Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Revisiting Barton Fink (1990)

Why has Barton Fink (1990) not weathered time well? This may be a completely subjective and/or personal question and among film historians or theorists the film may still hold its worth.  But I suspect that many of the later works by the Coen brothers, particularly Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), have eclipsed this film. 
One reason simply may be that the latter won Oscars for Best Picture and while Barton Fink was not nominated for those awards (although it did win at Cannes for Best Director and Best Actor, and Cannes is a slightly more reliable criterion [and yet, The Ladykillers (2004) was also nominated and won, in the categories of Best Director and the Jury Award respectively … and I think we can agree that the film was a complete catastrophe]). The Oscars seem to mean a great deal when worthy films grace its award and mean nothing when lesser films do (Titanic? Crash?).
Perhaps this is a useless question. But the question is about trying to intimate how time and culture will treat a work of art.  What is obscure or mediocre now may, in a new light, become terribly important.  No Country for Old Men is an important film because it is timely (i.e. Mexico), because it is based (almost verbatim) on a book by a probably first-order contemporary American writer, because it contains one of the most terrifyingly provocative characters to greet the screen since Orson Welles’ “Captain Hank Quinlan”, namely, Javier Bardem’s “Anton Chigurh”, because it does this while meaningfully narrating the anxieties of an old man, no longer welcome, Tommy Lee Jones’ “Ed Tom Bell”.  And it has an unsettling, serious ending.
Barton greets the subject of his hotel room painting.
Whereas Barton Fink is lighter fare. It has no serious ending, but rather ends in an unrealistic, somewhat comic manner, with a man contemplating a scene he has seen before, in a painting on the wall of his formerly transient, now residential, hotel room. And this man carries a box which we can only conclude contains the head of a woman  that he made love to (perhaps the only one) a handful of nights before. Yet he claims that he does not know what is in the box, and as he has not looked in the box, this is at least apodictically true, albeit not probablistically.
One of the reasons for the decline of Barton Fink’s fortunes may be an aesthetic shift, away from a style of artistic craft that weaves ideas and images together, but without closure or, possibly, basic synthesis. You can see an example of this in the episode “Crocodile” from the first season of Dexter, which begins and ends with an image of someone their head halfway submerged in the water. In the episode there actually happens to be a crocodile, which is supposedly the lure for a would-be killing, disturbed by the goodie Dexter, who then accidentally stumbles into the former.  The title of the episode is a reference to images bookending the episode, as well as one of the momentary subjects of the episode, but lacks any meaningful thematic synthesis.
Barton Fink, thankfully, does not traffic in this reductive version of the non-synthetic (nor analytic), non-cohesive style.  Instead, it concerns itself with the ironic search of a playwright turned screenwriter for the “theater of the common man”, a murderous everyman character, the soul-pulverizing forces of the early film industry, and haunting images. But it does allow a significant amount of screen time to be spent on this closing image of a woman sitting on the edge of the surf.  This image is some kind of focal point, among a series of events of varying gravity, to give the eponymous character some evanescent stability while the world that he knows slowly collapses.
Barton Fink lacks a moral center and it intentionally avoids judgment by settling for a elliptical, oneiric vision. The most sympathetic character appears to be a friendly albeit stressed door-to-door salesman, but is then discovered to be an axe-murdering Nazi (John Goodman as Charley Meadows, a.k.a. “Karl ‘Mad Man’ Mundt”.  The main character is a pretentious, snobbish intellectual of sorts who believes that he writes from the vicissitudes of emotional conflict in attempt to contribute to the humanistic mission of a “theater of the common man.” He claims a moral obligation to this working class fellow, but repeatedly fails in the basic attempt to “listen” to him, as Charley/Karl eventually points out. And of course, there is nothing more ironic than the fact that Fink strives for a theater of the common man, seeing screenwriting as merely means to that end, completely oblivious that film is the only remaining “theater of the common man.” There is no way we can identify with Fink.
Does this mean that Barton Fink has been passed aside in favor of Fargo and No Country for Old Men precisely because of the moral judgments of the latter? Have we unwittingly become fiends for moralistic art?

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