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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.



I hear you. I think the movie hit me at the right time. It might be their first movie I ever thought about a lot and started to understand subtext and symbolism and all that. O course, that's not surprising. As you have Joel Coen saying, the ambiguity is intentional because (and here its me talking) the symbolic meanings and the process of deconstruction we engage in to make sense of it all are reflexive. I always liked that that's what the movie is about and that they decided to use class differences (high/low culture) to play it out. Just on a topical level they kind of had me at the start. But I can appreciate your take too...

Steven Rubio

I have something of a blind spot when it comes to subtle uses of symbolism, which may explain why David Lynch doesn't do it for me (the one movie of his I liked unequivocally was Elephant Man, which is relatively straightforward). But, if I can fall back on what remains my #1 basic rule of criticism (while we pretend that we construct analysis from scratch and then offer a final evaluation, in fact we first react in a like-don't like-meh manner, and then construct analysis to explain our taste preference), there is no coherence to my thinking here. I forgive Fargo for everything because of Frances McDormand, even though for all I know, it's as symbolically obscure as Barton Fink. My favorite director in the early 70s, when I was a film major and making little movies, was Nicolas Roeg, whose movies were dripping with obscure symbolism. What you say that really connects with me is "the movie hit me at the right time". Because of that, you have an appreciation of the movie that gives you room to continue with analysis.

This is one reason I try to know as little as possible about a movie before I see it ... it's harder to have an advance opinion. Zero Dark Thirty was going to have to be pretty awful/despicable for me not to like it, since Kathryn Bigelow has been a fave of mine for a few decades, and since I found much of the posturing about the movie annoying. But the movies that arrive in the mail from Netflix are often ones I stuck in my queue and then forgot about, so they tend to surprise me. (Movie that arrived yesterday: something called Samsara, which, from what I can tell, is a movie I would never even watch, but now that it's here, I'll give it a go.)

Steven Rubio

Also, you've done pretty well so far in the Request department. I've watched four from your list, two of which I like very much (Dazed and Confused, and Jackie Brown). And the two I didn't much care for were OK, too (this one, Parallax View).


Dude! You should review "Don't Look Now" by Roeg. I remember reading mentions of it here but I can't recall it popping up in more detail. Maybe before I was a regular reader. I know it gets talked about a lot for the sex scene but I still find it one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen.

Steven Rubio

I'll put it on my list, but it might be a long time coming. If any movie cried out for a good hi-def version, it's Don't Look Now. The DVD is supposed to be sub-par (I haven't seen it), and the Blu-ray, which is said to be an improvement but still lacking, is only playable on a region-free player in the States. My main Don't Look Now story, which I can tell without getting into spoilers, comes from when we saw it at the time of its release. Three of us went to the City, at night, and when the movie was over, we left the theater, and as we walked back to our car ... and to the best of my memory, we all three saw this ... we saw some short person wearing red walking in an alleyway as we passed. Creepy, indeed!

Short version of my take on Roeg: Performance was for a long time the movie I'd mention when asked for my favorite movie. Walkabout is the one I've seen the most. Don't Look Now I haven't seen in a long time, but at the time, I felt like another classic. But Man Who Fell to Earth was a bit of a letdown, Bad Timing a bigger letdown, and since then, not much of interest beyond Full Body Massage, where at least you get to watch Mimi Rogers naked for the entire running time of the film.

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