I just saw Barton Fink (dir. Joel Coen, 1991) for the first time in roughly fourteen years, and while it isn’t the masterpiece that I remember it being—it struck me this time as too gimmicky, too arch—it’s in some ways a more interesting film about Hollywood, race, and paranoia than I remember.  I was really too young to pick up on these aspects of the film when I first saw it as a young teenager late at night on the FXM movie channel; I simply remember being dazzled and perplexed by the violence and absurdism of the film’s final half hour.  David Bax of Battleship Pretension has spoken of the similar effect that Barton Fink had on him as a budding film enthusiast.  For many of our generation, the Coen Brothers opened up a whole world of cinematic possibility; discovering them as young people, we suddenly realized that movies—even those that starred actors we recognized, like John Goodman—could be off-beat and imaginative and compelling in weird ways that other movies and TV shows just weren’t.  

The adolescent appeal of Barton Fink
has worn off for me; you can feel the Coen Brothers straining here, trying too hard to be quirky.  It’s their most overtly Kafkaesque movie, set in a seedy hotel room where the title character (John Turturro, pictured) battles writer’s block, trying to bang out a script for a passive-aggressive Hollywood mogul (Michael Lerner).  The wallpaper begins peeling off in wet, gummy strips, Turturro winces and sweats at his desk, and you half expect him to turn into a bug at any moment.  Barton Fink is Kafkaesque in other ways, too—in its paranoid nightmare scenarios, its powerless hero lost in a foreign city surrounded by strange and menacing figures, and its thematization of anti-Semitism and persecution.  “Fink—that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?” ask two WASPish police detectives, investigating a series of crimes in which Barton has become mysteriously entangled.  Later, when Barton fails to deliver on the script, the mogul flies into a rage and begins spitting out racial slurs.  We’re also given a fascinating—if somewhat awkwardly placed—sequence at a dance hall, where Barton is slugged by a clean-cut, square-jawed doughboy dressed in Navy whites. 

Even without actually turning into a bug a la Gregor Samsa, Fink signifies as a verminous Jew among WASPs, a blight on sunny California, with his Eraserhead hair and nebbishy squint.  “What’s wrong with your face?” everyone keeps asking him, not realizing that that’s just how he looks.  Set in 1941, Barton Fink recreates a Hollywood roiling with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, racial violence, and Jewish paranoia.  In this, it anticipates the Coens’ more sustained exploration of the plight of the Jew in post-war middle America, A Serious Man (2009), set in the Michigan suburbs where Joel and Ethan Coen spent their own Jewish boyhoods.  That film dealt with Jewishness in a comic register; Barton Fink looks at Jewishness in Hollywood through a glass darkly.  Original rating: ****  New rating: ***   

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