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Barton Fink (September 25, 2014)

The usual problem with writing these introductions for films is that there is too little information. In the case of Barton Fink, I am afraid there may be too much. The Wikipedia entry on this film is nearly 13,000 words. Someone must like it, or like explaining it, anyway.

The film was released in August, 1991. The Coen brothers reportedly wrote it in three weeks, while having trouble completing the script for the last film we saw, Miller’s Crossing. They planned the title role specifically for John Turturro, who had also appeared in that film, and created a second role for John Goodman, who had appeared in Raising Arizona. The cinematographer with whom they had previously collaborated, Barry Sonnenfeld, was directing a project himself, so they chose the British cinematographer Roger Deakins. The brothers edited it themselves, giving credit to a pseudonym, Roderick Jaymes. Music was by Carter Burwell, production design by Dennis Gassner, with art direction by Robert Goldstein and Leslie McDonald, set direction by Nancy Haigh, and costume design by Richard Hornung. All of these people also worked on Miller’s Crossing. Supporting actors included Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi. It had a $9 million budget, and made $6 million in general release.

In May 1991 the film won the Palme d’Or as best film at the Cannes Film Festival, with Turturro winning best actor and Joel Coen as best director. This triple win was unprecedented at Cannes, and they changed the rules to keep it from happening again. Dennis Gassner and Nancy Haigh were nominated for a best art direction-set decoration Oscar, and Michael Lerner was nominated for best supporting actor for his performance as the studio head, Jack Lipnick. The film is a movie about Hollywood, and draws from the long history of such pictures, as well as from some of the actual participants in Hollywood history. The scene where Jack Lipnick humiliates his second-in-command in front of Barton Fink repeats almost exactly an anecdote told of Louis B. Mayer, MGM studio head. Lipnick appears in uniform at the studio at the end of the picture, when the U.S. enters World War II, as Jack Warner, who headed Warner Brothers, did when he received an Army commission. The look, speech and manner of John Mahoney’s performance as the writer W.P. Mayhew are modeled on William Faulkner. The character of Barton Fink himself, a New York Jewish writer of leftist sympathies, has features that remind many people of the playwright Clifford Odets.

Like many Coen brothers movies, this one is hard to categorize. It has elements of a comedy, of a mystery, of a drama, but really is none of the above. Vincent Canby in the New York Times at the time wrote “Barton Fink has the manner of a work that was written in a high old halcyon rush, of a screenplay that announced itself and took form without a lot of nervous pushing and probing to give it existence. It is seamless, packed with the sort of pertinent and priceless detail that can't be worried out of the mind piecemeal...The finished film, so vivid and startling, has the same coherence. The performances are virtually indistinguishable from the characters as written. It's difficult to tell where the roles leave off and the actors begin...The Coens' screenplay is the kind that encourages and accommodates spectacular camera gestures. These include point-of-view and overhead shots and moments when the camera becomes a kind of evil companion to the disintegrating Barton.” I hope you enjoy watching Barton Fink with me tonight.