FILMS

Blank comedy

The Coens have fun with writer’s block

Brian D. Johnson September 23 1991
FILMS

Blank comedy

The Coens have fun with writer’s block

Brian D. Johnson September 23 1991

Blank comedy

FILMS

The Coens have fun with writer’s block

BARTON FINK Directed by Joel Coen

Good ideas often start out as tangents. Driven to distraction by a blank page, a writer drops the job at hand and starts writing about something else altogether—about the dilemma of being unable to write. That is how the film-making brothers Joel and Ethan Coen wound up scripting their new movie comedy, Barton Fink, which Joel directed. While trying to write their coldly stylized gangster movie, Miller’s Crossing (1990), the Coens were stricken with writer’s block. They turned their obstacle into an asset—by concocting Barton Fink, a movie about a blocked Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s. The Coens went on to complete Miller’s Crossing, which seduced the critics but failed to score at either the Oscars or the box office. Last spring, however, Barton Fink became the first movie in the 44-year history of the Cannes Film Festival to sweep the prizes for best picture, director and actor (John Turturro). The movie—a writer’s conceit gone wild—is not as monumental as that triumph might suggest. But it is an excellent joke at Hollywood’s expense, a black comedy with an incendiary sense of humor.

Fink (Turturro) is a Broadway playwright who is on an earnest mission. An idealist trying to consummate a romance with the working class, he talks fervently about creating “a new living theatre—of, about and for the common man.” Flushed with his latest Broadway success, against his better judgment he accepts an offer from a Hollywood studio to become a contract writer. His first assignment: to script a wrestling movie.

Distrusting the temptations of Hollywood luxury, Fink moves into a seedy oceanfront hotel where guests are invited to stay for “a day or a lifetime.” His room rattles with strange sounds, and bacterial slime oozes out from under the peeling wallpaper. He sits and stares at the blank page in his typewriter. Slowly, writer’s block sets in.

Fink finds solace in forming a desperate little friendship with his neighbor in the room next door. A gregarious salesman named Charlie Cohn Goodman), he is a louder-than-life example of the common man that Fink has idealized—“I could tell you a few stories,” says Charlie, with apparent understatement. But Fink is too wrapped up in his own thwarted imagination to recognize good material even when it is slapping him on the back. Fink has a wrestling movie to write, and he is stuck.

Tension mounts as Hollywood waits for the script. Veteran character actor Michael Lerner is deliciously vile as Jack Lipnick, the unctuous studio head who hired Fink to create a vehicle for screen legend Wallace Beery.

Wrestling pictures, Lipnick explains, “are big movies about big men—in tights.” Fink does not know the first thing about wrestling movies. But Jack is confident that his hot young writer will deliver a wrestling movie with “that Barton Fink feeling.”

In a panic, Fink seeks advice from an alcoholic screenwriter named W. P. Mayhew Qohn Mahoney)—a literary legend from the South who appears to be modelled on William Faulkner. And he is smitten by Mayhew’s secretary, Audrey, sublimely portrayed by Judy Davis, who also serves as the author’s muse and mistress. As Fink’s deadline approaches, the subplots suddenly congeal. And the movie takes a violent, unpredictable turn towards a nightmarish conclusion—which may, or may not, be a hallucination sparked by spontaneous combustion in Fink’s overheated brain.

Creating vivid images for the vertigo of writer’s block, Joel Coen’s direction is wonderfully exaggerated. His camera seems to move with a mind of its own. It strays up to the grotty ceiling of Fink’s hotel room, then zooms down to the blank page in his typewriter, dissolving into bond-white oblivion. Coen lets the lens creep into nooks and crannies behind the walls. In one outrageous shot, the camera cuts away from a lovemaking scene and moves inexorably from the bed to the bathroom sink—finally disappearing down the bathroom drain.

A brilliant performance by Turturro, meanwhile, prevents Barton Fink from being merely a cleverly scripted excuse for stylish filmmaking. With an outlandish high-top hairdo, his Fink is a walking caricature. But Turturro plays it straight: working against the movie’s surreal grain, he remains utterly convincing in the most unlikely circumstances. And that makes him even funnier. For his part, Goodman performs a provocative variation on his usual image as an affable lug.

Barton Fink is not for all tastes. It is an inside joke, a self-conscious evisceration of the creative process. There is a garrulous sweep to its satire from which no one escapes unscathed—neither Fink, with his corked-up ideals, nor Charlie, with his clumsy affections. But the movie offers a privileged glimpse into the chasm that lies between a writer’s creativity and the industrial demands of the movie industry. In their films—which range from Blood Simple {19M), a perversely plotted murder tale, to Raising Arizona (1987), a zany comedy about baby-napping—the Coens have resisted compromise. And with Barton Fink, a movie that unfolds like a violent accident of the imagination, they have turned a writer’s block into a film-maker’s breakthrough.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON