Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Barton Fink)

The standard line on Barton Fink (1991) is that it finds The Coen Brothers abandoning genre pastiche in favor of outright surrealism.  Joel and Ethan's fourth outing isn't a noir like Blood Simple (1984), a live-action Road Runner cartoon like Raising Arizona (1987), or a gangster picture like Miller's Crossing (1990).  But there is a stylistic precedent for Barton Fink's cryptic, nightmarish style, a loose collective of films that we will call "psychodramas."  Fortunately, psychodrama plays to The Coens' usual strengths while largely covering up their weaknesses, and Barton Fink is their most successful film up to this point.

The success of a psychodrama depends less on narrative momentum, substantive social messages, and three-dimensional characters than on moody atmosphere, originality of style, and quirky performances.  These films tend to be told entirely from the (deliberately limited) point of view of their protagonists, to the extent that the entire world surrounding the hero seems to be an outgrowth of their social anxieties.  The protagonist is the only character who doesn't understand the arcane rules that govern the world he lives in, even though it is usually implied that the other characters may be products of the hero's imagination.  The narrative heads toward its climax less through the unraveling of a plot than the increasing intensity of the things annoying the main character.  Examples of the genre include Welles' The Trial (indeed, the entire genre would be unthinkable without Kafka's literary example), Polanski's The Tenant, Lynch's Eraserhead, Kubrick's The Shining, Scorsese's After Hours, and Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York.

Barton Fink doesn't feel as wholly unique as most of the films lifted above.  In fact, the film has more or less the same relationship to its genre as The Coens' early films do to their more well-known inspirations, which is to say that it is part pastiche and part cartoonish parody of the above-mentioned tropes.  But even if Barton Fink isn't wholly original, it is clearly The Coens' most personal film to date.  The situation of John Turturro's titular character - a playwright whose success on Broadway leads to him being hired to write a wrestling movie for a major Hollywood studio - is analogous in some ways to the position that The Coens found themselves in in the early '90s.  I imagine that the independent duo, fresh from the critical and relative commercial success of their first three films, probably turned down a number of high-profile big studio offers, none of which would've allowed them the freedom of final cut that they enjoyed on Barton Fink.  Turturro looks like a caricature artist's rendering of the Coens, and his writer's block was reportedly directly inspired by difficulties that the brothers had in working out the complicated plot of Miller's CrossingBarton Fink isn't any less snarky than previous Coen films, but the fact that they seem to be making fun of themselves does mitigate the smug feeling of superiority that mars much of their other work.

The strengths that have always been evident in The Coens' oeuvre receive their greatest expression to this point in Barton Fink.  As expected, the film looks and sounds fantastic.  Replacing usual cinematographer Barry Sonenfeld with Roger Deakins was a wise choice, as the psychodrama requires more claustrophobic visuals than Sonenfeld's usual wide lens style would allow.  The Coens are more than up to the task of building and sustaining an evocative ambiance, and they succeed in making early-40s Hollywood look like a sordid, suffocating hellhole. 

Highly mannered dialogue sounds natural coming out of the excellent cast's mouths.  Turturro could've come off as an insufferable creep, prattling on about "the life of the mind," but the actor makes Barton's pretentions both funny and strangely endearing.  John Goodman is equally good as the insurance salesman who represents the "common man" that the playwright claims to champion but secretly fears.  The minor characters make a strong impression as well; Michael Lerner and Tony Shalhoub are especially funny as an overenthusiastic studio head and a hostile producer, respectively, while Richard Portnow and Christopher Murney do an inspired variation on the usual "detectives who finish each other's sentences" gag.  A subplot involving a Faulkner-esque famous novelist is an unfortunate reminder of the Coens' relentless cynicism - the entire point of the character seems to be that "great artists" are all ultimately phonies - but John Mahoney manages to give a fairly elegant performance anyway, and Judy Davis, who plays the author's wife, makes a much more effective femme fatale than Frances McDormand in Blood Simple or Marcia Gay Harden in Miller's Crossing

There are still some nagging flaws in Barton Fink - The Coens seem to rely entirely on their cast to make their characters seem like human beings, and their meticulous aesthetic seems out of proportion with the shallowness of their themes.  And there is a feeling that the psychodrama genre is merely covering up some of the duo's persistent flaws.  Nonetheless, Barton Fink seems to mark the point where The Coen Brothers evolve from smart ass pranksters to major filmmakers.

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