There is little satisfying critical literature on the Coen brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink. Most viewers are inclined to think that this is because the film is a pretentious, meaningless piece of crap. And Barton Fink is surely the most widely detested film by the Coens. The fact that it swept the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Palme d’Or, Best Director, and Best Actor (John Turturro) can simply be chalked up to French perversity and anti-Americanism. These people think Jerry Lewis is a genius, after all.
I don’t wish to discount the meaningless crap theory, but I think there is more to it. Another reason for the dearth of good commentary on Barton Fink is that the conclusions one reaches upon careful viewing are literally unspeakable in polite company, for Barton Fink is a profoundly anti-Semitic film.
The Coens wrote the script of Barton Fink — in which writer’s block is a prominent theme — while experiencing writer’s block on Miller’s Crossing, in which John Turturro plays the most loathsome Jewish villain since Shylock. Barton Fink was filmed immediately after the completion of Miller’s Crossing with Turturro in the title role as another Jewish villain.
And make no mistake, the character of Barton Fink really is a fink. He is not just a nebbish and a victim, he is primarily a villain, whose victimhood is both the just desserts for his villainy and perhaps a barrier to future crimes. Fink’s crime is hard to see, though, because he lives primarily in his head. He lives “the life of the mind.” Thus he commits a crime of the mind.
The pretentious and meaningless aspects of Barton Fink basically arise from the fact that the Coens are making an ersatz David Lynch film, which blends the folksy with the grotesque and supernatural. But it doesn’t work, because they are unwilling to make the necessary metaphysical commitments.
As Flannery O’Connor argues in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” the portrayal of the grotesque has metaphysical assumptions. The Enlightenment envisions a world in which evil and abnormality are progressively eliminated. But the artistic portrayal of the grotesque is equivalent to the assertion that evil and abnormality are metaphysical, that they are aspects of reality that can never be eliminated. Thus, as Thomas Mann says, the grotesque is “anti-bourgeois” — anti-progressive, anti-liberal, anti-enlightenment, and also anti-Marxist.
The Coens use the grotesque as a refutation of Fink’s Marxist progressivism. But it rings false, because one senses that they are unwilling to affirm the more traditional metaphysical alternative that the grotesque presupposes.
Barton Fink is set in 1941. We begin in New York, backstage in a Broadway theater, in the final moments of Bare Ruined Choirs, the new play by the up-and-coming Jewish-Marxist playwright Barton Fink. Fink’s character is loosely modeled on Clifford Odets, but the bits of dialogue are a hilarious send-up of Steinbeck.
The play is a smash, hailed as a “triumph of the common man.” At the celebration, however, Fink is ungracious, boorish, and self-absorbed, reeling off Marxist Popular Front clichés about “real success” being the creation of a “new living theater of and about and for the common man.”
Fink’s reviews attract the attention of Capitol Pictures, who offer him $1,000 per week to write for the movies. Fink’s agent urges him to cash in on his good press, assuring him that the common man will still be waiting for him, and adding prophetically that he might even find one or two of them in Hollywood.
Fink arrives in Hollywood and checks into a dilapidated Art Deco pile the Hotel Earle. With its putrescent palette of greens, mauves, and magentas, its endless empty corridors, its peeling wallpaper, and its grotesque staff, it is pure Lynch. Then Fink meets his new employer, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner hilariously playing Louis B. Mayer and stealing every scene).
Lipnik seems to know nothing of Fink, but he is convinced that the “Barton Fink feeling” will be a hot commodity and assigns him to write a wrestling movie starring Wallace Beery. It seems a natural fit, given Fink’s pronouncements about “the common man.” But Barton Fink is a Jewish Marxist from New York. For him, the common man is just an abstraction. Naturally, he gets writer’s block.
As he frets in front of his typewriter, he hears laughter from next door. He calls the front desk to complain. The bellman relays the complaint, and the neighbor knocks on the door. Enter Charlie Meadows, traveling insurance salesman, an affable corn-fed Midwestern goy played by Midwestern goy John Goodman.
Their conversation is hilarious. Fink is totally self-absorbed and patronizing, explaining that he writes about “people like you — the average working stiff, the common man.” He mentions that people in New York (fellow Jewish Communists no doubt) are creating a new theater “based on the common man,” but adding that it must not “mean much to you.” Three times Charlie interjects that he could tell Barton some stories, and three times Barton ignores him, ranting on about “empty formalism” and denouncing WASPs and the British class system. Apparently “the life of the mind” precludes empathy for others, or even listening to what they have to say.
The next day, Fink seeks guidance from his director Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub playing Irving Thalberg) and fellow writer W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney hilariously playing William Faulkner and stealing every scene). Mayhew is a great Southern novelist who has become a raging alcoholic during his sojourn in the land of the Philistines. When Fink prattles on about writing coming from pain and the desire to help his fellow man, Mayhew replies that he just enjoys making things up.
Fink develops an attraction to Mayhew’s secretary and girlfriend Audrey, who offers to help him get over his writer’s block. When Audrey reveals that she has actually been ghost-writing Mayhew’s recent work, Fink is maniacal in celebrating the unmasking of another WASP hero as a fraud. Audrey chides him for lacking empathy and understanding, but Fink has no idea what she is talking about. Audrey then seduces Fink, and the sounds of their coupling travel the pipes to Charlie’s room.
Fink awakens in the morning to find that Audrey has been murdered in bed while he slept. He goes to Charlie who convinces him that he should not go to the police and offers to dispose of the body. Charlie then leaves town, after giving Barton a package for safekeeping. A few days later, two police detectives, Mastrinotti and Deutsch, come to question Fink. Audrey’s body has turned up without a head, and their suspect is Charlie Meadows, who is apparently Karl “Madman” Mundt, a serial killer. After the police leave, Fink’s writer’s block breaks and he completes the script.
Fink then celebrates the completion of the script at a USO dance. When a square-jawed blonde sailor tries to cut in, Fink begins to rant, “I’m a writer celebrating, you monsters [goyim]! I am a creator! This is where I serve the common man [pointing to his head]!” Jewish metaphysics makes a distinction between the uncreated creator (God), the created creator (man = the Jews), and uncreative creation, which presumably includes the goy monsters. Someone takes a swing at Fink, who falls to the floor and slithers away while the goyim fight among themselves.
When Fink returns to his hotel, the detectives are waiting for him. Mayhew has turned up dead and decapitated; they now know that Audrey was Fink’s friend; and then there is the huge bloodstain on Fink’s mattress. Fink is arrested as Mundt’s accomplice and cuffed to his bed frame.
The hotel becomes as hot as a sauna. Fink announces that Charlie has returned. The hallway is filled with flames. Charlie appears, screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” and kills the detectives with shotgun blasts, saying “Heil Hitler” before dispatching Detective Deutsch.
Charlie then screams at a terrified Barton that “You don’t listen!” and that he is just “a tourist with a typewriter” barging into his world and telling him how to live. Fink naturally thinks the end is at hand and blubbers out an apology. His fury spent, Charlie frees Barton from the handcuffs and goes into his room nonchalantly, as if the building were not on fire.
Are the flames hellfire? Is it all a dream? Is it symbolism? I think it is just a meaningless Jewish jerk job.
Fink gathers up his script and flees the building.
A few days pass. Lipnick has read the script. Fink is summoned into his office, where he finds Lipnick dressed in the uniform of an army colonel. The commission is honorary, he mentions, arranged by Henry Morgenthau. The uniform had been run up by the costume department.
Lipnick hates the script. Fink was assigned to do a wrestling movie, and instead delivered “a fruity movie about suffering” — about a man wrestling with himself. Lipnick has fired Geisler, and he informs Fink that he will remain in Hollywood, writing scripts, but none of his scripts will be produced until he “grows up” and realizes the error of thinking that “the whole world revolves around whatever rattles inside that little kike head of yours.” Devastated, Fink then goes to the beach, where we are treated to some more pretentious symbolism. Then the movie ends.
Barton Fink portrays Jews in an entirely negative light. Fink is a self-absorbed, patronizing, hate-filled, Marxist elitist who talks about the common man, and talks at the common man, but never listens to him. Lipnick is a mercurial, megalomaniacal buffoon. The rest of us are just extras in their neurotic psychodramas. And the terrifying thing is that they have the power to make their dreams real. We are ruled by psychotics.
With the character of the Heil Hitlering Madman Mundt, are the Coens suggesting that anti-Semitism is a predictable reaction to Jewish behavior? Is National Socialism the comeuppance of Judeo-Bolshevism? Are the flames the “gas ovens” of Auschwitz?
The fact that Mundt is ultimately a big sentimental schmuck whose fury can be deflected simply with a tearful apology — sincere or not, we cannot know — takes on new meaning when viewed in light of the tears shed by Turturro’s Jewish villain in Miller’s Crossing, which is a movie about how Jews have hacked the Aryan mind — and how we can erect a firewall.
Why the lack of good commentary on Barton Fink? Because one of the unspoken rules of today’s society is that if you can’t say anything nice about the Jews, you can’t say anything at all. Perhaps, one day, it will be the law.