Barton Fink ★★★★

“Are you in pictures?”

Historiographic metafiction describes a fictional book or film set in the past that makes it known a) the fiction is not an accurate portrayal of history (the historiographic part), and b) you are watching a movie (the metafiction part). Barton Fink is set in 1940s Hollywood, but makes no attempts to seem like a realistic portrayal of that setting. The Coens did no research into Hollywood at the period of time the film is set. The hotel where the film takes place is not meant to look realistic. Barton is clueless about the war and Pear Harbor, going on at the time of the film. Barton watches raw footage from dailies, reminding the viewer we are watching a movie, and of the manipulative power of the finished, edited cinema we are watching. Like other historiographic metafiction, popular in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Barton Fink questions film’s ability to accurately represent history, and moreover, represent reality.

That’s just one possible reading of the baffling Barton Fink, the fourth film in my Coen Brothers Project. Here, we get the Coen Brothers experimenting with postmodernism. Postmodern works of art were unsentimental, ambiguous, and devoted to the denying of absolute truths. Other than the history theme and metafiction, Barton Fink displays other postmodern characteristics. Barton Fink is a critically acclaimed broadway writer who slums it in Hollywood to make some money. He thinks he’s better than the “B” pictures he’s assigned to work on, and the film pokes fun at that. Much of postmodernism is devoted to dismantling of the division between high and low culture. Postmodernists acknowledge that comic books are as good as gallery art; wrestling movies can be as good as high theatre. Barton loves to talk about his own themes and his grand ideas, to the point where he talks about working more than doing so. It’s a bit of satire of ivory-tower academics, again, common in postmodern work. The Coen’s even satirize themselves a bit, as Barton’s love of the common man mirrors the Coen Brother’s, whose films are often about lower class people.

Barton Fink is more arty, slower--it’s not the twisty plot style of Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, but we do still get many classic Coen bro elements. I think it’s 3/4 films so far that we see a classic Coen image: cartoonishly bombastic guy behind the desk. We get another wild and idiosyncratic supporting cast, with memorable characters like the Columbia president, John Goodman the neighbor, Buscemi the hotel employee, Tony Shaloub the producer, and the alcoholic the fellow writer. As usual in a Coen drama, we care about what happens to the people. It also maintains the core single element of what makes Coen brother movies so great: you never know what is going to happen next.

And honestly, you will never guess what happens next in Barton Fink. It takes a couple very strange turns, and I’ll admit: it gets a little too weird for me the last while. The first 2/3 of the movie, we’re oscillating between hilarious moments and meditative symbolism. Then, the symbolism takes over the picture, which upon first viewing brought it down from the awesome first half. It may be weird to lay this criticism onto a 4 star rating, but it’s cooking along at 5 star pace until it tips into too much. I’m not sure what the Coens were going for, or if they were just being ambiguous for the sake of it. I have about ten theories of what unifies the symbols, but in the end, I think it’s just postmodern needling, the Coens being suggestive just for the fun of it. That will likely change upon further viewings, as it’s all fun enough for me to want to dive again.

“It’s just a formula, you don’t have to type your soul into it.”