Given the “writer’s block” theme of the feature presentation, this week I dug up yet another Kids in the Hall skit. It’s apparently officially titled “Book, Bottle, Blonde”, and I guess that’s descriptive enough.
Most notable here are the subtle touches in Scott’s performance of the Blonde. Note her quiet “I’ve been shot!” (echoing Saturday Night Live’s Buckwheat) and the way her body is swept out of the room.
Our feature presentation was brought to us by Jessica Verhein (after only months and months of needling). She selected Cinema 1544’s third film by Joel and Ethan Coen (so what I’m saying is that we’re unlikely to see a Coen brothers Winter Marathon anytime soon). This one is what I find to be one of the Coens’ least defined, most open-ended films – Barton Fink. What I mean by that is that with the Coens, while you expect a complicated storyline, in general everything is explicable in the end. Barton Fink represents their move into somewhat Lynchian territory, where you’re really not sure everything has an explanation. But like any good screenplay, a movie review probably also ought to start at the beginning.
Barton Fink begins the film as a 1941 New York playwright, and not just a New York playwright but the most pretentious sort of New York playwright – the type who wants to reject the establishment and write about the common man and create a theater of, by, and for the masses. In short, the noble ideologue. So, after his most recent play receives a good write-up and his manager pushes him to accept an offer from a Hollywood studio to write for the silver screen Barton at least puts up a modicum of defense before caving in entirely.
Barton checks into a seedy hotel in L.A., charged by the studio with writing a “wrestling picture”. You know, big sweaty men in a ring. It’s what the folks want to see. The hotel seems to be a character in and of itself. Among other things, we’re treated with long and sweeping shots of a seedy hallway. It weren’t for the constant shoes being set out for the shoeshine service, if it weren’t for the continual noises from the other rooms, you could get the impression that the hotel was empty.
While trying to come up with the opening for his wrestling picture Barton is stymied, and he can’t be helped by the drab interior of his gloomy and insidious hotel room with its lone picture of a girl on a beach and its wet and peeling wallpaper, which oozes slime from time to time. Despite the fact that L.A. is in a desert, the room also comes equipped with a lone mosquito, continually buzzing about. (Yes, Virginia, mosquitoes can be found in L.A.)
Finally, fed up by the noises from a neighbor, he calls down to the front desk to complain. Naturally, with the walls as thin as they are, he can hear the front desk immediately call up the neighbor, who then immediately stomps over to Barton’s room. In a deft and subtle touch, the anger on Charlie Meadows’ face is evident for only a second before he adopts a calm and friendly demeanor. The audience should understand that he’s bad news, but his apologies and offers of booze allow him to strike up a tenuous friendship with Barton.
Charlie is a traveling insurance salesman, and a sweaty and nosy one at that, and sometimes his right ear (and sometimes his left!) drips just like the walls of the hotel due to an infection. He’s a weird guy, and it doesn’t get better.
While in the throes of his writer’s block, Barton meets W.P. Mayhew, a drunkard former author now working for the studios – the character is based entirely off of William Faulkner, from his drunkeness, to his grudging work as a Hollywood screenwriter, to his personal life (including an affair with his secretary and script girl), to his death by shotgun murder and beheading. Well, maybe ALMOST entirely based off of William Faulkner. Barton asks W.P. for some help in getting started on his screenplay, which leads to him meeting Audrey.
Audrey is the secretary and script girl, of course. You can imagine that things won’t remain platonic between Audrey and Barton forever, largely because she’s clearly tired of the abusive and besotted W.P.
And Barton’s inability to get past the cry of the fishmongers finally leads to him calling Audrey to come over and help him with his novel. She decides to help him with a different sort of frustration instead. And that’s where the movie has its mosquito moment. The morning after, that lone mosquito finally lands on Audrey’s exposed shoulders and Barton smashes it. Only despite the prodigious slap Barton gave her, Audrey doesn’t wake up. This is because she has apparently been gutted. She’s dead, and she has left most of her blood in the mattress.
Horrified, Barton calls on Charlie to help him. Charlie warns him not to contact the police (as he’d clearly be fingered), disposes of the body, and heads off to New York for a business trip leaving behind a mid-sized box. About this time, the police stop by the hotel to interview Barton, looking for Karl “Madman” Mundt, which appears to be Charlie’s real name. The Madman is well known for shotgunning people and then decapitating them. Nice guy. Barton can’t tell them much (and given the dead girl in the bed, he’s wise not to), but these events do finally shake off his writer’s block and he cranks out his masterpiece wrestling picture in one sitting only to be confronted by the police in his room.
The police have found the decapitated bodies of Audrey and W.P. and they’re ringing Barton up for it – until Charlie the Madman returns, magically engulfing the hotel hallway in flames (how?) and killing the two police detectives (less magically – with a shotgun). He mentions that he has paid a visit to Barton’s parents in New York and then retires to his own flaming bedroom, never to emerge in this film. Barton collects the box and the manuscript and calmly leaves the very slowly burning hotel.
Things don’t go so well for Barton from there. The studio head rejects his script because they wanted a wrestling picture, not art. Barton, in fear for his parents’ life after the madman’s proclamation, can’t reach them on the phone. And he’s pretty convinced that he’s carrying around Audrey and W.P.’s heads in a box. So what does he do? He goes to the beach.
“You’re very beautiful. Are you in pictures?” he asks to the familiar-looking girl he finds there. “Don’t be silly,” she replies.
As I alluded to above, this movie more than any other Coen film is wide open to interpretation. It’s not just the box (where the Coens don’t do us the favor that David Fincher did and let us know what’s inside), it’s basically everything that happens from that moment that Barton smashes the mosquito. Who killed Audrey? It seems unlikely that Charlie could have done it without waking Barton, right? But Barton insists he didn’t do it. Did Barton ever even mention W.P. to Charlie? If so, how could Charlie have known to kill him? Did Charlie kill Barton’s parents? Why didn’t the hotel completely burn down? Why was it on fire in the first place? Why did Charlie go into the burning room and just stay there? Is Charlie the embodiment of the hotel? Are we venturing into The Shining territory here? And how in the world does the girl from the picture show up at the end?
It’s all a bit of a mindtrip, and it doesn’t boil down into a neat little package. And typically, the Coens aren’t talking.
There are several unsatisfying explanations, ranging from the whole thing being a hallucination, to Barton being the killer and inventing Charlie and other pieces of reality to shield himself in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type story, to the idea that perhaps Charlie is the devil himself and that Barton has sold his soul to him in order to write his screenplay – and the collateral damage is the cost.
None of these is particularly satisfying, and none explains the girl from the picture showing up at the end. But here’s the one thing we do know: The Coens, who are universally reticent to consider sequels for their films, are said to be intent on writing a Barton Fink sequel which takes place when Barton is much older – they’re simply waiting for John Turturro to be old enough to play the part. Perhaps there will be some answers then, and we can see Barton Fink as a masterpiece rather than a slightly odd and unsatisfying submission from directors usually much more transparent in their intent.