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by request: barton fink (joel coen, 1991)

(This was requested by Tomás.)

I think of myself as someone who doesn’t much care for the Coen brothers, but looking over their work, it is clear that the more accurate assessment is that I like them, but not as much as some do. Fargo is my favorite of their movies. I thought No Country for Old Men was very good. But the cult movies, like The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple … it’s not that I don’t like them, I do, but I don’t gush over them. I don’t think they come close to Fargo. And once we get to Miller’s Crossing, they’ve lost me.

I’d place Barton Fink among the lesser Coens, like Burn After Reading. Better than Miller’s Crossing, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. Barton Fink reminded me of a David Lynch movie, and I tend to have problems with his films, as well. I have complained about what I consider is a willful insularity in Lynch’s work. But I’ll give him credit: he has a vision, and he sticks to it. The Coens are like smart-ass David Lynches. Barton Fink’s meanings tend to the obscure and symbolic, and it helps to have seen all of the same films the Coens have. But I don’t get that Lynchian sense that there are artistic reasons for their decisions. I think they just like to fuck with us, to feel superior to us when we don’t “get it”. Joel Coen once said about critics who have offered detailed close readings of the film, explicating its mysteries, that “In Barton Fink, we may have encouraged it – like teasing animals at the zoo. The movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they may not be used to seeing.” It’s a revealing quote: even the people who are willing to spend a lot of energy in digging deep into the movie are just animals in a zoo. They aren’t good enough to “get it”. And, by admitting they encouraged such detailed analysis, the Coens are also admitting that their artistic vision is at least partly about poking the audience with a stick. If you work hard at understanding Barton Fink, you have fallen for their tease; if you don’t “get” the film, you aren’t really worth their trouble.

Barton Fink works well if you just let it wash over you. It would probably play even better if you were high when you saw it. Some of the imagery is evocative, and if I wasn’t all that impressed with John Turturro, at least he was better than Nicolas Cage in full-out crazy mode. There wasn’t anything objectionable when I watched it, and in fact, I was bothered more by Joel Coen jabbering about teasing animals than I was about the movie itself. But I never cared about the characters, never cared what was real and what was fantasy, didn’t care that this scene evoked The Shining and that scene evoked Eraserhead and that other scene evoked Kiss Me Deadly, and the entire thing evoked Roman Polanski. #490 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

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