From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Movie Retrospective: Troubled Artists - Barton Fink

I always used to joke when I was in college that I did my best work under pressure, so I would put off writing papers for class as long as possible to do my best work. Not exactly my smartest moments in life to be sure. After all, what if I was ever cursed with writer's block? There are times when I have difficulty coming up with the right words to lead into a blog entry. What would I have done if I had trouble finding the right words when a grade or a class was on the line? It is one of the reasons why I wonder if I would ever be able to make a living writing professionally. Nothing I've ever had to write or chosen to write has been so close to my heart that I would feel it personally if I wasn't able to come up with something.

In the film Barton Fink, John Turturro plays the titular playwright. Barton has just written a very successful play for Broadway. It's garnered him a great deal of praise and attention. He is touted for having found the voice of the common man, and giving the common man a pulpit from which he can make his hopes, dreams, and desires known to the world.

His skill with the written word has gotten the attention of influential executives in Hollywood, who want him to come out and take a crack at screenwriting. At the behest of his agent, Barton decides to take the chance, knowing that one lucrative payday with a screenplay can finance his writing of several plays. His meeting with studio head Jack Lipnick (played well over the top by Michael Lerner) gives Barton the material he is to work with. He has to pen a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery. Nothing to change the world, just a solid B picture with what Lipnick calls "....that Barton Fink feeling."

And that's where Barton runs smack into the wall of writer's block. He has no idea where to begin. He sits endlessly staring at his typewriter at an opening scene description of one paragraph that goes absolutely nowhere. He knows nothing about wrestling. How does he start a wrestling picture? Barton knows absolutely nothing about wrestling. Though it's not spoken anywhere in the film, I personally wonder how he can write a movie for the common man, if he doesn't really relate to them.

Enter one common man: Charlie Meadows (played by John Goodman in one of his best film roles), an insurance salesman who lives in the room next door to Fink's. After coming over to apologize to Fink for disturbing him, Fink and Meadows spend some extended time talking with each other about their respective lives and interests. Although Fink feels some affinity for Meadows, he still can't find a starting point for his movie.

Fink tries to turn to a fellow writer for help. He happens to run into celebrated W. P. Mayhew (Fraiser's John Mahoney) and his personal assistant Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). Barton thinks that Mayhew may be able to help him find his jumping off point for his screenplay, but Mayhew doesn't seem to be able to find interest in anything except where his next drink is coming from. Audrey takes a shine to Barton though. She graciously agrees to come to his hotel one night to help him get his pitch together for the story. The pitch help turns into something more. And then what happens next sends the whole story into traditionally weird Cohen territory.

The Cohen Brothers to me have always been an acquired taste. I think they work much better when producing their own stuff on a smaller scale (Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, or Blood Simple), than when they try for the bigger, broader appeal (Hudsucker Proxy, which I thought was ok, and last fall's Intolerable Cruelty, which at least got the name right). And this movie falls much more into the former category.

Turturro is a wonder as Barton. Early in the movie he really seems to be one of the same highly pretentious playwrights who he rails against when he sits down with Meadows the first time. It makes the joke of Barton's writer's block even funnier, although I wonder if it speaks poorly of me to take such delight in Barton's misery. As Barton is slapped with one hard dose of reality after another about the task he's undertaken with this screenplay, you really appreciate just how much of a revelation some of this seems to be with Barton.

The other main character in the story is Goodman's Charlie Meadows. He really strikes you as just an affable wayward soul who just has some personal issues when you first meet him. Later, as more about his character is revealed, you come to realize just how much a man can hide in plain sight. He's at times funny, sad, and very frightening all in the same movie, in one spot towards the end, almost all in once scene.

The supporting roles are all solid. Mahoney as the drunken Mayhew is a blast. When he goes off on a drunken spiel, he's a serious riot. Davis has some quietly sexy moments with a southern drawl so hot that it could melt butter. Always a good actress, but this one let me see her in a light I had never quite imagined from her before. And Lerner as the Lipnick is every screenwriter's worst nightmare. Tony Shalhoub (as Barton's producer for the film) has a moment where he chastises Fink for making Lipnick interested in the movie. That apparently is the worst mistake Fink could have made. When you see Lipnick in action, you understand why. Everyone has had a manager like this at some point in their professional careers, no matter what profession. They're the kind that makes you cringe the moment you realize they've been thinking.

The Cohen's aren't for everyone, and this is definitely one of their more eccentric pieces that I've seen. But I think it's a really good ride, and gives you some of the insight into how hard it is to be a professional writer. Tomorrow's retrospective approaches the same profession, but from a slightly different point of view.

For Tomorrow: Adaptation