In Barton Fink, as in any good movie, the opening scene sets the theme and tells us what it is about. We are backstage watching a Broadway play. A couple of stagehands are working the the ropes that lower the curtain, while the playwright, Barton Fink, watches the finale from the wings. One stagehand, bored, reading a newspaper, yells on cue an offstage line, “Fish! Fresh fish!” The play ends, curtain comes down, big applause, curtain calls, cries of “Author! Author!” and wretchedly shy and nervous Barton Fink brings himself to come a few steps onstage.
Barton Fink (wonderfully played by John Turturro) is a decidedly Jewish-looking young man with horn-rimmed glasses and a table-top of frizzy black hair that adds a couple of inches to his height, giving him a not-inappropriate swelled head. As James Mottram points out (in an excellent study of the sources and themes of the Coens’ films), Fink looks very like playwright George S. Kaufman, but he writes like Clifford Odets—think Waiting for Lefty or Awake and Sing!—leftish plays that celebrate the values of FDR’s New Deal: unions, labor rights, welfare, aid to workers and farmers, public works, all those things today’s politics have lost sight of.
What the offstage scene tells us is that Barton Fink, for all his pious jabber about “the common man,” doesn’t know beans about that overworked personage. “Fink”, of course, means a snitch, an informer, and Barton plans, in a way. to rat out the common man, to tell the world about him. But his play, a delight to its tuxedoed audience, doesn’t matter a whit to the two working stiffs backstage. Poor Barton Fink is a self-deluded fool. As with King Lear, “He hath ever but slenderly known himself.” And, like Lear, he could go quite mad.
We go from his triumph in the theatre to the after-show dinner in a swanky supper club. At the table, air-headed backers and a fulsome producer compliment Barton, but he goes out to talk to his agent. The agent wants him to go to L.A. and sign a contract to write for Capitol Pictures. Note the pun, capitol-capital, as the agent wants him to capitalize his success for “a little cash . . . Strike that. A lot of cash.” Barton piously demurs. “I'd be cutting myself off from the wellspring of that success, from the common man.” Barton wants instead, “A real success. The success we've been dreaming about . . . the creation of a new living theater of and about and for the common man.” Although that worthy could care less.
Cutaway to a shot of the blue Pacific and a wave crashing on a rock, the idea of Hollywood or California transformed into an image. Barton has made his bargain with the devil. And we have seen the basic theme of this film: transforming ideas or words into visual images—the movies’ version of creativity.
We next see Barton entering the eerie, dusty lobby of the decrepit Hotel Earle, something right out of Dashiell Hammett’s L.A. He calls taps the ringer on the desk, and the sound echoes and echoes, calling up pale Chet (Steve Buscemi) bearing a shoe from some underworld below a trapdoor. Chet checks Barton in, and he rides the elevator driven by an ancient half-dead operator (out of Raymond Chandler) to the sixth floor. Three times they repeat the word “six” as if to remind us of “666,” the number of the beast. The Coens play tricks with the 180° rule to make the corridor long and a little unnerving. As many a critic has pointed out, the Earle owes much to the Overlook, another old hotel in a movie about writing, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
The room itself is as gloomy as the lobby, a squeaky, sagging bed, two windows facing nothing, a grim armchair, an electric fan, and a desk, dust motes in what light there is. Barton will tell his boss, “I wanted a place a little less Hollywood.” He sure got it.
Barton puts his most important possession, his Underwood typewriter, on the desk, touching it reverently. A dusty piece of hotel stationery on the desk gives the Earle’s ominous motto: “A day or a lifetime.” The one escape from this grim room is a framed pin-up above the desk of a bathing beauty, her back to us, staring out at that blue Pacific. Barton stares entranced at the picture.
Next stop, Capitol Pictures, and Barton’s new boss, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). Loud, vulgar, outrageously Jewish, he is a caricature of every Hollywood mogul you’ve ever read about. From Minsk originally, he came to Hollywood by way of New York. He fawns on Barton telling him “the writer is king at Capitol Pictures.” Asked what kind of movies he likes, Barton says he doesn’t “go to the pictures much”—more un-linkage to the common man. Egotistically indifferent to what Barton actually writes, Lipnick assigns him a wrestling picture, starring Wallace Beery. “Have something by the end of the week.” So much for kingship.
Barton goes back to his room and starts work, but he’s disturbed by strange noises and laughter from next door. He calls Chet and complains. Shortly there appears at his door huge Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in all his beaming glory). Barton backs off: “I was concerned that you might . . . might be in some kind of . . . distress.” But Charlie, far from being distressed, overwhelms Barton with apologies, offers him a drink, flatters him, inquires after his writing, and bathes Barton in a line of salesman patter right out of Babbitt. As for himself, Charlie sells insurance door-to-door. “You might say I sell peace of mind.” “You may want to look into it. Providing basic needs . . . you could do worse.”
As for Barton, he explains, “ I write about people like you . . . the working stiff, the common man.” But Charlie is not enthusiastic about being labelled a common man. “Well, ain't that a kick in the head.” If Barton had any understanding of the type, he’d have expected that. Barton goes on to give Charlie his pitch about “a theatre for the masses.” Charlie keeps repeating, “I can tell you some stories.” But Barton is not interested in those. Even so, he and Charlie end by striking up a friendship.
Barton next meets with his producer, the hurried and anally profane Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), who offers no help but takes him to lunch. In the men’s room, Barton hears loud vomiting which turns out to come from W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), who is the spitting image (sorry about that) of William Faulkner, Southern courtesy, clothes, and accent, slight build, discreet mustache, and a bottle. Barton idolizes, and Mayhew invites him to his “bungalow” to “discuss wrestling scenarios and other things literary.” “However, just at the moment, I have drinking to do.”
When Barton gets there, Mayhew’s “private secretary,” Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) answers the door because Mayhew, inside, is wildly drunk, screaming and cursing. She shoos Barton away, but promises another meeting. So much for the high literary alternative to common man Charlie.
Back in Room 621, Barton uses thumbtacks to hold up the peeling, gooey wallpaper. Up against the wall (in more senses than one), he hears a couple having sex next door. Then Charlie comes in with cotton stuffed in an infected ear to hold back the oozing pus (like the wallpaper?). “Can’t trade my head for a new one. I guess you’re stuck with the one you got.”
Asked about sex, Barton gets all flustered: “Got a sweetheart? No. I guess it’s something about my work. I get so worked up over it. I don't have much attention left over, so it would be a little . . . unfair. ”
My job is to plumb the depths, so to speak. Dredge up something from inside, something honest. I got to tell you, the life of the mind . . . There's no road map for that territory. And exploring it can be painful. I have pain most people don't know anything about. This must be boring you.
Common man Charlie could care less about Barton’s pain. He likes Wallace Beery: “a hell of an actor, though you can't beat Jack Oakie.” (Goodman looks like Oakie.) Charlie offers to show Barton how to wrestle. Alhough Barton says, “I'm not interested in the act,” Charlie shows him anyway and thumps him on the floor.
If Barton is the life of the mind, Charlie is the life of the body. (And Chet is the life of the feet: he is down to earth, even under it, as in his entrance when Barton was checking in.) If Barton is deaf to the real lives of people, Charlie has an ear infection and plugs his ears with cotton but hears anyway.
Barton now finds himself at a picnic lunch with his idol Bill Mayhew and his idol’s mistress Audrey. Barton, the neophyte writer with one successful play to his credit takes it on himself to give advice to this avatar of William Faulkner:
Barton: No. I've always found that writing comes from a great inner pain. Maybe it's a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one's fellow man to help somehow ease the suffering. Maybe it's personal pain. At any rate, I don't believe good work is possible without it.
Mayhew: Hmm. Well, me, I just enjoy making things up.
Barton: Look, uh . . . maybe it's none of my business, but don't you think a man with your talent . . . your first obligation is to your gift? Shouldn't you be doing whatever you have to to work again?
Mayhew: What would that be?
Barton: I don't know. But with that drink, you're cutting yourself off from your gift and your fellow man and everything your art is about.
When Barton tsk-tsks Mayhew for drinking and for the way he treats Audrey, the senior author snidely contrasts “a schoolboy’s eyes” with “People who know about the human heart.” He has, of course, put his finger on Barton’s tragic flaw, his lack of any knowledge of human beings, including himself. But Mayhew, totally drunk by this time, wanders off “down to the Pacific” (that postcard image!) singing “Old Folks at Home,” all about a black slave’s wanting to go back to the South. As Mottram points out, both Mayhew and Barton are enslaved to Capitol Pictures, and a sign on Mayhew’s bungalow door says “Slave Ship,” a 1937 film that Faulkner had a hand in. Indeed, as Mottram has found, the first film Faulkner worked on was a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery.
Notice how the Coens have again and again translated ideas into cinema: a schoolboy’s eyes, horn-rimmed in Barton’s case, the enslaving of the writers, Barton's room closing in on him, his hang-up with sex hung on the wall, and so on. Also, with Mayhew, the Coens have filled out their customary oedipal pattern. We have a panel of fathers. There is bombastic Lipnick, tyrannical and unpredictable. There is rapid-fire Geisler, knowing and unhelpful. And there is Mayhew, the picture of Southern gentry and writerly wisdom, ruined, violent, and helpless. Balancing them all is a strong woman, Audrey. As for Charlie, he could be a brother, but at the film’s turning point, he becomes a helpful father—and then a dangerous one.
Back in the cell of Barton’s room, Chet has switched shoes, so that Barton is “walking in the other guy’s shoes.” Although he doesn’t notice it himself (typical!), Charlie does. He comes in, they swap shoes, and Charlie gripes about the lousy day he’s had with the doctor and people sassing him and not buying insurance. “How goes the life of the mind?,” he cheerily says, and Barton replies gloomily, “I can't seem to get going on this thing.” Charlie jollies him along, they both complain about people having sex in the room on the other side of Barton’s. (Charlie explains how he can hear it, “Seems like I hear everything that goes on in this dump.” “Pipes or something.”)
Charlie then announces that he has to go to New York because “Things got all balled up at the head office.” “Head”—that’s a key word in this film. Keep it in mind (no pun intended). And people apply “dump” both to the Earle and the studio.
Barton goes back to Geisler for help. Geisler sends him off to look at some dailies from a wrestling picture. Barton looks sick as he watches a fat guy in tights yelling and throwing his opponent down onscreen—but that is hardly a help to Barton who now has to report to Lipnick in the morning. Remember “I’m not interested in the act”? Double-entendre there.
Barton goes back to his room, totally blocked and desperate. In the middle of the night he calls Audrey for help. She comes, and during their conversation Barton learns that she not only wrote some of his scripts but also his last two books. He is furious. He rages at Mayhew as a phony. His artistic ideals are shattered. But Audrey simply pulls him down on the bed—close-up of their shoes slipping off. She has been Mayhew’s Muse and mistress. Now she will be Barton’s. Maybe.
At this point, the Coens introduce an odd cutaway. The camera pans from the two on the bed to the bathroom, to the drain in the sink, and then down the drain. The Coens insisted on the shot although its difficulty exasperated their new (but future) cinematographer Roger Deakins. And it is key. A number of themes come into focus.
“Down the drain”: there go Barton’s ideals, his respect for Mayhew and his inhibitions about sex. The pipe connects Barton to the world outside his room, a world of among other things, the sex next door. Charlie had said he hears it because of ”the pipes or something.”
Finally, the unreality of the shot takes the film to a new level. From now on events begin to be so exaggerated as to be beyond reality. In particular, it becomes less and less clear whether the events in Barton’s room at the Earle are real (in the movie context) or happening in his mind.
We—or I, at least—begin to realize that that room in the Earle is not so much a real place as Barton’s mind. Its peeling wallpaper and dripping goo are that mind caving in on itself.
The drain shot covers the sexual act, and now Barton wakes up after the seduction. He reaches over and swats an often-referred-to mosquito as it bites Audrey’s nude back.
The swat doesn’t wake Audrey up. He turns her over and sees that she is covered in blood and very, very dead. (The mosquito is one of the minor plagues of mankind—it causes Barton to “lose face”—but death is major.) Barton panics, screams, and Charlie comes to the door. Barton chases him away and turns to the picture of the girl by the beach and his typewriter (the things of his mind) as though they could supply answers or escape. Then he goes out in the hall, eluding the watchful Chet collecting shoes, and begs Charlie for help. The big man comes in and throws up when he sees Audrey’s body. But he takes over the problem and tells Barton “to go about your business as usual.”
That business takes him to fat Lipnick lounging by his gigantic swimming pool. There’s more adulation of “the artist.” When Barton alibis that he doesn’t like to talk about work in progress, Lipnick’s flunky Lou (Jon Polito) tells him he has to. Lipnick blows up at Lou and tells Lou to kiss Barton’s feet (shoes, really). When he hesitates, Lipnick fires him, Barton asks Lipnick to be merciful, but Lipnick kisses Barton’s shoe himself. “Head” is important in this film, but so are feet, as in this bootlicking. In the Earle, shoes line the corridor, signs of guests we never see. Chet constantly does shoes. With Lipnick, shoes are a sign of Barton’s imaginary status. The head is humankind’s highest part, the foot our lowest.
Back at the Earle, Audrey’s body is gone. If Lipnick is the tyrannical and unpredictable father, Charlie is the good father, Charlie tells Barton he is leaving for New York, but he reassures Barton: “I know it's rough mentally, but everything's been taken care of.”
He hands Barton a box about a foot and a half on a side. The paper is textured like the underside of the wallpaper. He asks Barton to keep it for him. Charlie laments: “It's just a lot of personal stuff, but I don't want to drag it with me. Funny, huh? When everything that's important to a guy, everything he wants to keep from a lifetime, and he can fit it all into a little box like that. I guess . . . I guess it's pretty pathetic.” “It's more than I've got,” sighs Barton. What is that box? A mind?
With Charlie gone, Barton sits down on the bloodstained mattress and sobs. He turns to his typewriter for hope, then the Gideon Bible. It opens to the story of Nebuchadnezzar, that being the title of the book Mayhew had given him (and Audrey had written). Another bad father, Nebuchadnezzar will cut the interpreter in pieces if he doesn’t interpret the king’s dream correctly. (The king’s dream—is that the film Barton is trying to please Lipnick with? Is that perhaps Barton Fink?) Then Barton turns back to Genesis 1, which consists, to his eyes, of the opening lines of the screenplay he’s been trying to write.
Barton is summoned to the lobby to be quizzed by two LAPD detectives. They are The Common Man, and Barton reassures them, “I got respect for working guys like you.” He hasn’t learned much. “Jesus, ain't that a load off,” says one common man. One detective has an Italian name, one has a German name, and he makes an anti-semitic remark. (Mottram points out that these were our two enemies in World War II. Now, the war begins to play a part in this film set in 1941.)
The detectives show Barton a picture of Charlie and tell him that Charlie is really Karl “Madman” Mundt. Karl Mundt was in fact a North Dakota congressman and senator much involved in the persecution of Hollywood people during the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s. In Barton Fink, he is a serial killer who shoots his victims and then decapitates them. “Head” again, from Latin caput, like Capitol Pictures. The cops tell Barton a female body has been found in the vicinity, minus a head, and they joke about an ear, nose, and throat doctor that Mundt decapitated. (Remember his complaint about his ear and the doctor?) “Head” has been appearing in various ways throughout the film. Now, “Physician, heal thyself. Good luck with no fucking head.”
“Head” appears as a noun twenty-five times in the dialogue, mostly referring to someone’s mind. When Mayhew sings, “My head is bending low,” he’s referring to his slave status at Capitol Pictures. Lipnick’s flunky tells Barton, “The contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” After Charlie has disposed of Audrey’s body, he tells Barton, “Put this totally out of your head.” When Charlie complains of his ear infection, he regrets, “Can't trade my head for a new one.” He goes on, “What do they say? Where there's a head, there's hope,” but Barton corrects him, “Where there's life, there's hope.” Head is one’s essential being, perhaps one's mind. And maybe it’s what’s in that box.
When he goes back to his room, Barton can finally write. It’s as though introducing sex and violence (the standard fare of the movies) into his mind has opened him up. He writes furiously, music and his words flowing in the background. Above his desk, he has tucked a picture of Charlie into the frame of the girl-on-the-beach picture: sex and violence. And there is Charlie’s box, perhaps a “head,” a mind, but an unknown to Barton.
He calls his agent. “I think it’s great . . . the most important work I’ve ever done.” The agent is unimpressed. But Barton goes out to celebrate. He goes to a USO dance packed with soldiers and sailors (the common man). That he would go in civvies to a USO dance says how little he knows about the common man even when he is surrounded by them. He jitterbugs frantically—did you think Barton had it in him?—and refuses when a sailor wants to cut in. A fight breaks out, soldiers against sailors, the offending Barton forgotten. More sex and violence. Barton screams, “I am a creator! . . . This is my uniform. This is how I serve the common man!”
He returns to find the detectives now in his room. One reads aloud from his script, and the lines echo the finale of the play that we heard in the opening scene. The other stares at the bathing beauty picture until Barton yells, “Keep your filthy eyes off of that.” Barton and sex.
The detectives tell him that Mayhew has been killed, too, and they accuse a stunned Barton of being in on the murder. Although the detectives ignore the box, they keep quizzing him about the heads, now plural. And they complain of the heat as Charlie had done earlier. When they hear Mundt/Charlie out in the hall, they go out to nab him. Flames begin coming out of the elevator and from under the doors in the long hall.
They call to Mundt to show himself. He does, produces a shotgun, and, shouting “I’ll show you the life of the mind” and “Heil Hitler!”, kills them both. The heat and the flames: is this “Why this is hell nor am I out of it?” Is Charlie a Mephistopheles to Barton’s Faust, who has made a devil’s bargain with Hollywood?
Complaining as the detectives had about the heat, Charlie/Mundt goes into Barton’s room and shows his strength by bending the bed struts Barton had been handcuffed to, freeing him. He makes a confused speech, alternately threatening and soothing Barton. “I know what it feels like when things get all balled up at the head office.” And he tells Barton that the package is not his. So what is it? A head? Two heads?