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Barton Fink

Movie Information

In Brief: John Turturro plays a thinly veiled version of playwright Clifford Odets in this 1991, Cannes-winning Coen Brothers film. The film is a very disturbing, but sometimes funny, look at an artist (maybe a little bit of a fake) descending into madness and self-absorption in old Hollywood.
Score:

Genre: Dark Comedy-Drama
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub
Rated: R

The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) was picked for this week’s Asheville Film Society screening in part because it dovetails with the appearance of Mickey Gilbert, who did the stuntwork for the film, who will attend ActionFest this coming weekend. That’s not to sell the film iself short in any way. It snagged a Best Actor award for John Turturro, a Best Director for Joel Coen, and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It is perhaps the Coens’ most disurbing and dense film—and as a result the most divisive. I know of no other Coen Brothers film so treasured by some and so hated by others. (I know people who actually get angry at the film.) Why? Well, it’s an uncompromisingly nightmarish work. In many respects, it feels very much like Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976)—only with something of the Coen quirk to it. (Interestingly, Polanski was a judge that year at Cannes.) On the surface, the film is a thinly veiled portrait (at least in broad strokes) of playwright Clifford Odets—with a side trip into the story of William Faulkner. John Turturro plays Barton Fink, a very liberal New York playwright who’s propelled into a Hollywood career on the strength of a well-received play. Once there—and ensconced in a creepy rundown hotel that could well be the waiting room to purgatory—he finds himself in a world that is not merely foreign to him, but incomprehensible and even hostile. He finds himself saddled with a bad B picture as his first assignment, an overly chummy neighbor (John Goodman), other strange encounters and an extreme case of writer’s block. As things progress—or in the case of the screenplay, don’t progress—the line between reality and fantasy becomes progressively thin. Richly compelling and disturbing.

The Asheville Film Society will screen Barton Fink on Tuesday, April 10, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

11 thoughts on “Barton Fink

  1. Dionysis

    For the life of me, I cannot see anything with John Turturro in it without getting a flashback of him on his knees before Gabriel Byrne’s gun in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ begging Byrne to “look into ya HOT.”

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    First saw BARTON FINK in high school and was so baffled that for years I called it my least favorite Coen Bros. film.

    When I revisited it in ’09, it became one of my favorites. One of the details that made it extra effective was the Faulkner connection.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I was 36 or 37 when it came out. I cannot begin to imagine what I’d have made of it when I was in high school. That I’d have even understood it was in some way connected to Clifford Odets and William Faulkner seems unlikely, though I did read a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood when I was 16 or thereabouts.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      That’s why it baffled me: I couldn’t process it. Same with LOST HIGHWAY and other such films.

      A colleague (and Southern Lit fanatic) told me about the “Faulkner in Hollywood” bit, and after getting into WF’s novels (which likewise took a multi-year break after an initial scarring), the latter BARTON FINK experience came together nicely. The first time, all I could think was “Why is Frasier’s dad being weird?”

  4. Ken Hanke

    The first time, all I could think was “Why is Frasier’s dad being weird?”

    Frame of reference is everything — as witness that question being meaningless to me.

  5. Bert

    John Goodman is amazing in this. His line at the end is so shocking and effective. You can puzzle over what this film means and come up with so many interpretations.

  6. Barry Summers

    Not since 1989.

    That was the year Webster was taken off the air. I, too was heartbroken.

  7. Barry Summers

    Speaking of Webster, on 30 Rock last week, Tracy Morgan was about to lose his sense of smell for some reason. He was lamenting all the smells he would never know, and this is the one that made me drop my spoon: “…and the sweat of a terrified Webster as I shove him into a cannon!”

    Tell me there’s not still some good TV out there!

  8. Ken Hanke

    That was the year Webster was taken off the air.

    It was also the year I moved out of the country (as in living in the city) and was able to get cable and was no longer a prisoner of the three big networks.

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