Barton Fink Joel and Ethan Coen (1991; USA) John Turturro, John Goodman; Judy Davis
viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema 1st May 2022; ticket £7
There is a sequence midway through Coens’ ‘Barton Fink’ (BF) in which Barton realises the hotel shoe shine service have given him back the wrong shoes. This feels like a moment that sums up the whole movie. ‘Barton Fink’ is ill shod. As the film progresses, John Turturro’s character, Barton, reminded me of the earlier Woody Allen films, to the extent that ‘Barton Fink’ feels increasingly like a Woody Allen manqué production. But the Coen brothers lack Allen’s scripting talent, his ability to turn situations on their head by way of satirical parody, the stunning mocking self awareness built into the dialogue and of course Allen’s ability to deliver his material. However hard Turturro (and the Coens) try, you can’t escape the feeling that ‘Barton Fink’ is trying to step out in Woody Allens pumps and they don’t fit.
In relation to the psychic undertow of ‘Barton Fink’, it slots into the currents of the times. The contemporary mode.
I feel that both the Coens and Lynch pull the same kind of audience and exploit some similar thematic material in their movies. Their films fall into a genre I call ‘American Weird’, whose characteristic visual features are sets and props designed to have an otherworldly gothic horror look; whose scripts actualise the notion that nothing is what it appears to be, and whose characters are designed and cast so as to have a quasi biblical/mythic larger than life presence.
Drawing on the visual tropes of Hollywood and German Expressionist inspired horror movies both Lynch and the Coens like to exploit sets that sustain an implicit menace: sinister stairwells and epic hotel / apartment block corridors whose vanishing perspectives recede into the darkness of infinity. The interiors of domestic space are bedecked with strangely patterned wallpaper and props – lamps prints paintings and other interior decorations and furnishings – that are designed to suggest a feeling of ambiguous otherness. An otherness of space that is highlighted by camera operation which employs very big close shots, often at the end of track and zoom ins, and disorienting angles such as overhead, to create feelings of disturbance/dislocation.
The question is to what psychic need does the ‘Weird Genre’ cater that is so in step with the audiences of the times?
In Coens’ and Lynch scripts in general nothing is quite as it seems. Key characters have: pasts desires intentions that are hidden from view, and sometimes layered so that a number of possible revelations are spring loaded into the scenarios, positioned at the appropriate time to be triggered as series of gradated revelations. This folding in of multiple layerings of individual motivation is something that has now been taken up and developed in extremis by mutliple TV series.
In a world where traditional origination beliefs no longer give meaning to existence for many people, people feel that they simply caught up in or are spectators of, ‘the machinations’ of unseen forces.
But as with metaphysical beliefs many continue to need the belief that they can see behind the veil of the apparent, to be able to claim to understand ‘what’s going on’, ‘what’s happening babe”. Metaphysical beliefs provide an all encompassing purpose to existence, providing adherents with the keys to their relationship to the world: an empowering key. Conspiracy theories dramatised in multitudinous TV series are based on scripted uncoverings, scripted moments when the veil of the apparent is removed. Likewise filmmakers such as the Coens and Lynch offer a viewing of the world in which individuals are enabled to see through the surface of what is experienced into the ‘real’ which usually comprioses the corruption of institutions and /or the twisted corrupted nature of individuals who run them. The process of ‘seeing into’ to an extent empowers, providing a ‘clear’ vision of how a particular relation is ordered. But whereas metaphysical beliefs affirm a collective unitary story, conspiracy theories take strength from denial of what is seen, take strength from an individuated state of mind comprising a decision to say “No” to the apparent: a thought process based on existential negation.
Origination metaphysics is an telelogically adaptable to all circumstances of life and death, achievement and disaster – the complex transforms into the simple. Conspiracy motifs are in a sense the opposite, the simple is transformed into the complex.
There are branches of conspiracy that posit an underlying cause for all that happens in the world: Aliens – Super Rich – Large Corporations – it is adduced that these each have a meta plan to which history and events conform. But Lynch and the Coens produce discrete productions with scripts that ‘stand alone’. Knarled Biblical figures, disconcerting landscapes and urban vistas, warped interiors all the expressive signage of the strange and weird are delivered in the unitary output of a script and its realisation.
The problem is that they are locked into cycles of repetition of the same ideas replication of the same signifiers and signage. There is an appetite for this material but at some point the scripts move into cycles of replication. At some point the message is delivered that America is a weird strange place where social relations, comprising all manner of forces, twist the mortal coil savagely to create dangerous and dysfunctional conditons for life. But in effect once this is said, once this is plotted out in a scenario, there is nothing more to say, only rituals to be dutifully performed.