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.