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Friday, July 18, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 23 - Barton Fink (1991)

Director: Joel Coen

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman

The fourth film from the acclaimed Coen Brothers is a masterfully-complex, harrowing, slow burn (literally) of a black comedy.  The movie centers on the titular upstart playwright who is commissioned to write a screenplay for a B-grade Hollywood picture.  Despite being somewhat uncomfortable with the proposition, he travels from New York to Hollywood and checks into a dreary hotel.  The room is hot, dank, grim and he is unable to sleep due to the endless racket from his neighboring tenants.  As he struggles to even begin writing an outline, Fink is befriended by his neighbor Charlie, a noisy but friendly man whom he takes an immediately liking to.  As he continues to overcome the crippling frustration of writers’ block, Fink runs into conflict with an agent and a producer as well as a writer he looks up to, who is constantly protected by his seemingly-imprisoned wife.  Things eventually go haywire, however, as a shocking series of events unravels Finks idea of what Hollywood really is.

As the movie goes on, the film seems somewhat disjointed, and this is the problem I have with Barton Fink: It is damn hard to write about.  Anyone can write a short synopsis, but the film is a very detailed and intricate series of visual ideas and queues and, probably most essential, sounds.  Every sound in the movie reflects an image shown then or in a different scene, and much of it is so subtle as to be subconscious, as the sounds we hear trigger memories of moments we may or may not even really remember.  Every sound in the film helps paint a picture and while this is always the case with movies, Barton Fink’s sound, mixed with its eerie production design (the sets, setting, scene layout, ect.) create a moody tone that is intensified by the very dark contrast and saturation used in the hotel scenes.

One thing that makes this one difficult to really summarize is it is hard for me to really convey the plot without spoiling anything.  I used the word “disjointed”, and I mean that as a positive.  Barton Fink arrives in Hollywood an outsider.  He is intimidated by seemingly everyone, from the fast-talking, energetic Bellhop named “Chet!”, to the imposing figures of the film industry, who have sudden bipolar changes from excitement to anger in what seems like a single, jarring second.  We explore this strange world through Fink’s own experiences, and everything seems insurmountable.  Therefore, the events that dominate the third act of the film cannot be truly discussed without ruining the movie.  It would be like visiting a fortune teller to find out every detail of your next day.  Nothing would be a surprise.

Barton Fink is a “put yourself in his shoes” sort of film and that can only work if the direction and acting is just right.  The Coen Brothers have a long history of masterful films, from the chilling Blood Simple, to the cult classic The Big Lebowski, to the tense and powerful No Country For Old Men.  So, even though I only listed a few of their titles, it is easy to see why these two filmmakers are considered to some of the best (of not the best) filmmakers of their generation.  In their more-than-capable hands, John Turturro gives one of his best performances in his storied career.  He is an actor who dominated in some of the best films of the 90’s, but has, in recent years, fallen victim to dreadful blockbusters and moronic comedies, which has caused somewhat of a slump, despite steady work.  John Goodman, like Turturro, has a strong career spanning the last twenty-five years or so.  Starting in the 80’s as a bit and character actor before moving on to the super-hit TV series Roseanne (which lasted nearly a decade, a lifetime in sitcom-years).  Goodman became a household name by the early 90’s and during his time on the Award-winning show, he appeared in number of successes, and some of his performances stand out significantly, in-particular those he did with the Brothers Coen.  These are just three people involved in this complex movie which also features supporting performances from the likes of character actor Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, Steven Buscemi and Tony Shalhoub, just to name a few.  Ultimately, Barton Fink has the names, the brains, and the mood that makes for one hell of a climax.  If you have not see this movie, do yourself a favor: Watch it.

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