Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – Barton Fink

The best cure for writer’s block is sometimes just writing. Look at Joel and Ethan Coen. Stuck trying to figure out the complex plot machinations of their convoluted gangster film Miller’s Crossing, the brothers took a break for a month to clear their heads and ended up banging out the script for Barton Fink, their surrealist horror film about … yup … a screenwriter with writer’s block.

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With a starting point like that, it’s hardly surprising the film is full of writing in-jokes. Its eponymous protagonist is a Jewish playwright with one Broadway hit under his belt and lofty ideas about creating a “new living theatre of, about and for the common man”. Instead he decamps to Hollywood in the naïve belief that he can earn enough to fund his artistic ambitions or, better yet, turn a b-grade wrestling picture for a fading star like Wallace Beery into a significant work of art.

That’s the movie Barton (John Turturro) has been contracted to write for Capitol Pictures, the fictional studio the Coens modelled after MGM and have continued to use in jaundiced tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age (it’s the backdrop for their current Tinsel Town satire Hail Caesar!). Set on the eve of America’s entry into the second world war, the film’s backdrop allows them to skewer everything in their own acidly elegant way. Barton’s intellectualised obsession with authenticity – he takes a room in a dilapidated hotel despite being under contract for $1,000 a week – is exposed as a front for his lack of imagination. Writing luminaries turn out to be fraudsters, too drunk to pen their own work, and studio bosses think nothing of telling Barton to his face that he’s not the only writer in town who can supply that “Barton Fink feeling”. This is a place where moneymen literally kiss the feet of writers while figuratively shackling them to a system that thrives on formula, a place where movies about men in tights curry more favour than films about the human condition. In this context, Barton’s pretensions soon start peeling away like the wallpaper in his sweatbox hotel room. The building’s ruined art deco beauty serves both to project his increasingly fraught mental state and exteriorise the troubled mind of John Goodman’s travelling salesman Charlie, a jovial decapitator who lives down the hall and is forever trying to get the self-obsessed Barton to listen to his stories about life on the road.

There are plenty of real-life counterpoints here as well. Barton’s mentor (played by John Mahoney) is a thinly veiled riff on William Faulkner, who actually wrote a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery in his Hollywood days (1932’s Flesh) and serves as a stark warning for how even great talents can get chewed up by the system. Barton himself is a playful poke at the socially conscious intelligentsia of the day, a dig at Clifford Odets and his more famous successor, Arthur Miller, who was just getting started during the period in which this film is set – and ended up writing his own sniffy critique of Barton Fink for US film magazine Premiere upon its release in 1991.

In a canny move, however, the Coens had already inured themselves against such criticism, layering into the film thunder-stealing assessments of their work. When Barton blithely interrupts Charlie with another self-aggrandising rant, his critique of his elitist contemporaries – “their work suffers and regresses into empty formulism” – mirrors the most common complaint critics level at their films.

Directors Joel (right) and Ethan Coen arrive for the London Film Festival screening of their film A Serious Man, at the Vue West End in Leicester Square, central London Tuesday Oct. 27, 2009. (AP Photo /Yui Mok, PA) ** UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE ** Original Filename: BRITAIN_PREMIERE_LON853.jpg

Joel and Ethan Coen

And yet what Barton Fink nails better than most movies about writing is the back-to-front way some people approach it. As the film progresses it becomes evident Barton doesn’t actually know how to tell a story: the wrestling picture he eventually finishes revolves around a man wrestling with his soul; the sport barely features. He’s constantly trying to reverse engineer text from subtext and the Coens ridicule this practice beautifully by filling the film with references, imagery and symbols – the aforementioned peeling wallpaper, biblical citations, the woman in the picture hanging above Barton’s desk – that seem loaded with significance but don’t add up to a hill of beans. At one point Barton laments rather grandly that there’s no roadmap for negotiating “the life of the mind”. But that’s why writers write: to get out of their heads, not lose them.

The author, Alistair Harkness, is a film critic for The Scotsman. You can follow him on Twitter here.