Barton Fink (1991)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? have been revisiting a few fave movies I haven’t watched recently.

Cast, crew, etc.

Trailer

I grew up in small town WA. When high school was over, I partied away a gap year, and then moved up to Perth. My best mate from school, Kel, had a share house in Victoria Park, and I was going to move in with him. Only, by the time I got round to actually moving, there was a problem.

Kel’s younger brother had also moved up to the city, and due to some long forgotten situation, had suddenly found himself between residences. So Kel had offered him my room. It was meant to be short term, but his brother got settled, neither was very organised, and he never moved out.

And hey, we were all in our late teens. The ethos of this era was: let it ride.

So, in that spirit, I moved in anyway. For a few bucks a week, Kel let me crash on the couch and we all decided that we’d figure out something more permanent, later.

This was my first experience living on a couch in a sharehouse (it wasn’t my last). If you have never done this, let me say: it is not easy. You get no privacy, and you are at the whims of the household. If even one person wants to stay up all night watching ‘Rage’ and smoking cones, that’s what you’re doing too. If you do get to bed at a reasonable time, there is a reasonable chance that one of your housemates will stagger in drunk at 3am, and wake you up. There is not really anywhere to put your stuff; you are not only roomless, but cupboardless, drawerless and shelfless.

It is not easy.

So after a couple of sortof fun but sleepless weeks, I started looking for a different place to live. A room, to live in. Only, the one adavantage of couch life was the price; I was only working part time, did not want to work more, and living in the city was expensive. The other sharehouses I looked at were fine, but would put a dent in my spending money, which I needed for beer and cigarettes. A conundrum.

But Kel, had a solution.

His share house came with an enormous, two car garage, in the back yard. But there was only car in the house, Kel’s, and he parked it in the driveway. None of us had much stuff, and the shed was mostly empty.

So Kel suggested: why didn’t I live in there, at the same rate as the couch? Then I would have a room, privacy, we could still hang out, and I wouldn’t be poor (or poorer, more accurately). We both agreed this was a great idea; the sheer oddity of me living in a garden shed did not occur to either of us.

I got my limited posessions out of storage and set myself up. I had a desk, a bed, and an old TV and VCR. And I had a bean bag and a wooden folding deckchair, that I set up facing the telly. I bought a coffee table from the Salvos, and made a set of bookshelves out of milk crates and planks of wood. To jazz the place up a bit, I bought a secondhand rug and spread that over the concrete floor; it was circular, and had rings of alternating colour, long faded.

If it sounds grim, in my mind it was kinda perfect. By this stage, I had read ‘On the Road’, and ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’; living in a shed seemed in keeping with the ideas behind these books. Possessions were rubbish. People that wasted money on fancy things were idiots. Making a makeshift residence in a shed was a blow for non-conformity! I was writing fiction stories myself: I was going to suffer and be an artist.

As well as counter culture books, I was already well into movies. And so my TV/VCR/deckchair set up became like a little cinema. I’d borrow a stack of weekly rentals from the local video store, and most evenings smoke some weed, and watch a movie. Emphasis was on films you could describe as ‘strange’: things like ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘Man Bites Dog.’ Often Kel, or his brother, or people from our friendship group would join me; a rotating drunk and/or stoned audience. They’d sit in my bean bag, or dot themsleves across the rug, while I always took the deckchair, watching the film with a joint or a beer in hand. And at the end we’d go, ‘What the fuck was that all about?’ And have long, loopy conversations that spiralled quickly away from the movie and into every conceivable topic.

One of the highest rotation films from this period was ‘Barton Fink’.

I had first seen the Coen Brothers black comedy while I was in high school, and had loved it straight away. But this a film with a lot of re-watch value.

John Mahoney and Judy Davis

On the surface it is about the creative process; Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a rising New York playwright, lured to 1930s Hollywood by a fat screenwriting contract. Assigned to a crappy B picture about wrestling, as he knows the ‘poetry of the streets’, he gets writers block and struggles to snap out of it. He also gets involved with some colourful LA locals; his neighbour, who may be a serial killer; a once acclaimed writer lost in alcoholism; and the writer’s mistress, a world weary type who provides advice on screenwriting: ‘You don’t have to type your soul into it. It’s really just a formula’ (these characters are played by John Goodman, John Mahoney and Judy Davis respectively: all incredible).

It is snappy, witty stuff, and good satire, with bonus enjoyment for fans of the films and backstories of classic Hollywood.

But then: the wallpaper in Barton’s hotel room is forever peeling. One character is mysteriously murdered. In a long tracking shot, the camera moves from Barton’s bed, through his room, through his bathroom and then…. down the basin sink? The hotel catches on fire – or does it? – and then Barton finds himself seemingly inside the generic art print he has been staring at through the whole movie.

What does it all mean? Sitting there in the shed, joint in hand, I did wonder. And wonder.

Then, and now, I finally decided: Barton has become lost in his own head. Not all of the things depicted, have actually happened. His determination to write something original and meaningful has overwhelmed him, and he has lost track of reality. The Coens are sympathetic to this, but satirise it too; when the bombastic studio head (a blazing Michael Lerner) berates Barton’s script – ‘you think the whole world revolves around what’s rattling inside that head of yours?!’ – they are tweaking creative people who equate writing a screenplay with the search for meaning. While art is valuable, in a world where many people are starving, or cannot access safe drinking water, it is important to keep perspective.

Barton’s journey to the beach of his mind’s eye makes me think that he is, actually, coming around to this point of view. If the beach – with its perfect sunny day, golden sand, and pretty young woman – represent an idealised version of LA, the dream factory of Hollywood, then he has finally found his way to it. His original notions of art and idealism are gone, or at least altered, and he now must face a new reality. How he will respond is an open question; he could lose himself in drink and despair like W.P. Mayhew, or, and this is the movie’s final tantilising question, being forced out of his preconceived ideas might actually improve his writing.

Perhaps he will stop writing altogether, do something else.

He has a decision to make, and so we leave the character in a kind of limbo. The Hotel Earle: A Day or a Lifetime. Rather than proscriptive, this actually represents a choice.

Another very formative movie that left an enormoous impression on me, I still think about it all the time.

Note: Living in the shed wasn’t too bad. But in winter it was very cold. And, in the rafters, occasionally, I saw rats. They never bothered me directly, kept to themselves, but they were there. And they were BIG. There was no way to unsee them. After about three months, I moved into a cheap, run down rooming house opposite the state parliament building.

Check out my 100 favourite movie list, here.

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