Coen brothers, a directing/producing brotherly duo, are perhaps the boldest and most creative auteurs of modern-day American cinema. Their work varies wildly; it is “all over the map,” thematically-speaking, yet always distinctively itself. Some Coen brothers’ films are bizarre and phantasmagorical; others are zanily comedic, and still others can best be described as brutally horrifying. Barton Fink is a unique combination of all three of these types, and something else besides: it is a savage satire of a Jewish-run film industry, as well as being an unflinching examination of brazen hypocrisies often seen in Jewish-led political radicalism. Joel and Ethan Coen are, of course, Jews themselves, which is perhaps why they were able to get away with such a jarringly “Semitically-incorrect” depiction in the first place. (See also Kevin MacDonald’s review of their A Serious Man.)
Barton Fink follows an ambitious New York playwright, the titular hero, on a terrifying descent into psychological darkness and mental chaos. Yet despite its undeniably grim subject matter, it is also at times an uproariously funny movie. Such an unlikely intersection of the comic and the horrific is, of course, a frequent feature of the Coens’ cinematic fare.
The character of Barton Fink is clearly modeled after Clifford Odets and other left-wing Jewish writers of the 1930s and 40s. Like Odets, the real-life author of the radical ensemble piece Waiting for Lefty, Fink seeks to create a theater “of and about the common man,” which could enable a social transformation, one of presumably Communistic orientation (though his precise ideology is never mentioned). Barton has recently written a critically-acclaimed off-Broadway play filled with working-class characters looking ahead to a hopeful future of joyous revolution, but he is unable to enjoy his success; he tells his agent that he doesn’t wish to become “complacent” and soft. Barton’s agent informs him that he’s been able to secure him a gig as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a major studio which will pay him handsomely for his efforts. Barton demurs at first, but allows himself to be talked into taking the job.
The next thing he knows, the young, up-and-coming writer finds himself checked into the Earle, a creaky old L.A. hotel that seems to be coming apart at the seams. It is here that he comes face to face with what appears to be a quintessential specimen of the “common man,” in the person of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a corpulent, garrulous, somewhat annoying but seemingly good-hearted insurance salesman whose room adjoins Barton’s on the sixth floor.
During Barton’s interactions with Charlie, we see this aspiring artist’s soul laid bare, and it’s not a pretty sight. Though not a bad man, Fink is without question an insufferable prig, a hypocrite, and a bore; in truth, he evinces little compassion for the plight of the “common man,” but would rather talk endlessly about himself. He lectures Charlie, whom he takes to be “an average, working stiff” about the pain and enormous effort that it takes to dedicate oneself to “the life of the mind.” Charlie tries to interject a few times, offering to “tell some stories,” but Barton always cuts him off to rant anew about how shameful it is that playwrights aren’t properly interested in common folk, how they would rather insulate themselves from reality than deal with it. The painful irony of this circumstance is obvious to everyone except poor, oblivious, self-deluded Barton himself.
Barton’s condescension towards Charlie is portrayed as symptomatic of the urban, educated lefty’s thinly-disguised contempt for the middle-American worker. The cultural divide is indeed so sharp as to be insurmountable between the two men; obviously, the shrill, hectoring Fink and the wry, soft-spoken cornball rube Meadows have little, if anything, in common. Yet their failure to connect is due almost entirely to the East-coast born, avant-garde writer’s narcissism, high-mindedness and lack of empathy for the very sort of man he claims to support. And it shouldn’t escape our notice that the paradigmatic insufferable intellectual in this film is a Jew with almost-exaggerated Ashkenazi features and attributes, from his tightly kinked hair to his thick glasses and propensity to pontificate aggressively in a brisk Brooklyn accent. (The most inspired aspect here might just be in the casting; gentile Italian-American Turturro transforms into uber-Jew Fink, while Jewish John Goodman is utterly convincing as the ultra-goy, tubby American heartlander Meadows.)
Barton, of course, gravely underestimates Charlie, who, as he finds out later, is not nearly so “common” as Barton had at first assumed. And it is Charlie who soon pointedly informs Barton as to his fatal flaw: his unwillingness to step outside of his preening self-important regard for himself as an artist, living a highfalutin “life of the mind,” to take an actual interest in his fellow man. “You… don’t… LISTEN!” Charlie exclaims at a key moment, and the audience finds it hard to disagree.
|"I'll show you a life of the mind!!!" John Goodman as Charlie Meadows|
Later, after a severe bout with writer’s block, and a spate of surreal and nightmarish tribulations, Barton finally finishes a screenplay that, in his fevered state, he takes to be a masterpiece. He rushes out on the town and we see him jitterbugging manically with a woman at a dance club, to the strains of big band music. When a group of sailors asks to “have a turn” dancing with the girl, Barton haughtily refuses. “Get away from me, you monsters!” he yells. “I’m a writer– I CREATE for a living!” The sailors respond by regaling Barton with insults like “four-eyes,” clearly regarding him as a laughably out-of-touch egghead. Eventually, one of them throws a punch, and an all-out brawl breaks out in the club, with Barton managing to sneak away, nursing a busted lip. This confrontation reinforces the conflict between the Jewish intellectual (who by this point has dropped all pretense of empathy and openly regards the square-jawed goyish white-bread sailor-types as “monsters”) and the predominantly gentile, so-called “common man.”
But while Barton Fink has many flaws, he is also a pitiable victim; by the end of the movie, he has essentially become the property of studio honcho Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), a brash, loud, frightening and hysterically tyrannical man, who proudly declares himself to be “bigger and meaner than any other kike in this town.” Lipnik flaunts his Jewish identity, and openly recognizes that Jews (or “kikes,” as he unashamedly calls his own kind) run Hollywood. He feigns reverence for Fink’s writing prowess at first, but eventually shows his true colors; in the final scene, he appears in an ostentatious American general’s uniform, grumbling about the perfidious “yellow bastards” who attacked Pearl Harbor, and berating Fink’s “fruity” script. “It won’t wash!” he hollers. “We won’t put (wrestling star) Walter Beery into a fruity movie about suffering!”
|Jack Lipnick (Micheal Learner): "meaner than any other kike in this town!"|
By the time the movie ends, the formerly proud Jewish playwright is laid low, having become a mere cog in the machine of the Jewish-run studio system, which is now only propagandizing for war (one imagines, to further Jewish interests in opposing Nazi Germany, although the film only very gingerly makes this extremely sensitive point). Fink, the Jewish radical is now under the thumb of Lipnick, the fearsome Jewish capitalist, and “goys” like the hapless sailors Barton encountered in the dance club will soon begin to die in droves on foreign shores, victims of a massive world war in which they are but pawns.
It would be reductionist, of course, to claim that the devastatingly satirical portrayal of Jewish radicalism and Jewish power is the essential thrust of Barton Fink. To be sure, the central theme of the movie transcends ethnic particularities. Self-indulgent artistic pretension and hypocrisy afflicts all types of people, Jew and non-Jew; Black, White, Red, Yellow, and Brown.
Still, the broader cinematic canvas of Barton Fink includes a daring, provocative, and honest examination of Jewish power and its wide-ranging manifestations and cultural ramifications. And as the latest spate of purges of thought criminals like Sanchez, Thomas, and Nasr attests, this is still a very live subject today, unlikely to fade into irrelevance anytime soon.