The Cohen brothers’ film Barton Fink covers the tale of a struggling writer who is trying to voice the “common man” but consistently ignores him in order to get big bucks off of the antithesis, a slick Hollywood man. The main character, Barton, runs into plenty of other money-grubbing characters in the cynical film: a great writer he admires turns out to be a hopeless drunk; said writer’s mistress and Barton’s would-be muse is revealed to be conspiring to write the great writer’s great writing; and in the most striking reversal, the character representative of the common man ends up being a deranged serial killer. One of the film’s main themes, therefore, is deceit: everyone is worse than they act like or think they are. The other themes, like greed and pride, mostly serve as motives for the deceit.
Interestingly enough, I felt as if the film itself were deceitful; it is build purposefully, but never reaches a final purpose. The film is very stylized, with an Art Deco hotel and restaurant featuring strongly, accompanied by scenic Hollywood mansions and countryside picnics. This choice to sidestep realism makes us focus more on the themes, makes them seem stronger. The use of sound also seems purposeful: often, the film becomes very quiet, which allows subtle sounds like peeling wallpaper or mosquito buzzes to become noticeable. Occasionally the sounds even signal scene changes, as when an ocean wave opens and closes Barton’s Hollywood trip, or when a smashing whiskey bottle ends the picnic scene. This element of the film has the same effect as the stylization. By removing normal elements of life, the filmmakers highlight what remains, and so the sounds are allowed to play a larger part in the film than they normally would.
Even this is only the tip of the intentionality iceberg, though: hundreds of reviews have examined the film to find many allusions to famous literary works or real-life people, and the camera work itself is experimental, dipping down into a sink just before a character is killed in a move that might be symbolic of her death. For all this intention, however, the filmmakers have denied any symbolic unity within their film, and none is apparent in the mass of noise and scenes that they have produced. The film is very entertaining to watch, with plenty to think about, but once it had finished, I found it too postmodern for my taste. Not only does the film refuse to answer any of the questions it raises, but it does the whole thing so obliquely that I didn’t feel I could confidently explain what the questions were.