Seeing. Movies. Barton Fink and the Life of the Mind

March 4, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post: This essay is part of a series by David Carl

If I had created the City of my dream, the City that is not, never was and yet manifests itself with acuteness, smells and loud sounds, if I had created that City, I would not only have been moving in complete freedom and with an absolute sense of belonging but also, most importantly, I would have taken the audience into an alien but secretly familiar world.        

-Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern

Barton Fink presents us with an opportunity to reconsider that most magical aspect of the cinema, mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène is nothing less than the visual world created by the filmmakers to tell us everything about the movie that is not conveyed by the dialogue, the story, the plot, the characters, and the acting. It is the physical setting of the movie, the very stuff of its visual being.

This is of central importance in any film, but in Barton Fink it is of particular interest because the world of the movie is such an unusual one. In most films mise-en-scène is created in the service of calling a particular world into existence. Often it is some version of the world we are already familiar with (either in our experience, our memory, or our imagination): for example, such and such a city in America in such and such a year. It may be a period piece: A suburb in the 1970’s, New York of the 1920’s, the Chicago of prohibition, the American West in the 1860’s, Europe during WWI, or Vietnam in 1969. Sometimes it is a fantasy world that has been created expressly for the movie: a science fiction landscape, perhaps on a spaceship or on another planet, or some fantasy version of our own world in the future. Mise-en-scène can be used to recreate the Wild West, the roaring 20’s, World War II, an alien invasion, the Zombie Apocalypse, the town we grew up in, an all-too-familiar office building, a typical American high-school, an apartment complex, a jungle, a desert, or an urban wasteland. Mise-en-scene creates a world, whether it is the lush, visually brilliant Britain of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the rainy Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.

Mise-en-scène tells us where we are. But the Coen brothers don’t need mise-en-scène to tell us where we are as we enter the world of Barton Fink because they use a title to do it instead: “New York, 1941”, even though everything about the setting would have conveyed the same information. But they’re reserving mise-en-scène for something else; let’s call it establishing a mood. What is this mood? What is “mood” in the movies? What else but how a movie makes us feel. Which, in the case of Barton Fink, is a very special kind of creepy; Poe would have called it an example of “the uncanny.”

Lets review the first 10 minutes of Barton Fink: The movie begins with the credits appearing against a background of gold textured wallpaper (we see later that it is the wallpaper from Barton’s room at the Hotel Earle). Wallpaper is important in the movie. It’s a surface that hides another surface. The first cut takes us behind a surface, not of the wallpaper but of a stage. We’re behind the scenes, listening to the over-acted, over-written, overblown lines of a “common man” in Barton’s successful play:

“Dreamin’ again,” a woman says.

“Not anymore Lil. I’m awake now. Awake for the first time in years.”

The movie’s main themes are presented in the first few seconds: surfaces and what they conceal, actors and what they portray (or pretend to be), the tension between dreaming and being awake. The first shot, after the credits, is of something being lowered.  We are descending, from the very first image, going down, figuratively, accompanying our characters on their descent into Hell.

These first few seconds also illustrate Barton’s illusions about his work as an artist. (Movies and the theatre are about creating illusions (not always illusions of reality), and Barton’s illusions are largely “in his mind.”) On stage and out of sight wildly improbable lines are delivered (“I see the choir and I know they’re dressed in rags, but we’re part of that choir”) by a character meant to represent a “common man” (although the voice sounds strikingly like John Turturro’s) while backstage a “real” common man works the ropes and pulleys that allow the fantasy to unfold. On the very line “we’re part of that choir” we get our first shot of a human figure in the movie, bent over and working, completely uninterested in, unengaged with, and detached from the lines being delivered ostensibly to give him, the “common man,” a dramatic voice in the world.

Barton Fink (still), Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

The shot of this man walking away behind Barton is of someone who couldn’t care less about the lies and fantasies of dramatic representation. A second stagehand sits nearby smoking a cigarette (beneath an eerily red-lit “NO SMOKING” sign) and reading a newspaper, equally uninterested in Barton’s paean to his fantasy version of “the common man.” This is all the visual evidence we need to see that the movie wants us to think of Barton’s play (and thus of Barton himself) as a pompous ruse (albeit a sincere one). A sincere ruse; that is: excellent raw material for Hollywood.

In the restaurant after the performance Barton says, “I can’t kid myself about my own work. A writer writes from his gut. His gut tells him what’s good.” But throughout the movie Barton does nothing but kid himself about his own work. He’s a bad writer who knows nothing about the people he wants to write about (ironically, since the implication is that he grew up with them in New York, and that his own background is working class). The Herald review of his paper says that his play is about people “whose brute struggle for existence cannot quite quell their desire for something higher”; but this describes not the people Barton thinks he is writing about, but rather his own relationship to writing. A relationship that will unfold for the rest of the movie not in New York, but in Hollywood, a place that thrives on the tension between appearances and reality, aspiration and ambition, honesty and hypocrisy. A magical place of fantasy mixed with ruthless pragmatic business sense. (What darkness supports the light?) At their first meeting Lipnick tells Barton, “The writer is king here at Capitol pictures. You don’t believe me: take a look at your paycheck at the end of every week. That’s what we think of the writer.” And he’s right: in Hollywood a writer, like anything else, is something you buy. Pay for it and it’s yours.

But Hollywood is not simply a false mistress who erects a tempting exterior over a corrupt interior. Instead, She turns out to be the harsh mistress capable of telling Barton the hard truths he has tried to hide and conceal himself from. Ironically, Hollywood is the most honest character in the whole movie; the character so expert at disguise that She not only sees through everyone else’s disguises, but forces them to face and acknowledge them as well. And virtually every character in Barton Fink is pretending to be someone or something he or she is not (Charlie is not “really” an insurance salesman, Lipnick is not a colonel in the U.S. army, Mayhew is not a great writer, Audrey is “not just Bill’s secretary”, and who, or what, the hell is “CHET!”, anyway?), which leads us to wonder, what is it that Barton appears to be but isn’t? A writer? An artist? Someone interested in “the common man”?

Hollywood is a wonderful paradox: no place is more devoted to creating magic, but no place is more merciless in reducing it to a commodity that can be bought and sold. Hollywood is also the land where appearances are what is real. Obscuring the dividing line between truth and fiction, fantasy and reality is the business of Hollywood. It’s a place where dreams (or nightmares) come true. Which means that the person who is the most duplicitous is, paradoxically, the most honest. (Lipnick tells Barton, “If I had been totally honest, I wouldn’t be within a mile of this pool unless I was cleaning it.”) Where does that leave Barton? Is he a real writer trying to pander his talent to the Hollywood beast? Or is he a hack who has to come to Hollywood to discover the truth about himself? What is truth in the movie? In the movies? In Hollywood? For any of us ever? What more do we want from a work of art than an opportunity to confront such puzzles concerning truth and fiction?

From the moment we cut from the final scene in New York to the opening scene in Los Angeles we accompany Barton into a new world, a world that has never existed outside the imaginations of the filmmakers. This is where mise-en-scène comes in. Superficially it looks like Hollywood in the 1940’s, but in fact the Coen brothers have created a vision of Hollywood all their own, where nothing is as it appears to be, reality and fantasy are hopelessly confused, and truth and fiction are so entwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. The Hotel Earle, with its pealing wallpaper that seems to reveal something like flesh underneath and that appears to ooze or bleed when Barton presses on it (penetrating this “skin” with the thumbtacks provided by “Chet!” seems to provoke the sexual noises Barton hears through the wall), is a literal embodiment of this vision of Hollywood.

Meta-portrayals of Hollywood as a city dedicated to ruthlessly profiting from creations of the human imagination are common. Hollywood, as we know from movies like Von Sternberg’s The Last Command, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Robert Altman’s The Player, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, is the place where fantasy and reality enter into the most bizarre of congresses. Nowhere else in American is the harsh reality of cutthroat business so seamlessly combined with the romantic luster of our dreams and fantasies. Hollywood is where people go to make their dreams come true, or, as in Barton’s case, to encounter their nightmares.

Barton Fink (still), Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton does not so much enter the Hotel Earle as magically materialize in its lobby as a result of a gradual but stunning fade that, at 7 minutes and 44 seconds, for a split instant creates the image of Barton standing before a surging body of water that has flooded the hotel floor. It appears as if he has split the rock and emerged out of it to stand, suitcase and typewriter in hand, on the shores of a new land. As the water recedes, Barton begins to move forward through the hotel lobby. This is one of the most beautiful shots in the film. Barton backlit from the doors behind him, moving through a strangely empty (despite the many chairs) lobby of dusky browns and pinks that have a flesh-like character. This impression of the hotel lobby as something living is emphasized by the plants that give it a jungle-like feel. At first Barton is merely a silhouette moving through this strange new landscape.

The next cut lets us know we’re not to be confined to the point of view of characters in the movie. Now we are behind and above Barton, but too far above for this to be the pov of a human observer, and as the camera pulls back we rise even higher to take in the chandeliers. The light has changed and we can see the chairs and the plants more clearly. The colors stand out more brightly and Barton himself appears in more detail. The pattern of the carpet resembles the pattern of the gold wallpaper against which the credits appeared at the beginning of the movie.

A few more things to notice about the Hotel Earle:

—the symbolism throughout the film not so subtly suggests that the Hotel Earle is a kind of Hell (“Earle” and “Hell” are end rhymes).

—not just the fact that Chet emerges from below the floor (obvious symbolism), but the mottled color and texture of the trap door from which he emerges (carrying a shoe?)

—the overhead camera angle of the spinning hotel register Barton signs (a bird’s, or God’s, or Devil’s eye view?)

—the stains on the walls on either side of the elevator (the camera pans down though the motion should be up, to floor 6)

—the impossibly long corridor Barton walks down to arrive at his room

—the hotel’s slogan, “A day or a lifetime” (ominous overtones)

—the broken pencil tip  (bad symbolism for a sexually lonely and creatively sterile writer)

—the long row of shoes outside the doors of what otherwise appear to be unoccupied rooms (in No Exit Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people,” but for Barton Hell may simply be himself and his solitude)

—the (according to Geisler, impossible) mosquito as bloodsucker; L.A. as the natural habitat of vampires (cf. Joss Whedon’s brilliant Buffy and Angel series)

In this movie, everything means something, which is as bad as saying that nothing means anything.

These early scenes establish the Hotel Earle as more than just a setting in the movie. It becomes an actual character, living and breathing, sweating, groaning; it acts and interacts with the other characters in the film—the hotel, like John Goodman’s character Charlie, is a living embodiment of Hollywood itself. (And Barton’s room is the creepiest room in the movies since The Shining’s Room 237 and Henry Spencer’s room in Eraserhead (whose hairdo Barton’s seems indebted to as well).)

At least this is one side of Hollywood—it would be pointless to try and identify which of the various settings (Lipnick’s office, the restaurant where Barton eats with Geisler, poolside at Lipnick’s home, the beach at the end of the film) is the “real” Hollywood, for that is precisely what Hollywood is in the movie: the absence of a single unchanging truth. Hollywood is all surface. Peel back the surface, as the Hotel Earle peels away is epidermal wallpaper, and what is beneath is not the truth, but just a sticky mess, waiting to be covered by an appearance which will stand in for the truth. And what is a movie that is surface all the way down “really” about, if not the very question of what it means for a movie to be “about” something in the first place?

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Before ending I’d like to add a few thoughts about what Charlie and Lipnick have to do with all this, and with the question of “the life of the mind.” Charlie and Lipnick are doppelgangers, both for each other and for Hollywood. They do not “represent” or “symbolize” Hollywood; they embody it. They are large, dominating bodies. Bodies that embody, in different ways, what Barton calls “the life of the mind.”

Think of Charlie and Lipnick as different aspects of the “entertainment” industry: Lipnick, in his Janus-like alternations between submission (licking Barton’s shoe) and domination (firing and debasing Lou Breeze); Charlie in his peculiar relationship to make-believe and his own Janus-like embodiment of comedy and tragedy (the laughter-sobbing Barton hears through the wall (permeability of surfaces) representing both Thalia and Melpomene, the muses of comedy and tragedy respectively) and the friendly “guy next door” façade masking the “serial killer” interior). These ambiguities (submission/domination, laughter/sobbing, comedy/tragedy) find their way into the movie itself. Is Barton Fink a comedy, a horror movie, or a tragedy? Yes.

Lipnick tells Barton the only thing that matters is, “can you tell a story,” and Charlie repeatedly offers, “I could tell you stories,” but Barton can’t put these two sides of Hollywood together. He’s so caught up in the idea of his “work” that he can neither tell nor hear stories. He is both deaf and mute to the only thing Hollywood cares about: other people’s stories. He’s too busy trying to figure out his own.

Charlie says, when explaining his ear infection, “Can’t trade my head in for a new one,” and Barton agrees, adding “I guess you’re stuck with the one you got.” But later in the film the cotton in Charlie’s ear reappears in Barton’s (also symbolizing his deafness) and Charlie will literally give Barton a head, as if to suggest that, when it comes to the life of the mind, it’s always possible to get a new one. And it seems to work, since it is after Charlie gives Barton Audrey’s head that his writer’s block disappears and he begins to write (just as Audrey helped Bill Mayhew with his own writer’s block). The results, however, only reveal the kind of writer Barton “really” is.

Charlie tells Barton that he’s in the business of selling peace of mind. In response, Barton speaks of what he calls “the life of the mind” (“I got to tell you, the life of the mind, there’s no roadmap for that territory.”). At one point Lou tells Barton, “Right now, the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” After seeing Audrey’s body, Charlie tells Barton, “We gotta keep our heads.”

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

“Look upon me, I’ll show you the life of the mind,” Charlie shouts as he rampages down the hallway. But he’s talking to Barton, or to us, not to the cops (one of whom is already dead). What is it Charlie wants to show us?

Is the movie an imaginary voyage (like Dante’s) into a literary hell? What is the “life of the mind” if not the life we lead in our imaginations, the life fueled by the products of Hollywood, which feed our imaginations, though whether to nourish them or enervate them may depend on what it is we’re digesting. The life of the mind is about death and violence and man’s journey into the depths of Hell. Barton doesn’t seem to realize (yet) that there’s no “common man” who doesn’t carry his own Hell around with him. No vision of Hell that isn’t derived from the dark imagination of the poet that dwells in each of us.

Charlie calls Barton, whose aspiration is to turn the suffering of the common man into art, a “tourist with a typewriter,” but when Barton leaves the burning hotel he carries with him his script and the box, not the typewriter he arrived with.

The box has replaced the typewriter. What’s in it (besides Audrey’s head)?

Charlie: “It’s just a lot of personal stuff, but I don’t want to drag it with me, and I’d like to think it’s in good hands. Funny huh, when everything that’s important to a guy, everything he wants to keep from a lifetime, and he can fit it into a little box like that.”

Barton: “It’s more than I’ve got.”

Charlie tells him it will help him finish his script, but overcoming his writer’s block is not the same as being able to write well (since what he writes appears to be the worst kind of self-plagiarism: a repetition of something that was a cliché to begin with). After gaining from his encounter with the police a pretty good idea of what’s in the box, he holds it up to his own head, as if trying it on for size. Earlier he told Charlie, “My job is to plumb the depths,” and he says to Mayhew, “writing comes from a great inner pain” (In response Bill speaks of wanting to rip his head off; a desire Charlie will help him accomplish later in the film); but by the end of the film Barton seems to have learned that even “great inner pain” isn’t enough to make him a good writer. It just makes him a human being. Earlier he had asked Audrey, “What don’t I understand?” Perhaps this is it?

At the end of the film Barton has been sentenced (damned?) by Lipnick, “You’re under contract, you’re gonna stay that way. Anything you write is gonna be the property of Capitol pictures and Capitol pictures is not going to produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little.”

Barton’s writing has been reduced to “property.” So much for the life of the mind. Like Charlie, he has to get into the business of selling “peace of mind”—Lipnick tells him, “they [the audience] don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul” (it’s not that kind of “wresting movie”). (Akira Kurosawa wrote a wrestling movie before launching his career as a director, and his directorial debut was with a movie about a Judo fighter.) Where does that leave him, or us, at the end of the film? Are we finally damned, or only left with a more honest sense of the real challenges (obstacles, temptations, and hazards) that stand between us and the “life of the mind”?

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

When Barton meets the girl from the picture in his room he asks her, “Are you in pictures?” And she says, “Don’t be silly.” But she is a picture. She asks him, “What’s in the box?” and he says, “I don’t know.” “Isn’t it yours,” she asks, and again he says, “I don’t know.” What doesn’t he know? The movie ends as it began, the same music playing as the credits roll against the wallpaper from Barton’s room at the Hotel Earle. Is Barton’s “I don’t know” a note of agnostic despair, or the first faint rays of dawning awareness?

David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for Curious Oyster Seminars, and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Forecasts and Predictions, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.

Point of Origin

  • No results yet!