Barton Fink

“He’s poor, this wrestler! He’s had struggle!”

It used to be that August was a time for studios to release a bunch of movies they thought were bad or didn’t have high expectations for. You know, they release ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and T2 early in the summer, hoping young people and families will go repeatedly throughout the summer. Once it gets closer to school starting up again there’s less chance for that, so that’s why in the year in question we were seeing weird rooster cartoons and weird dog cartoons and weird dog live action movies and weird Mickey Rourke movies.

Many things in the world of pop culture were shifting that month. While on the Lollapalooza tour, long-time goth fixtures Siouxsie and the Banshees actually actually made it onto the Billboard charts for “Kiss Them For Me.” (By the next summer they’d have a song in a Batman movie.) Pearl Jam released their first album. LaKeith Stanfield was born. But also Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do” love theme from ROBIN HOOD was still the #1 song!

This particular August ended with kind of a whimper – CHILD’S PLAY 3 (still the weakest Chucky movie four sequels later) was released on the 30th. But I thought I should end this review series on the August 21, 1991 release that happens to be one of the weirdest but also best regarded movies of the season. If I had to compare it to another ’91 movie I’d have to say it reminds me most of THE DARK BACKWARD, of all things. Well, and I case some fire stunts reminded me of BACKDRAFT. But those are stretches. This one stands alone.

BARTON FINK is the fourth movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, and their first truly weird and confounding one. BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA and MILLER’S CROSSING were all unique and unorthodox in ways, but they were very much about entertaining the audience. BARTON FINK was written in three weeks while they were stuck writing MILLER’S CROSSING, so it’s kind of a fever dream about writer’s block and the pressures of being a young idealist trying to make it in Hollywood without selling out or losing your mind. And although I always loved it it’s sort of a preview of this decade’s Coen movies that often leave me thinking, “I liked that, but I’m not totally sure what it was.”

It begins as a Hollywood satire. We meet New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro, last seen in JUNGLE FEVER) much as we do Ed Wood in ED WOOD – standing backstage intently listening to actors perform his dialogue. But his play goes over so well it seems to make him uncomfortable, and his agent (David Warrilow, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY) convinces him to take an offer from Capitol Pictures in Hollywood to come for a few months and write what turns out to be a “wrestling picture” for Wallace Beery.

Every scene with Barton talking to studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner, MANIAC COP 2), his underling Lou Breeze (Jon Polito, REMO WILLIAMS, HIGHLANDER, THE ROCKETEER) or producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub, QUICK CHANGE) is very funny in uniquely Coen ways. Barton is way out of his element, doesn’t have even the most remote idea how to write a movie or how to fake that he does, and is completely bowled over by these fast-talking blowhards who never notice that he barely says anything in their “conversations.” They still come out with strong impressions about him: Lipnick thinks he’s such a genius he literally kisses his feet on behalf of the studio, and Geisler is always angry at him because Lipnick giving a shit about the project means he has to do his job.

But one thing I’ve always loved is that Barton is about as bad as they are. He’s more relatable than them, but he’s so full of shit – a guy who never stops talking up his loyalty to “the common man,” yet I notice him not tipping or even saying “thank you” to the ridiculously helpful bellboy Chet (Steve Buscemi, MYSTERY TRAIN) or elevator operator Pete (Harry Bugin, THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN). And just wait until he actually has to talk to “the common man” in a non-customer-service situation.

That happens in the weirder and actually creepy half of the story about his life staying indefinitely in the Hotel Earle, staring at or revising the couple of lines he has of his so-called screenplay. It has “that Barton Fink feel” Lipnick wants because it’s at a tenement building and uses his beloved word “fishmonger.”

The hotel becomes a horrific manifestation of his failure to come up with anything – he stares at the texture of the walls, the designs of the wallpaper. It gets so hot the paper is constantly peeling off, oozing slimy melted glue as if it’s pus. Over the course of the movie it seems to me to turn more and more flesh-like. He’s frequently distracted by the sound of mosquitos (which Geisler tells him do not live in “Los Ang-guh-liss”, but they sure do manage to bite his face there) and by the mysterious sounds he hears through the walls. Is that bawling, or hysterical laughing? Or both?

His introduction to next door neighbor Charlie (John Goodman, C.H.U.D.) is great: Barton calls Chet to complain about noise, then listens nervously to the knock on Charlie’s door, a short, muffled conversation, then heavy footsteps walking right to his door to pound on it. He confronts him and then talks his way into the room to drink whisky. Charlie, who says he’s an insurance salesman, constantly teeters between threatening presence and overly enthusiastic pal. Barton is both terrified of and fascinated by him as a specimen of the working class he claims to speak for and to. But the sincerity of the fixation is summed up well by the clueless ways he talks to him, particularly in the scene where he gets hyped up about his theatrical movement and Charlie keeps saying, “I could tell you stories—“ but Barton will cut him off with “I bet you could!” and never seems to even consider listening to them. “Don’t call it New Theater, Charlie. Call it Real Theater. Call it Our Theater.”

The other major thread involves Barton’s attempts to receive guidance from W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, CODE OF SILENCE), a legendary novelist on contract with the studio while he drinks himself to death. Barton recognizes him puking in the restroom toilet because he spots the initials on the handkerchief he daintily places under his knees. They have one pretty good talk and the other times they see each other Mayhew is drunk out of his mind singing songs or yelling and smashing things off camera.

Instead Barton ends up talking to Mayhew’s constantly apologizing secretary Audrey (Judy Davis, HIGH ROLLING IN A HOT CORVETTE), and he asks her out before realizing she’s also Mayhew’s lover. When Barton hits his deadline with nothing written he calls her and begs her for help writing a treatment. But Mr. Nice Guy Barton Fink flies into a rage at her because while explaining the formula of the “wrestling picture” genre she says she’s helped her boss with this kind of thing all the time – words of assurance that destroy his illusions of the great author W.P. Mayhew. “Well, Bill was always the author,” she tries to claim. “So to speak.”

Of course Barton could see this as good fortune, because the writer of the works he thought were so brilliant is available to mentor him after all. But maybe it’s the image of the genius man of letters he cares about, not the actual stuff that was written. He doesn’t want to learn from her, he just wants to fuck her. (Which does turn out to interest her.)

I’m sure you know the movie turns into kind of a horror-thriller, with a gruesome murder (SPOILER: it’s Audrey), body disposal, a maniac rampaging in a nightmarish inferno (SPOILER: it’s Charlie in the hotel). Many writings discuss the camera move from the sex scene into the bathroom and down the sink into the pipes as a sex metaphor, like the ol’ train going into the tunnel. Sure, but it’s also a plot point. We hear the sounds of their moans echoing through the pipes because earlier Charlie said, “Seems like I hear everything that goes on in this dump. Pipes or somethin’.” And after the death of Audrey, when he’s pretending not to know what happened, he asks, “Did you… Barton, between you and me, did you have sexual intercourse?” He knows he did, because he heard them through the pipes and came over and killed her while Barton was asleep.

The two cops who suspect Barton, Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow, MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney, THE LAST DRAGON), are as funny as the Hollywood guys – total assholes, and not in a cool LETHAL WEAPON way. (But anti-Semitic.) An example of the Coens’ mastery of complex tones is that it doesn’t really lighten things to have the cops use Coen-speak while pointing guns at the killer: “Put the policy case down and your mitts in the air!” one of them yells during a tense moment.

The movie famously ends with Barton sitting on a beach with a woman seemingly prophesized in a photo on the wall of his hotel room, toting a box wrapped in creepy wrinkled paper that we assume contains one or more human heads. It’s great that a movie can end on such dark and puzzling notes but still leave me smiling about so much perfect dialogue, stuff that you can’t imagine anyone else writing. Lipnick, having not read or seen anything of Barton’s, raving “They tell me you know the poetry of the streets!,” or laying into Lou for telling Barton he better stop fucking around and write something: “This man creates for a living! Thank him for it, you sonofabitch, or you’re fired!” Or Barton thinking Charlie will have sympathy for his struggle when he says, “I gotta tell ya, the life of the mind, there’s no road map for that territory.” Charlie remembers that phrase much later and yells “I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!” over and over while chasing Barton.

I suppose we shouldn’t have sympathy for Charlie, because fuck that guy, but he definitely has Barton’s number when he says, “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton, I live here, don’t you understand that?”

As with many/most/all Coen Brothers movies, there’s a ton going on here and it’s anyone’s guess which of it drove them to make the movie. People tend to read all kinds of things into their work that they claim in interviews to not have considered. So it’s hard to say definitively what each movie is “about.” Obviously BARTON FINK is “about writer’s block,” because it vividly portrays a struggle to write late at night. This is not something I relate to – if I don’t know what to write I can usually write something else, or procrastinate until I think of something. So I focus more on Barton’s highfalutin way of talking about his currently non-existent work. I used to take it as a parody of a certain type of pretentious asshole, but now I wonder if it’s a little more self-deprecating. We’re some critically acclaimed smarty-pants indie dorks making movies in Hollywood now, trying to maintain our integrity, maybe we’re full of shit, don’t mind us.

They’re such an anomaly – they have maintained such a pure vision, with only a couple quickly forgiven failures, and as directors have never publicly had to go to war with producers or studios. I don’t think they’ve ever really dealt with studio bullshit like Barton does. In a case like that it’s probly easier to laugh at yourselves. But they deserve that easy laugh.

I’ve read that many aspects of Barton (but not his personality) are based on the playwright Clifford Odets. I don’t know much about theater so I thought he was based on MC Serch from 3rd Bass. Mayhew is of course somewhat inspired by William Faulkner, being a dapper southern writer and hard drinker who later worked in the studio system and wasn’t proud of it. I always thought “wrestling picture” was a fake old-timey genre invented by the Coens, but they actually got the idea when they read that Faulkner had been a script doctor for FLESH, a 1932 drama directed by John Ford (who disowned it) and starring Wallace Beery as a German wrestler named Polakai.

(I would love to be able to say that I watched FLESH and SLAVE SHIP [the 1937 Faulkner-Beery joint that Mayhew is working on, according to the sign on his bungalow] as research here, but I didn’t have time. I hope you know it doesn’t mean I didn’t want to.)

BARTON FINK was nominated for three Oscars: supporting actor (Michael Lerner), art direction and costume design. Goodman was nominated for supporting actor at the Golden Globes. And before release it had already won the Palme d’Or, best director and best actor at Cannes. It still only made $6 million at the box office ($3 million less than its budget). But why would you think it would make a bunch of money? And why would you give a shit? Somehow the Coens didn’t lose a step and have continued to make movies of varying degrees of weirdness. A couple decades later they even talked about doing a sequel called OLD FINK. “It’s the summer of love and he’s teaching at Berkeley. He ratted on alot of his friends to the House Un-American Activities committee,” Joel told MTV.

Maybe they were joking, or maybe they decided against it, but I don’t think a lack of interest in the FINK franchise i.p. property was a consideration. They could do it if they wanted to. And that’s how it would be in an ideal world – great directors (or all directors) would make movies about whatever fascinates or amuses them, regardless of what they think would make money.

That’s the cinema I want. Don’t call it real cinema. Call it our cinema.


Barry Sonnenfeld, who had been d.p. for the first three Coen films, was busy directing his first film THE ADDAMS FAMILY, so the Coens found some other dude named Roger Deakins. He went on to do 11 more movies with them.

The Coens are the type of filmmakers that like to bring back the same actors over and over again, so that happened with much of this cast. Tony Shalhoub (Ben Geisler)’s three previous film roles were as “Airplane Passenger,” “Paul’s Doctor” and “Taxicab Driver,” so this was a big step up for him followed quickly by more characters with actual names in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS and ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES and eventually he became well known in film and television. He reunited with the Coens to play the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider in what I consider their most underrated movie, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. But mostly he’s known for voicing Master Splinter in the 2014 TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and its sequel.

Steve Buscemi (Chet) first worked with the Coens on MILLER’S CROSSING, and returned for THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but it was inarguably RESERVOIR DOGS (the year after BARTON FINK) that made him blew him up and got him roles such as “Neil Fleming” in FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN.

The Coens had cast Jon Polito (Lou Breeze) in MILLER’S CROSSING after seeing him in a production of Death of a Salesman. He turned them down until they let him take a different role than the one they had him in mind for. After BARTON FINK he was also in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, THE BIG LEBOWSKI and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, tying him with Frances McDormand as the actor in the most Coen movies.

John Goodman (Charlie) had been one of Hi’s escaped convict friends in RAISING ARIZONA, and the Coens wrote this character for him. Since then they’ve used him in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.

John Turturro had also been in MILLER’S CROSSING for the Coens, and the lead role was written specifically for him. He was later in THE BIG LEBOWSKI and O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, but he is best known for playing The Rat King in THE NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY 3D and getting pissed on by Transformers. This is still one of the few movies where he’s in every scene.

Judy Davis (Audrey) has not been in another Coen Brothers movie, but she has been in a Clint Eastwood one (ABSOLUTE POWER) and has played Judy Garland, Nancy Reagan and Hedda Hopper on TV. Strangely she was in NAKED LUNCH the same year as BARTON FINK, playing another woman doomed to be killed while hanging out with a weirdo typewriter jockey.

The Coen Brothers are best known for causing Bill Murray to erroneously sign on to star in GARFIELD when he confused Joel Coen with Joel Cohen (possibly apocryphal).

note: I’ll have some S91: JUDGMENT SUMMER closing remarks tomorrow


This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 31st, 2021 at 7:07 am and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs, Drama, I don't know, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Barton Fink”

  1. Great review, I love this movie.

    Just heard Bill Murray himself confirm that Garfield story on a podcast, so I’d say it’s legit!

  2. I was so excited for this when it came out because I’d seen Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona and those were two of the best movies I’d ever seen (still are). Then I went to see this thing. I liked Goodman’s inferno, and the scene where Michael Lerner in the beginning is sitting at his desk and he shouts “IS THAT BERTON FINK?”

    Other than that this movie is just like looking at an empty plate. It became a thing for me that with Coen Brothers Movies, I either 100% love them (most of them) or I 100% do not like them (Barton Fink, Fargo, Man Who Wasn’t There)

  3. “characters with actual names in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS and ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES ”
    Sadly Shaloub’s role in ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES ended up mostly on the cutting room floor, to the point where you only see him in the corner of the screen in one scene. (He is one of the sailors who parties with Debby at the bar) Also Turturro played his brother in a few episodes of MONK and even won an Emmy for his first appearance on the show.

    I love this movie and I think it’s been for me THE Coen joint. There are others that I rewatch more often, but it blows my mind every time how entertaining it is despite its slow pace. First time I saw it was when I recorded it off TV, when one of our public broadcasters aired it late at night (Which was in the 90s the best time to record great movies, from small indies to real classics. It was also the only time I ever saw THE SEARCH FOR ONE-EYE JIMMY!)

    Anyway, the main problem was that I was 15 or 16 and outside of my best friend, nobody shared the love for this movie with me. Sure, many of the layers went over our head, but we loved how “weird”, in lack of a better word, it was. It was different than anything we had seen up until that point. (We were just broadening our movie knowledge at that time.) Sadly every time I borrowed someone else the tape, they told me either they thought it sucked, or even that they never finished it.

    And if you think about it, it’s both the best and the worst possible introduction to the Coens. At one hand it shows you what you can expect from them, but it’s pretty much everything they did in one movie (Drama, comedy, satire, golden age Hollywood homage, thriller, all wrapped in a very artsy package) and it can get very overwhelming if you aren’t used to that.

  4. That GARFIELD story is obvious horseshit. Funny, but horseshit. He did a second one! It only has such traction because people have such big Murray love goggles and don’t want to accept he does stuff like make low effort movies for money or throw producers in the river. I loved GROUNDHOG DAY like everyone else guys, and I get you see more in his beardy grump indie phase than I do, but he’s human like the rest of us I’m afraid.

    I remember enjoying BARTON FINK quite a bit when I saw it almost 20 years ago.

  5. I thought it was Etan Coen/Ethan Coen, not Joel Cohen/Joel Coen, but yeah as Pacman says it sounds like bullshit. Why can’t actors simply admit “it was a lot of money for an easy job, and I like buying and owning expensive things?” It’s like David Cross claiming he did the Chipmunks movies because his poor mother needed a house.
    Anyway, BARTON FINK is one of the few Coen Brothers movies I never managed to get into, but after reading Vern’s review I definitely want to give it another try!

  6. I have to admit BARTON FINK went right over my head when I saw it in theaters – I had loved, loved, loved MILLER’S CROSSING and this left turn into very different territory lost me in the dust at the time. But this review really makes me feel like I have to revisit it.

    My all-time favorite Coen joint is an unpopular choice, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. I’ve seen some lists that call this the Coens’ low point, but somehow their version of classic screwball comedy just hits all the right notes for me – the fast pace, snappy dialogue, Clooney tearing 110% into his role as a super-successful, super-worldly smoothie who completely disintegrates into a hapless, babbling klutz under the influence of infatuation… I could watch it on an endless loop.

    And CJ, even though this particular movie didn’t hit me the same way, I can totally relate. My movie that I ran around showing on VHS to everyone I could, baffling and alienating them all? VAMPIRES KISS a few years before this.

  7. Vern, trust you to review this right after I watched The Nutcracker in 3D.
    Now THAT film was nightmare fuel!
    Turturro has made some interesting career choices…but we love him anyway. Quite sure he has the Coens to thank for a lot of that.

  8. Turturro has one of my all-time favorite movie moments in a Coens movie. It’s just not this one. It’s from O BROTHER. It’s both how Nelson delivers the line and how Turturro reacts to it – “We thought you was a toad.” The repetition of it kills me.

  9. At the time, I thought this was their best yet, but now I don’t think it stands up against their three priors, in particular MILLER’S CROSSING. I still like it, and I imagine we’ve all seen enough sophomoric indie movies to recognise the urge to run up and down a burning corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” while brandishing a shotgun, but now it all feels a little too much like they are having their cake and eating it. Laughing at us, not with us.

    “But why would you think it would make a bunch of money? And why would you give a shit?”

    Sorry, Vern, I kinda do care. This was their second financial flop in a row, after MILLER’S CROSSING, and they’d follow it up with a bigger flop and their first critical stumble, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, which I still really love, not hitting big again until FARGO. So how do they maintain momentum? I’d like to know so we can tell all those folks we love who get their toys taken away from them after a couple of commercial failures. Is it that even when they flopped the critics still loved them? Is it that these movies are relatively cheap by modern standards and backers like to be associated with class? Is it that actors love the writing and keep showing up, thinking they might be the next Javier Bardem in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN? Seriously, how are they so bulletproof? I think we should be told.

  10. I both liked and disliked Barton Fink for what I thought it basically was, which was Joel and Ethan Coen’s attempt at a Twilight Zone episode.

    I liked it because it was a really good/funny Twilight Zone episode. Disliked it because stretching a 45-minutes episode into a feature led to a somewhat glacial watch.

  11. An excellent choice for the close of this summer. I was secretly hoping for Slacker (although that was earlier in the summer but i dont think i missed that one) or Childs Play 3 solely for “Don’t FUCK with the CHUCK!” which I don’t know if its actually in the film.

    I saw this in theaters with my friends whom I’d been discovering weird edgy arty teen things at the time. (Apocalypse Now, Pink Floyd, Clockwork Orange, Led Zeppelin, The Doors etc) We tried the first night it opened at my local but there was a fire in the projection booth, so we had to see something called Late For Dinner (which we knew was from the guy who made Buckaroo Banzai). Went back the next week, where they had the preview for Naked Lunch! We said we liked it because it was weird and not mainstream, but never really got it.

    I don’t think I’ve seen it in it’s entirety since, despite picking up the Kino Lorber disc a few years back. I thunk it’s time to remedy that. Maybe most of my Coen collection aside from Lebowski.

    Thanks for these reviews, Vern!

  12. and they’d follow it up with a bigger flop and their first critical stumble, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, which I still really love

    There’s a very well-kept secret about that. It’s that The Hudsucker Proxy is really good. Within it holds the key to the Coens, and by extension, Raimi. Intellectually, they’re hep-cat wise-asses. But at their core, they’re old-fashioned, mid-west, cornballs.

  13. That sounds about right to me, jojo. If the secret of success truly is the ability to fake sincerity, then my take is that the Coen’s success is based on exactly the opposite: the ability to fake insincerity.

  14. When I was fifteen, this was my favorite movie of all time.

    My tastes have changed greatly, but I still see those early Coen movies as pointing me in the direction of things I would later enjoy, the sort of art that would come to define so much of my life. Later-Millennial/Gen-Z Kids who are into the 20s and 30s and shit have it much easier than I did in terms of learning about the “old America”, a time in history all but wiped from the 1990s version of popular consciousness.

    A person involved in filmmaking who I was too enthusiastic about (who is even more “old-timey” in interests than myself) once made a very passive-aggressive tweet about not liking The Coen Brothers and disrespecting people who do as a way of insulting myself, which was so fucked up and mean. Gateway art is important and annoying people do not need to be insulted.

    There are bands I used to be really into where I can recognize, well, as an adult I think that group is kinda crappy but I can understand what I was trying to find in art. The Coens are kinda that way to me. I don’t like They Might Be Giants anymore either, but I’m not going to be mad at fifteen year old me for liking something I now find to be varying degrees of corny, hollow and annoying.

    I do find things to be greatly disturbing about The Coens, though, in that I feel doubtlessly sure that they knew about Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein – and it is also doubtlessly sure that they did not do jack shit about it. “What can you do?” is a shitty attitude to have, and this from people who made a movie that is so notably mocking of nihilism, to the point where the film’s characters all agree that nihilism is absurdly stupid and embarrassing. Not caring about Weinstein or Rudin is the ultimate in nihilism. They could have made microbudget movies as soon as they found out what pieces of shit those guys were. Producers are not worth it.

    “Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland?” in Ethan’s book of short stories is not a sufficient attempt at social justice.

    The Movies are generally bogus, and I say the word bogus with pure hate and judgement.

    I can understand why Ethan Coen is retiring. I would be ashamed too.

    However, anybody who could put up with Real Life Jon Polito is a certain kind of A+ in my book. Morality is real, but it is worth recognizing that the world is complicated. It does not overlook the greater issue, of course, but they have obviously done good in the world for other creative people, much as I loathe the way Prestige Filmmakers were used as a bulletproof vest for scumbags for so many decades.

    It was refreshing to read a review of this movie that manages to bypass the topic of Roman Polanski’s work and immoral hideousness entirely. To me, the Polanski aspects of this movie are the least notable of the many “shout outs” the Coens tend to give to The Movies all the fuckin’ day, 24/7, in their many decades of “Weird Al” style-parody movies. Every time they turn the Polanski Celebration down, BARTON FINK is suddenly a much better movie. I wish The Coens had made this film a little later in their career, at a time in which they were less devoted to being a tribute band, to Inexcusable Sex Criminal Monsters Who Should Have Been Verboten Back In The 90s or otherwise.

    Ben Affleck memes and Wes Anderson worship elicit the same result in myself, and I used to be a fan of those guys. This SJ concern is not soley directed at the Coens.

    I used to have a fuckin’ poster of the shit in my room when I was a kid, so keep that in mind when I say this: HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is real satire. It has something to say. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is a bunch of try hard college boys playin’ games with a big smile on their face, and has some annoying-ass Bagger Vance shit going on too. Fuck that.

    If we’re gonna call Segal out on his bullshit, we need to take the same critical look at people who are smart enough to obfuscate their immorality, as if that were justification.

    Hypocrite that I am, I still enjoy Sam Raimi movies, which makes this Coen Hate much more difficult to admit to. At times, I feel like it is all the same diff.

    The best Coen Brothers movie is CRIMEWAVE. To me, it feels like a more honest version of FARGO.

    Clifford Odets is the greatest. It took an interest in Stella Adler and Alex Chilton to get me to read him, but when I finally did, wow.

    For those of you that do not fux with falling-apart Dramatist’s Play Service volumes, I would strongly recommend the Aldrich adaptation of Odets’ “The Big Knife” and Mamoulian’s version of “The Golden Boy”. They are remarkable works of intensity, literature-as-noir-as-social-commentary, very undervalued and of great importance and influence. I file them mentally along with Robson’s Kirk-Douglas-starring adaption of Ring Lardner’s “Champion” in terms of their gritty, greatly unnerving, truthful misery.

    Here is an amazing excerpt from a piece about Alex Chilton that speaks of THE BIG KNIFE – maybe this will win Odets some new fans out there.

    My last (and favorite) big encounter with Alex happened late that summer. Bud (and Zoo) had just enjoyed a surprising hit with Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album, a record that owed a huge debt to Big Star. Bud just knew it was time for Alex to make a Big Star-style record for Zoo and finally get the recognition he’d always deserved.

    Since he knew I got along with Alex, Bud drafted me to come to New Orleans with him to make the pitch. We arrived in town and Alex took us out for the evening to some of the city’s less prestigious drinking establishments. It was miserably hot in that oppressive south Louisiana way where you sweat out a beer by the time you’ve finished drinking it.

    The next day, we went to Alex’s house for the Big Meeting. He was incredibly gracious and polite and ready to talk. Bud really had it together. He knew exactly why NOW was the time to make the classic Alex Chilton record at Ardent and Zoo would pay a handsome advance and he’d finally get played on the radio. Alex listened, smiled and nodded in assent.

    But, at some point in the conversation, he said, “Hey, do you mind if I put on this movie while we talk?” and shoved a tape into his VCR.

    On came The Big Knife, a 1955 Robert Aldrich film based on a Clifford Odets play that starred Jack Palance and Rod Steiger. Palance plays a matinee idol desperate to get out of his film contract but Steiger is the evil studio boss who knows Palance’s dirty secret and uses it to crush his ambition to make more artistic films.

    As Bud talked, I started to sort the plot and get the message. Alex just kept smiling and said it was all very interesting and that he’d think about it.

    Once we got back to the hotel, Bud was amped. “That went great!” he said. “I think Alex is going to finally do it.”

    I was laughing so hard I choked. “Bud, didn’t you notice the movie? He gave us his answer already. You’ll never hear from him on this again.”

    That was the Alex I knew: ornery, hard-headed and brilliantly passive-aggressive.

  15. Though overposting sux, I would like to thank you all for allowing me the grace of cultural criticism, in that nobody got mad at prior comment in this thread. I can be a bit much sometimes and I clearly do not have many venues for expressing myself. Also, I genuinely felt bad for how um, disagreeable I was being in these parts earlier this summer. Even if it was in a silent allowance, I appreciate you all kindly giving me a place for occasional expression. Though it was all very sincere, I think there were moments yesterday where I was bordering on being didactic, and that also equates to that I was being unreadable.

    Being unreadable is so shitty, and Anti-Vern.

    Should there be any current members of The People’s BARTON FINK Appreciation Society or whatever, I would like to recommend a greatly similar – and far superior – work of art. That would be The Third Funniest Fuckin’ Book of All Time, The Pat Hobby Stories by “Fancy” Scott Fitzgerald. Written in the last year of his life, Pat Hobby is an honest, unpretentious and articulate self-parody of Fitzgerald during the years in which he put himself through the ringer of Hollywood Hackery in order to pay for his many debts, most seriously Zelda’s hospitalization and his daughter’s schooling. (Anybody remember when Homer told Lisa “I’ve had just about enough of your Vassar bashing, young lady!”? Well, that was some Harvard bozo’s shout out to Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to Scottie. You know what would have been some funny shit, BTW, if Homer Simpson’s daughter was named Homerina.) 

    Part of what I tried to say in the above is that I don’t get The Coens satirizing Odets so mercilessly. Though I see it as a greater reflection of what I feel are their many works that – historically – are most notable for being Monster Enablers, I do understand that this kind of “distanced”, “superior” and “mocking” viewpoint is very young, and also, very “upper class”. I was being extremely harsh on this film in order to make a greater point about an issue that goes beyond any one film (or even any filmmaker), though that point aside I am still very critical of BARTON FINK.

    Keep in mind, it is probably one of the five movies I have watched the most times. No matter if I like it or not, it set me on a path.

    Odets was a rat during the HUAC era, which is, of course, deeply criticizable. However, the idea of OLD FINK – hilarious as it was to me at age fourteen – now strikes me as a thought of utter sanctimoniousness. I genuinely feel that not doing shit about The Weinsteins and Scott Rudin is way, way worse than publicly being an asshole in front of a committee of the House of Representatives, and is deserving of a serious disgrace. (Also, fuck the Coens for dissing Berkley like that. It’s a good school and only some Hollywood Hotshits would think of it as being the location of a “fall from grace”. After enabling The Weinsteins and Scott Rudin, the Coens should not even be allowed to clean tables in the Berkeley dining hall.)

    Odets did not have the luxury of hiding from his mistakes of judgement, or character. He certainly was not given Academy Awards for the utter bullshit he enabled.

    The Pat Hobby Stories are a masterwork because they are completely direct in their author’s burlesque of self-aware self-criticism. They are so wonderfully effective because Scott finally found the way to make jokes about what was wrong with himself, after spending so much of his later years considering and articulating his failures and mistakes through the lens of tragedy, in both his art and his life. (See: Tender is the Night and the many wonderful books of Fitzgerald’s letters.)

    For all their self-directed harshness, The Pat Hobby Stories are also truly life-affirming for the way in which they serve as a tribute to his dear (and departed) friend, the great Ring W. Lardner.

    For those of you that could give a fuck about a book, I have only ever seen ONE good adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s work, and that is the wonderful TV movie Tales from the Hollywood Hills: Pat Hobby Teamed with Genius. This gets my highest recommendation: it is “a good-ass movie”. 

    TFTHH: PHTWG stars Christopher Lloyd as Pat Hobby, the drunken screenwriter and Dennis Franz as Louie, the studio bookie. That one sentence should be enough to get you to watch it right there.

    Interestingly, it aired on PBS an entire four years before the world was given BARTON FINK, and has many qualities in common with that film. I don’t doubt the Coens watched PBS. It also “mashes up” several Pat Hobbys in the way that BARTON FINK mashes up real people.

    I greatly prefer the Pat Hobby TV movie to BARTON FINK at this point in my life. It’s quieter, has far more to say about the working artist’s bluff and the ridiculous strain of writer’s block and, most importantly, has enough of the proverbial “stones” to admit to being an adapted work. 


    Well, I can tell you how much they gave to Dave Van Ronk – exactly one song’s worth of performance royalties, which are structurally always something lesser than what gets paid out for songwriter’s royalties. Meaning: Van Ronk’s people were given the same amount of money that Mumford and Sons made from the shit. The Coens had many years of Alive Dave Van Ronk in which they could have paid him a more proper tribute. Something’s not quite right with that.

    Also, there is a kinda cool Young Indy quality to the Hobby TV movie, what with the weirdly-convincing backlot sets, enjoyable form of cultural education and the general ease of pace. This seems like it was kind of an implied joke on the Coens’ part, but do you know what a funnier idea for a movie title than OLD FINK is? You guessed it – .

    Here is the Pat Hobby TV movie, with a title that hilariously skews to the world’s “Colin Firth as Bobby Sherman” contingency, as if there could be no other form of interest in a Fitzgerald adaptation.

    Very Young and Cute Colin Firth Playing an Arrogant Genius Writer :)

    A very young, funny and lovely Colin Firth playing an arrogant, smug, eccentric playwright (Rene Wilcox) in the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Tales fr...

    In the book itself, Hobby is described as being much, much uglier than Lloyd. In this case, “Zemecikis’ DeNiro” is an idealized leading man if there ever was one.

    Here’s a drawing I did of one of my favorites Hobbys, Pat Hobby and Orson Welles.

    The true hero of the HUAC events was the great Ring Lardner Jr, who many of you know from his writing the awesome movie M*A*S*H, but who is a moral and talented person greatly deserving of a wider attention and respect than that. Because I don’t have the time to establish the reasons he deserves such historical appreciation, let me share what many consider to be his defining moment – something that kinda establishes what I value the most in people (and expression), for purposes of comparison to Odets, the fictional Barton or the actual Coens:

    Passionately committed to left-wing politics, Lardner became active in the Communist Party. After World War II, he was called to Congress with nine other screenwriters, producers, and directors, and refused, on constitutional grounds, to reveal his political affiliations. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they appeared before the HUAC, signaling the beginning of the blacklist, when anyone with even vaguely leftist leanings was prevented from working in the entertainment industry. 

    When the committee demanded an answer to the question “Are you now or have you been a member of the Communist Party?” Lardner gave the now famous reply: “I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.”

    After serving a one-year sentence in federal prison for the offense of contempt of Congress, Lardner finished a novel he had begun there. The book, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, was published in England first, then America. After that, he survived the blacklist by writing television films that were shot in England and sold to American networks with pseudonymous credits.

    http://www.outlawring.com, motherfuckers. He might as well have capped it off with “then fuck you, Jack”.

    It is more socially productive to celebrate the morality of Ring Lardner Jr. than it is to make (and profit) from a cruel parody of Odets’ flaws, a parody made from a mindset of superiority from which the filmmakers began a life of prestige that – for most of their working life – hinged on participating in a greater systematic negativity than that of naming names.

    For everything I’m saying, I’d still watch OLD FINK – mostly with the hope that there would be a serious level of self-criticism invested in it. It is the quality most lacking in the Coens’ work and an essential quality for any artist to have. People can grow, change and at the very least, attempt to attone. I believe The Coen Brothers could make a better work of art than some BARTON FINK AND CHARLIE REBOOT movie where John Turturro is surrounded by hippies or whatever, ha ha ha, see it is funny because he is a failure. My shiny Oscar sure is nice, huh Bro? Yeah man mine too, I love being a unified front.

    Fuck that.

    Now parodying Hemingway, on the other hand, that I am cool with. ()

    It is more important to be celebratory than it is to be critical. You know what movie I would really, really love to see? A movie that would follow in the great tradition of a work that resonates with me now more than ever? OLD DARKMAN.

    Old A.L.F.
    P.S. I love John Turtturo from the movies and everything, but was that THE JESUS ROLLS movie as gross as it looked like it?
    P.P.S. Ron Bennington: It’s funny that these little things that you don’t know are going to are the ones that stick to you.

    Dom Irrera: Well, Lebowski, they saw me at Caroline’s. The Coen Brothers saw me at Caroline’s. I got the script, and I never read a script – movie scripts are such a drag with all the directions. And I read the sides and I call my agent and I go, “It’s fucking brilliant! It’s genius!” He said, “You really think it’s funny?” I said, “Yes, because I wrote it! I wrote every line that’s in the sides – it’s a bit of mine. I did it on the Tonight Show already.” He goes “really? Let me call the casting director.” So he calls the casting director and the Coens said “We wrote it for him, it’s his bit.” Thank God I got the part. “You know, we don’t like the way that you do you.”

    P.P.P.S. Best Coen Brothers movies:
    3. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (“I’m gonna nail your ass!”)

  16. Also, I almost got through an entire post without a single HTML error. There was supposed to be a parenthetical saying “He deserves it!” with the link to the article about what an asshole Hemingway – and, admittedly, my man Scott – were to the great Sherwood Anderson.

  17. That’s a great drawing, A.L.F.!

  18. I don’t want to post excessively, but it would be even ruder of me not thank you, Skani. That’s nice of you to say, and it is not the first time you were kind about one of my potentially-isolating comments.

    That drawing is like five years old and I can draw much better than that now, it took a lot of weird measuring with a ruler to get the proportion of Welles’ face right. It is now impossible for me to watch Welles movies without an overawareness of his hairline, facial muscle structure, etc. Just call me the Maurice LaMarche of drawing.

    I appreciate your kindness.

  19. Thanks for sharing ALF.

    It’s interesting to me that you say old Americana was “all but wiped from the 1990s version of popular consciousness” and is more readily available now, because while it is undeniably more available because from where I’m standing the vast majority of “the kids” and even film critics seem to have very little interest in, at most, anything before 1984 or so, whereas the 90s seems to me the last decade where the flame still burned for “the golden age of Hollywood”; some critics might have carried the torch for the new Hollywood of the 70s a little moreso, but all seemed to agree that modern Hollywood had been suffering from a terminal case of the dumbs for quite some time leaving its best days behind it, and TV, VHS tapes and new fangled channels like TNT and TCM kept old films in the public consciousness. There may be some skewering here both personal (I was part-raised by people who were in their sixties/early seventies in the 90s, could remember going to the cinema in the first half of the century and had tomes like THE MGM STORY laying about) and regional (BBC in the 90s would do stuff like air Chaplin seasons aimed at general/family audiences) though.

    I remember a poster on another site saying they disliked the Coens for their “deep stroke of misanthropy”, which they noted was explained by their idolisation of Billy Wilder. That was never really how I read the Coens, and that was certainly never how I read Wilder, but it seems to be a school of thought,

  20. The Dotchomper Pacsy

    September 19th, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    I think I meant streak rather than stroke. I think?

  21. CHILD’S PLAY 3 isn’t the weakest CHILD’S PLAY movie. That spot is permanently reserved for BRIDE OF CHUCKY. Plus CHILD’S PLAY 3 is the only Justin Whalen role I’ve liked.

    Michael Lerner is awesome in BARTON FINK. That’s the role that made me a fan of him. SHOWMANSHIP!

    Not only does the ending imply there’s a head in the box, but also that Charlie took Barton up on his offer to visit his parents and he probably killed them too. The studio’s planned punishment of Barton pales in comparison to that. Also, I never understood that punishment. IIRC, he will always be employed at the studio, but nothing he writes will get made. It sounds like he still gets a nice paycheque though. He could just write any random thing since it won’t matter, then use the money to put on plays in his spare time.

    The director/murderer in the COLUMBO episode “Murder, Smoke and Shadows” is given the same punishment, which again doesn’t seem that bad (although, like Barton, he has bigger problems, like getting arrested for murder).

    He does look like MC Serch! Also Egon Spengler.

    Every so often I see something that mentions Jon Polito in HIGHLANDER and I can never remember him being in it. Looking it up, I see he was one of the cops. He doesn’t look like himself. I guess because he’s so thin and doesn’t have a mustache.

    I’d still like to see OLD FINK.

    CJ Holden: As much as I like BARTON FINK now, I don’t think I would have liked it when I was a teenager. Back then I was allergic to things that were deliberately old-fashioned. It took me an extra ten years to appreciate REN & STIMPY because of that. Except (synchronistically enough, for this thread) for the wrestling episode. The flying butt-pliers and Stimpy’s closing promo won me over and made me forgive the old-fashionedness of the wrestling.

    Ben C.: Similarly I can see why VAMPIRE’S KISS didn’t rock your friends’ world. Instead of the movie it looks like it’s going to be (yuppie vampires—that’s a good premise!) it turns out to be way cheaper and more depressing than that (abusive boss goes insane and thinks he’s a vampire, terrorises secretary). Some fun over-acting by Nicolas Cage but not an enjoyable experience.

    jojo: That’s exactly how I felt about M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS. It was a half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE stretched to two hours.

    A.L.F.: Christopher Lloyd is secretly very handsome. It’s usually hidden in the characters he played (Rev. Jim, older Doc, Captain Kruge…). There’s a Canadian pundit named Rex Murphy who looks like an ugly Christopher Lloyd, or as I used to say “if Christopher Lloyd were Nosferatu.” Google image search him and tell me if I’m not right.

    Pacman: I’d be pleasantly surprised if the Millennials/Zs were even interested in things made in the 1980s. In my experience they won’t watch anything made last century. It just comes down to when you were born I guess. My ideal zone is 1970s–1990s. Everyone else is entitled to the same preferences, adjusted for their birthdate.

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