism without meaning.
There are the obvious things like the hotel representing hell, and Charlie being a Satan stand-in, but then there are the other symbols like the mosquito, the peeling wall paper, and the box. These may represent things too, but I don’t think they add meaning to the mix. They may even be inserted to add to the confusion.
That is because the main point of the story is mocking stories that are too “high art.” Barton as a character is a naïve, blow hard who thinks he stands above culture with a gifting and a calling to save the “common man” through his story telling. He wants to rescue art from the cultural elite and give it back to “working stiffs.” He is a walking oxymoron who hates high art for its exclusivity, but who also thinks pop art is devoid of significance. When given a chance to reach the masses through writing for “the pictures”, he thinks he is too good for such low brow fare and is worried about selling out his art. The reality is, however, that he has no idea what real people are like. He is one of the cultural elites he claims to hate. He is just as ignorant about life. He lives in a dream.
The opening lines of the film are the final lines of his one great drama:
“Not this time, Lil! I'm awake now, awake for the first time in years. Uncle Dave said it: Daylight is a dream if you've lived with your eyes closed. Well my eyes are open now!”
Barton Fink is living life with his eyes shut tight.
When he goes to Hollywood and meets the first “common man” he has ever encountered, he immediately exposes his hypocritical worldview. He claims to want to create art for men like Charlie, but he has no idea what Charlie is like, and has no interest in what Charlie has to say:
Charlie: “I could tell you some stories...”
Barton: “Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and...
[Trails off at a loss for where his train of thought was headed]
…So naturally their work suffers and regresses into empty formalism and... well I'm spouting off again, but to put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phony as a three-dollar bill!”
Throughout the film we see Barton struggle to put thought to paper. He keeps writing the same, recycled sentences from his play. This is contrasted with others like the secretary in the Hollywood office who churns out pages and pages of words. She is a real professional writer. But Barton wants to elevate his activity to something more than a job. More than simply a story teller even. His self-delusion is huge:
“I'm a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I'm a creator! I am a creator!”
With such an understanding of his activity, it is no wonder he is incapacitated.
Also, with such a complete unrealistic view of the world, we have to ask ourselves how much of this story is completely contained within his head. The hotel, the murder investigation, Charlie, the fire, and the beach that is usually in the picture on the wall but becomes reality at the conclusion; all are contenders for mere figments of Barton's stilted imagination.
There are rumors that the Coens are set to revisit the character once John Turturro is old enough for their idea. Maybe then we will get more answers. (Or just as likely we won’t. After all, Barton Fink’s script was never made either.)