Barton Fink is a 1991 period film produced by Ethan Cohen, directed by Joel Cohen, and written by both of them. It stars John Turturro (in the title role) and John Goodman; it costars John Mahoney, Judy Davis, Steve Buscemi, Michael Lerner, and Tony Shalhoub.
The film is about, essentially, writer’s block, since the Cohen brothers themselves had been going through some writing difficulties when working on Miller’s Crossing. Barton Fink is a New York playwright who fancies himself a writer championing “the common man,” but when he has an opportunity to write a Hollywood screenplay for a movie about a wrestler (the kind of the story “the common man” would have found entertaining at the time), he can barely type a word.
Here are some quotes:
Garland Stanford: The common man will still be here when you get back. Who knows, there may even be one or two of them in Hollywood.
Barton Fink: That’s a rationalization, Garland.
Garland Stanford: Barton, it was a joke.
“I run this dump, and I don’t know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? ‘Cause I got horse sense goddamit, SHOWMANSHIP! And also I hope Lou told you this, I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. Did you tell him that Lou? And I don’t mean my dick is bigger than yours, it’s not a sexual thing. You’re a writer, you know more about that. Coffee?” –Jack Lipnick (Lerner)
Charlie Meadows (Goodman): And I could tell you some stories…
Barton Fink: Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and…and…So naturally their work suffers and regresses into empty formalism and…well, I’m spouting off again, but to put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phoney as a three-dollar bill.
Charlie Meadows: Well, I guess that’s a tragedy right there.
“Honey! Where’s my honey?” –Mayhew
“I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain.” –Fink
“Me, well, I just like makin’ things up.” –Mayhew (Mahoney)
“I’m buildin’ a levy. Gulp by gulp, brick by brick…” Mayhew
“That son of a bitch! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine writer.” –Fink, of Mayhew
“Never make Lipnick like you!” –Ben Geisler (Shalhoub)
“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind…There’s no roadmap for that territory…And exploring it can be painful.” –Fink
Detective Mastrionotti: Fink. That’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?
Barton Fink: Yeah.
Detective Mastrionotti: Yeah, I didn’t think this dump was restricted.
[at the USO club] “I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator! [points to his head] This is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!” –Fink
Detective Deutsch: You two have some sick sex thing?
Barton Fink: Sex?! He’s a man! We wrestled!
Detective Mastrionotti: You’re a sick fuck, Fink.
“Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!” –Meadows
Barton Fink: But Charlie–why me? Why–?
Charlie Meadows: Because YOU DON’T LISTEN!
Beauty: It’s a beautiful day.
Barton Fink: Huh?
Beauty: I said it’s a beautiful day.
Barton Fink: Yes. It is.
Beauty: What’s in the box?
Barton Fink: I don’t know.
Beauty: Isn’t it yours?
Barton Fink: I don’t know. You’re very beautiful. Are you in pictures?
Beauty: Don’t be silly.
Fink has just written Bare Ruined Choirs, a play whose title is inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73: “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Choirs aren’t the singers, but rather the places where choirs sing in churches (or in the case of the sonnet, where the birds sang, on leafless tree branches). The point is that the lack of singers, in the context of the movie, represents the lack of inspiration, no poetic singing coming from blocked Fink.
Fink is loosely based on Clifford Odets, a socialist playwright who had been a member of the Communist Party back in the mid-1930s, and who had to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s. The physical and superficial similarities between Fink and Odets are obvious; but beyond their ‘championing of the common man,’ they haven’t much more in common. Odets was a leftist; Fink is a liberal.
Odets was actively involved in socialism; Fink merely talks of wanting to write about “the average working stiff.” It quickly becomes apparent that he’s not all that interested in the working man. His play is the toast of Broadway, enjoyed by a largely bourgeois audience as pretentious as he is.
Phoniness is a recurring theme in the movie. Fink affects modesty at the success of his play, claiming it’s “merely adequate.” Hollywood producer Lipnick (Lerner) claims “the writer is king” in Capitol Pictures, when it turns out the writer’s contract makes him into a virtual slave. Charlie Meadows seems a friendly, unassuming insurance salesman selling “peace of mind”; we later learn he’s “Madman Mundt,” a serial killer (or is he even that?…see below). W. P. Mayhew, loosely based on William Faulkner, supposedly “the finest novelist of our time,” is really a “souse” whose “secretary,” Audrey Taylor (Davis) has written much, if not most, of his great work, scripts and novels alike.
Fink is offered a job to write scripts for Hollywood, an opportunity he snobbishly balks at. When his agent, Garland Stanford, says he might see some of “the common man” in Hollywood, Fink dismisses this as a rationalization, when Garland really meant it as a joke, showing how little he and Fink really care about working people.
Having arrived in Hollywood, Fink is surrounded by examples of the common man. In his seedy, rundown hotel, there’s the bellboy Chet (Buscemi) and his neighbour Charlie. There are the sailors at the USO hall (where buffoonish Fink does the nerd-dance of the century). Fink has no interest in these people’s lives whatsoever. He should be up to his armpits in inspiration; but he can’t get anything, outside of literary inspiration, for this wrestling movie script he has to write. So much for championing the common man.
The movie is more interested in the small and insignificant than Fink is: the hotel bell rings out in a decrescendo until Chet puts his finger on it, just before the fade to absolute silence. We see closeups of a sinkhole, a drain, typewriters, and the bell of a jazzman’s horn. When Charlie frees Fink from the metal foot rails of the bed-frame a cop has handcuffed him to, a small steel ball rolls from one of the broken rails and along the floor, up close to the camera, a small thing growing into a big thing before our eyes.
Fink represents liberalism, but Jack Lipnick represents the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog capitalist. Now, bear in mind how congenial he appears to Fink at first. This represents the superficial charm of the narcissistic capitalist, who pretends to be friendly and generous while secretly scheming and planning to lure the employee into wage slavery, here represented by Fink’s ball-and-chain contract with Capitol Pictures.
Lipnick is a fast-talking loudmouth, a red flag already warning us of his predatory capitalist nature: “I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. Did you tell him that, Lou? And I don’t mean my dick is bigger than yours, it’s not a sexual thing, although you’re the writer, you’d know more about that. Coffee?”
Still, Lipnick pretends to idolize the writer who gives him “that Barton Fink feeling,” even kissing his feet after Lou Breeze (Jon Polito)–who represents Lipnick’s True Self–tells Fink in all frankness that “the contents of [his] head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” Lipnick, in his narcissistic False Self, fires Lou…though in the next scene with Fink in Lipnick’s office (in which the producer rants about how much he hates Fink’s script), Lou is in the room with them, proving how much of an act the firing was, and how phoney Lipnick’s high regard of Fink has always been.
Charlie Meadows is largely friendly, a true representative of the common man whose work in insurance is meant to help people. We later learn from Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch (who, as their surnames imply, respectively represent Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) that Charlie is really Karl Mundt, a pun on Karl Marx.
So this means that Charlie represents communism. His violence (both real and imagined) represents that of revolution and the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. The cops’ labelling of him as a serial killer is something one shouldn’t be too credulous of, given that they represent fascism, and it is by no means proven (but rather assumed to be true) that “Madman Mundt” actually killed all those people, so the cops’ characterization of him can be seen to represent right-wing demonizing of socialism.
Furthermore, the film is set in 1941, the same year the Axis Powers invaded the Soviet Union, an attack paralleled in the movie by the cops’ entering the Hotel Earle to arrest Charlie. Charlie’s shooting of the cops thus represents the Soviet victory over fascism: his saying, “Heil Hitler” before shooting Detective Deutsch is mockingly ironic.
Since Charlie, or Karl, represents communism, and Fink represents liberalism, consider the nature of their ‘buddy-buddy‘ relationship. Sure, they’re friends, but when Charlie “can tell [Fink] some stories,” Fink interrupts him, speaks condescendingly to him, and prates on and on about the contemporary state of American theatre, something from which Charlie “can feel [his] butt gettin’ sore already.” Fink, a typical liberal, rejects all opportunities to learn about the real common man, treating their stories like Wilfred R. Bion‘s rejected beta elements, raw sense impressions that are not allowed into the mind, processed, and made into thought. Fink does no learning from experience.
Instead, he hopes his literary hero, W.P. Mayhew, will help him figure out how to write the wrestling picture, but he only grows increasingly disillusioned with the “souse.” Ironically, it’s only Mayhew’s status as a major man of letters that interests Fink, while his alcoholism, a common symptom of the alienation of the working man, disgusts Fink.
At a picnic with Fink and Audrey, Mayhew drinks, speaks obnoxiously, and even slaps her after finishing a piss by a tree. As indefensible as his behaviour is, this crudity is but a symptom of the sufferings of the oppressed proletariat, for which snobbish Fink has no sympathy.
In his inebriated state, Mayhew wanders off among the trees singing “Old Black Joe,” an old Stephen Foster song about a black American slave. Though a white man, Mayhew has been made a slave of sorts by the contract he has with Capitol Pictures. His wandering off, singing, and drinking represent his attempt to escape his miserable existence, a manic defence against his sadness and inability to write.
Fink pretentiously speaks of writing “from a great inner pain”; he’s posturing as the ‘suffering artistic genius.’ Mayhew’s more honest about what makes him write, and about his pain. He likes “making things up…escape.” And when he can’t write, he finds that, apparently, the bottle “will sometimes help.”
Fink will find himself increasingly wanting to escape, but in a different way: through fantasy. Whenever he’s stuck at his typewriter in his hotel room, not knowing how to begin the story for the wrestling movie, he looks up at a picture on the wall of a beautiful young woman sitting on the beach, watching the water with her hand over her eyes to block the sunshine.
He often stares at the picture, admiring the beauty of the woman and the scene. This is his conception of heaven: those waves washing on the shore are his relief from the fiery hell of Hollywood, with its capitalistic degrading of creativity for profit. The beach picture reminds us of the relief and joy of the Greek soldiers in Anabasis when they behold “the sea! The sea!“
There is a dialectical relationship between the hell of Hollywood and the heaven of the City of Angels, the former being within the latter, as is the case of the paradise picture of the girl on the beach in Fink’s room in the hellish Hotel Earle–yin and yang. The aspiring writer who has sold his soul to Hollywood tries to escape to the heaven of fantasy. For Fink, the flames of hell are quenched by the water on the shore; for Mayhew, they’re quenched–so it would seem–by firewater.
Some have claimed that where Fink is water, Charlie is fire; and so, if the burning Hotel Earle–Charlie’s home–is hell, then Charlie must be the Devil. I find this to be a simplistic interpretation of a much more complex character. Charlie has a raging fire of pain in him, but he has a lot of good, too.
It is assumed that he is a serial killer, that he kills Audrey out of a rage of sexual jealousy because Fink has chosen beautiful her over fat Charlie as his Muse and his lover. I’m sure Charlie has heard them making love, as earlier and elsewhere in the hotel, he’s been able to hear “those [other] two love-birds next door drivin’ [him] nuts,” and thus he feels hurt that his obesity makes him unattractive to anyone.
None of this, however, conclusively proves that he killed her: his jealousy isn’t necessarily strong enough for a motive for murder. If so, why not kill Fink instead? Their homoerotic wrestling suggests Charlie has wanted Fink, so his betrayal with Audrey should make Charlie want to kill him instead. If killing her was meant to get revenge on Fink by hurting him–traumatizing him–why help him dispose of the body afterwards, in an attempt to protect him from the cops? For all we know, Mayhew–in an uncharacteristic moment of sobriety–could have sneaked in the hotel and killed her.
The detectives call “Madman Mundt” a serial killer, which he could very well be: but why should we trust the claims of those two obnoxious, bigoted personifications of fascism? I find it ironically fitting that Charlie, whom I equate with communism, would–in the eyes of the Hollywood liberal that distributes films like this–symbolize Satan.
The one time we see Charlie actually kill people is in the scene in the burning hallway in the hotel. The inexplicability of the fire, especially when combined with the non-urgent reaction of everyone to it, forces one to conclude that it’s a fantasy in Fink’s head. Where the fantasy begins and ends, however, is hard to determine for sure: is only the fire a fantasy, or is Charlie’s shooting of the cops also one? After all, he casually enters his room, one surrounded by flames, instead of fleeing the scene of the crime.
The final scene of Fink with the beauty at the beach can only be fantasy. It is absurdly improbable that a woman in real life, identical to the girl in the picture, would assume the exact same pose, too. So there is much fantasy in this film, fantasy that’s blatantly obvious towards the end, but not necessarily fantasy only at the end. A legitimate question is, how much of the whole film is Fink’s fantasy, and how much of it is real?
Lipnick’s original sucking up to Fink is symbolic of a kind of capitalist con game, as I outlined above; but is it also a hallucinatory projection of Fink’s mammoth ego? There’s Lipnick’s phoney geniality and there’s Fink’s false modesty; but since phoniness is one of the main themes of the movie (symbolized by the peeling wallpaper to reveal the seediness of the hotel behind its thin mask of a decor), phoniness applies not only to the characters, but also to the visuals in general.
Are there real mosquitoes in Fink’s hotel room, or are they figments of his imagination? Are the cuts on his face from mosquito bites, or are they from him having too harshly scratched itches from imagined bites? Recall Geisler telling him that “there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles. Mosquitoes breed in swamps–this is a desert.”
Fink’s ‘inspiration’ to write the wrestling screenplay most definitely comes from a hallucination; he certainly doesn’t get his idea from having observed the common man, whom he’s been constantly ignoring. His hallucination comes from reading the first chapter of Genesis. God’s Creation becomes Fink’s creation: his inflated ego equates him with Yahweh.
This is the essence of Fink’s phoniness, his egotism: he fancies himself a moral guardian of the little man, yet he really imagines himself as, so to speak, homoousios with the Big Man Himself. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Fink, and the Word was Fink.
His inspiration consistently comes from the written word, from literature, not from the blood and sweat of the working man, as he’d have us believe. Bare Ruined Choirs, as noted above, gets its title from a Shakespeare quote. When he opens the Gideon Bible in his hotel room, he fortuitously opens it to the Book of Daniel, chapter two, in which there is mention of Nebuchadnezzar‘s dream of four kingdoms.
The title of one of Mayhew’s novels, incidentally, is Nebuchadnezzar. The king as portrayed in the Bible says, “if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces,…” (Daniel 2:5); the connection between these two facts lends credence to my theory as to who the real…author…of Audrey’s murder could be. Recall in this connection how, earlier, Mayhew is repeatedly screaming, “WHERE’S M’HONEY!!” when she is merely chatting with Fink for the first time; imagine the bloodiness of his rage to think she’s with Fink in his hotel room.
Fink’s script, it is safe to assume, is essentially a rewriting of Bare Ruined Choirs, in which it seems that fishmongers are largely replaced with wrestlers: “We’ll be hearing from that crazy wrestler. And I don’t mean a postcard,” is an ending much too imitative of that of the original, “We’ll hear from that kid. And I don’t mean a postcard.” Lipnick hates his script for being too “fruity” and artsy-fartsy; we should dismiss Fink as a one-hit-wonder.
Finally, we should consider Fink’s mental health, and the cause of his hallucinations. I find the insights of Wilfred R. Bion useful for this purpose.
Above, I mentioned Fink’s rejection of any of the stories of the common man, new ideas that could help him in his writing of the script for the wrestling movie. I referred to those rejected ideas as beta elements, Bion’s term for sensory data from the external world that aren’t taken into the mind and converted (by alpha function) into thoughts (alpha elements) that can then be used in dreams and unconscious waking thoughts.
Bion explains: “The attempt to evade the experience of contact with live objects by destroying alpha-function leaves the personality unable to have a relationship with any aspect of itself that does not resemble an automaton. Only beta-elements are available for whatever activity takes the place of thinking and beta elements are suitable for evacuation–perhaps through the agency of projective identification.” (Bion, page 13)
When large amounts of beta elements aren’t being processed and turned into thoughts that one can learn from (as is obviously what’s happening with Fink), a beta screen is formed from this unprocessed accumulation, a mental wall blocking out learning; and over time, these beta elements–which, though expelled and projected, never really go away–can become bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections from oneself.
Hence, the walls of Fink’s hotel room symbolize his beta screen of rejected outside influence (the resulting isolation of which reminds us of two films that influenced Barton Fink, namely, Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion and The Tenant, from his Apartment Trilogy); so instead of feeling genuine concern about what Charlie is laughing–or weeping–about in the neighbouring room, Fink complains to Chet about the noise.
The burning hotel and the picture Fink has a conversation with are two of his bizarre objects, hallucinations that indicate his growing psychotic break with reality. Bion dealt with many psychotics in his clinical practice; he noted that they didn’t dream or have unconscious waking thoughts (recall sleepless Fink in this connection, or his projected Nebuchadnezzar, who didn’t know his dreams or their meaning), because they wouldn’t convert beta elements into alpha elements. Raw sensory data were never invested with meaning, to become thought. Unprocessed beta elements thus become bizarre objects.
Fink, in his narcissistic sense of superiority to the world, not only won’t link with other people through Knowledge (what Bion called K), but he actually rejects and pushes away Knowledge (-K). Bion explained it thus: “…any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality…is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority.” Fink thus can be seen, to paraphrase Bion slightly, to be “asserting [his] superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is [his] hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed.” (Bion, page 98)
Instead of learning anything, Fink takes the elements around him and “these elements are stripped of their meaning and only the worthless residue is retained.” Recall how Fink complains to Charlie (after interrupting him and not letting him get a word in edgewise) about how theatre that is cut off from the common man “regresses into empty formalism”; Fink is projecting his own writing vices onto other writers.
Fink is surrounded “by bizarre objects that are real only in that they are the residue of thoughts and conceptions that have been stripped of their meaning and ejected.” (Bion, pages 98-99) Fink’s disturbed alpha function won’t convert those beta elements, so his rejection of learning (-K) leads to an accretion of bizarre objects that drive him mad.
His accelerating psychosis is propelled by the traumatic incidents that disappoint or shock him. First, he feels that writing for a ‘lowly’ wrestling movie is beneath such a talent as he is; he can’t write the screenplay because he simply doesn’t want to. Second, his literary hero, his idealized Mayhew, traumatically disappoints him by revealing himself as a “souse” and, worse yet, a fraud who hasn’t written anything of his own in years…maybe he has never written anything. Finally, there’s the traumatic shock of seeing Audrey’s bloody body next to him in bed…which leads to my next speculation…
It’s assumed that Charlie killed her, of course (and that package may give today’s viewers of Barton Fink eerie recollections of the box at the end of Se7en). I’ve speculated above that Mayhew could have killed her. But here’s an idea: what if Fink killed her, and then in his psychotic state, erased the crime in his mind (as Norman Bates did his mother’s murder)? I’m sure Fink sincerely believes he’s innocent, but the memory of that murder could easily be more evacuated beta elements, projected onto Charlie.
Other rejected beta elements for Fink would be the realization of the rise of fascism in Europe and the hell his fellow Jews would be suffering there. (Jewish Lipnick doesn’t seem to care about them, either, assuming his attitude isn’t another Finkian projection; the profit-driven producer, in his colonel costume, is only concerned with “the Japs.”) Also, are those two detectives, whose symbolic fascism is manifested in their antisemitic and homophobic remarks, more projections of liberal Fink’s disregard for others?
The point is that all that is hateful to narcissistic Fink, hateful things inside himself, all those things are projected onto the world. He unconsciously considers himself too perfect to have any faults of his own, so he projects them onto other people, real or imagined. Also, he considers himself too perfect to introject anything from the outside world, to learn anything, so he rejects the beta elements.
One crucial symptom of narcissism is envy, envy of others’ virtues as well as the perception that others envy the narcissist. Of particular interest is Bion’s use of the Kleinian conception of envy, which originates in the baby’s unconscious wish to spoil the contents of the good breast. In Fink’s case, he wishes to spoil the contents of those whom he unconsciously envies, while projecting that very envy onto them, too.
…and who does Fink envy, and project his envy onto? The common man. As a bourgeois liberal, an educated, literate, middle-class man, he unconsciously wishes he had the simple virtues of the working man. He wishes he had their pain so he could be sympathized with, instead of being the privileged man he really is.
So when he “finds nobility in the most squalid corners and poetry in the most calloused speech,” he’s really bastardizing workers, spoiling their simple purity by making it baroque and literary. This is what Lipnick means when he complains about how “fruity” Fink’s script is; it’s not supposed to be fancy, it’s supposed to be real and down to Earth.
Fink knows this…everybody knows this. He just doesn’t want to comply because he’s too snobbish to. He makes the writing all poetic to show how much ‘better’ he is than the common man. In this way, Fink’s envy spoils all that is good in the worker, ironically, by ‘ennobling’ him. He ‘ennobles’ the working class because he imagines their “brute struggle for existence [, which] cannot quite quell their longing for something better,” is laden with envy of his higher status as one of the intellectual middle class.
Still, Fink’s envy of the working class’s simple purity is why he rejects all opportunities to learn from their experience. His refusal to obtain knowledge, -K, is based on Kleinian envy. As Bion wrote, “one wonders…why such a phenomenon as that represented by -K should exist…I shall consider one factor only–Envy. By this term I mean the phenomenon described by Melanie Klein in Envy and Gratitude.” (Bion, page 96)
Envy is also why Fink could have been Audrey’s murderer: knowing she was the one with the writing talent, rather than Mayhew, could have made him want to spoil her goodness…and her physical beauty, too. (On the other hand, the murder could be more phantasy on his part, the mutilating of her chest representing his unconscious wish to spoil the contents of the good breast.) Though Se7en was made four years later than Barton Fink, I still find it serendipitous that maybe both films involve a package hiding a severed head, and that John Doe’s murder of Tracy Mills was also motivated by envy.
Fink’s phoney extolling of working people masks his unconscious contempt for them, a typical liberal trait. Added to all the traumas he’s already suffered, the narcissistic injury he feels from Lipnick telling him his “story stinks” pushes him over the edge. His narcissism has already been but a fragile defence against psychological fragmentation; but after all that’s happened, he has no other choice but to fall apart. He’s in Mayhew’s shoes now, trapped under contract with people who have no appreciation for his “fruity” creativity. Where else can he go but onto a beach of fantasy, and hear a talking picture?
Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962
Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen, Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, Faber and Faber, London, 1991