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Learn to listen

  • Feb 3, 2010
So in my path through the Coen Brother's career in sequence, I come to Barton Fink.

Blood Simple was a great noir debut about misunderstanding identity.
Raising Arizona was a screwball comedy about stealing an identity.
Miller's Crossing was a deep gangster movie about discovering identity ("Nobody knows anybody. Not that well")

Barton Fink is about understanding your own identity. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a New Yorker of New Yorkers--intellectual, introspective, passive-aggresive, self-absorbed, Jewish. After writing a hit Broadway play, he goes off to Hollywood to cash in on his good reviews by writing for the movies at $1,000 per week. He makes the move at his agent's insistence, not willingly on his own part - an interesting point because it is the only time in the movie he displays accurate self-awareness.

Once in Hollywood, he moves into the seedy long-term residence Hotel Earle, whose long hideously-wallpapered hallways lined by dozens of rooms seem to be occupied only by Fink, unseen neighbors on one side who enjoy loud and frequent love making, and his neighbor on the other side Charlie--a "common man" who barges in on Fink's solitary but unproductive writing sessions. For Fink has settled into a deep writers block as he looks for the serious and the important in his first assignment--a wrestling picture to star Noah Beery.

The solution to Fink's problem is right in front of him, literally larger than life, in John Goodman's back-slapping, easy-going Charlie, who wants to help Fink by telling him stories and showing him wrestling moves, but Fink is too self-absorbed to see it. "You don't listen!", Charlie shouts out him near the end of the movie after a huge plot twist has revealed there is more to Charlie than the happy veneer. Listening is the key to the movie--both Charlie and Barton resort to cotton-ball earplugs at different points to keep from hearing things they don't want to hear--and what they miss hearing leaves them psychically and spiritually handicapped. And while Fink moves into his room (and stays there despite a studio offer of a better place) to "stay in touch" with the common man, never has a character been more out of touch with his surroundings.

Old Hollywood is lovingly portrayed in the movie. The period touches are all perfect in classic Coen style. The dark Hotel Earle (why does desk clerk Steve Buscemi--Chet!--emerge from a trap door in the floor behind the desk?) contrasts perfectly with the brilliantly and unrelentingly bright Southern California sunshine (that brought the movies to Hollywood in the first place). The studio characters are dead on perfect: the vulgar self-made studio head, his sycophantic assistant, the venal and two-faced producer, the soused older writer who cashed in like Fink and is now a tragically wasted drunk. The interplay between these characters is also captured in perfect scenes of high-speed movie vocabulary straight from Variety's stylebook, false humility and camaraderie, sudden petulant anger, and language that never says exactly what it means.

Through it all Barton moves in his self-absorbed funk, failing to hear between the lines at the studio and failing to take the offers for help that Charlie throws directly at him back at the Earle. We've all known people like him--so self-absorbed yet so unaware of self that they have no idea of who they really are, and of how others see them. He is at the end a pathetic but unsympathetic character, which makes this a harder movie to like.

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About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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A darkly comic ride, this intense and original 1991 offering from the Coen brothers (Fargo,Blood Simple) gleefully attacks the Hollywood system and those who seek to sell out to it, portraying the writer's suffering as a loony vision of hell. John Turturro (Miller's Crossing,Jungle Fever) plays the title character, a pretentious left-wing writer from New York City who is brought to 1930s Hollywood to write a script for a wrestling movie for palooka actor Wallace Beery. Fink thinks the job is beneath him, but his desire for acceptance gets the better of him, and he suddenly finds himself holed up in a fleabag hotel in Los Angeles, where he is almost immediately afflicted with writer's block. Various distractions begin to enter his life, first in the form of a famous southern writer (John Mahoney) whom Fink idolizes, and then his neighbor in the hotel, a seemingly amiable salesman played by John Goodman (Sea of Love,Raising Arizona). The writer turns out to be a self-loathing drunk whose secretary (Judy Davis) is the one actually doing the writing. And the neighbor, the working-class hero who Fink made his reputation writing about, may have a horrifying secret of his own. Equal parts social commentary and hilarious farce, and winner of the Best Picture, Actor, and Director prizes at the Cannes Film Festival,Barton Finkis a visionary and original comic masterpiece not to be missed.--Robert Lane
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"Learn to listen"
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