by Stephen Sparks
“Are you in the pictures?”
The photograph hanging above the desk is the only decorative element in Room 621. The room’s two windows are blind, looking out onto the drab bricks of the adjacent building, and except for this picture of a blonde woman seated on a beach with her back to the viewer, the walls are unadorned.
The woman’s right arm is raised, shielding her eyes as she looks out to sea. An umbrella planted nearby does not cast its shadow over her. The blue horizon, where the sea meets the sky, is the sharpest feature in an otherwise soft image. It’s an unexceptional picture—standard mid-century hotel kitsch—but, to use the parlance of another Coen Brothers film, it “really tie[s] the room together.” And, as with many otherwise innocuous things in Barton Fink, it assumes enigmatic overtones as the plot develops.
Placed atop a pile of books on my desk is a photograph of the sea. My girlfriend, who took it on a beach on Cape Cod, gave it to me. We live in San Francisco, near another sea, but both of us (then unknown to each other) grew up with the Atlantic. For several years, in fact, I lived within earshot of that haunted and historied ocean.
The photograph she gave me is, like the one hanging above Barton’s desk, unremarkable: it’s of an autumnal New England sky, heavy white clouds tinged with gray piling up in the distance. Looking at it, I can almost feel the wind scraping grains of sand along the beach.
I sit at my cluttered desk—piling ever higher with books—and attempt to write. When I feel unable, which is often, I find myself drawn to that image. There isn’t a mysterious figure in the foreground tempting my imagination, nor is the scene as serene as that on the wall in Room 621, but the magnetic pull of the horizon, the way it promises something else, is, I think, similar to what draws Barton out.
The Coen Brothers wrote Barton Fink for John Turturro, whose nervous energy gives the titular character, a naïve but committed leftist playwright who rails against high art in favor of one capable of elevating the so-called common man, a believable sincerity. Barton has come to Los Angeles—Steve Buscemi’s understated Chet, Hotel Earle’s ubiquitous concierge, enunciates those four syllables as if they were four separate words—to write for the pictures. Barton’s initial concern that working in Hollywood would be a betrayal of his artistic and political commitments has been quickly (too quickly?) brushed aside in favor of a thousand dollars a week—a significant sum in 1941. “The common man will still be here when you get back,” his manager in New York assures him.
And so he goes west. As if to reconcile himself to his decision, he checks into the Hotel Earle, a gloomy, ghostly place home to two types of visitors: trans or res. “Transient or resident,” Chet explains. Barton, feeling neither here nor there, replies that he’ll be here “indefinitely.”
A little over six years ago, I moved from New Jersey to San Francisco. I was coming out of a messy break-up and decided, with the desperation of a man pushed into (or, more honestly, backed into) a corner, that I would move three thousand miles away. I didn’t have a job lined up, I only vaguely knew two people in San Francisco, and I had no place to live. The line between bravery and stupidity is often razor thin; I’ve never been able to decide on which side of it this decision fell.
Although my similarities with Barton Fink end with the distance we covered—regrettably, no one was waiting with a check upon my arrival—I think our decisions were based on a common impulse: in order to see more clearly what you love, you sometimes have to look at it from a great distance. To allow thehere to become a there.
The photograph lures Barton immediately. It is the only opening in the room, a view from a porthole in a creaking ghost ship. Early in the film, one assumes that Barton is drawn to the vista as he is drawn to the plight of the working stiff. Yet as the story unfolds we learn that Barton’s commitment to the common man is largely theoretical; this figure is an idealization, an emanation of the writer’s intense inner battle. This, of course, isn’t to say that Barton’s allegiance to the class struggle is feigned; perhaps the most damning criticism one could level against him is that he is too sincere.
Barton’s real commitment, though, is to his Art. The struggle, he shouts from his high horse, is here, finger pressed firmly against his temple. This is reflected in the camera’s focus when he is transfixed by the photograph: for the most part, we look at Barton looking at the picture.
Which is to say: the photograph is watching him.
Throughout the film, Barton’s pretensions as a writer are undercut by those around him. While having lunch with Geisler (an exuberant Tony Shaloub)—the unwilling, overworked producer of the Walter Beery wrestling picture—Barton asks to talk to another writer to get some sense of what’s expected of his new role. Exasperated, Geisler tells him that if he threw a rock in the restaurant he would likely hit a writer. He adds, with delicious contempt, “Do me a favor, Fink. Throw it hard.”
W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, doing a spot-on Faulkner), a man Barton calls the greatest novelist of his time, is a wretched, raving souse without any dignity—or, it turns out, anything left in the tank except for the sloshing contents of a bottle of whiskey.
Even the studio boss Lipnick (Michael Lerner), who is ingratiating when it serves him and whose insistence that Barton is not working on a B-movie clearly demonstrates that Barton is, in fact, working on a B-movie, ruthlessly pulls the plug as soon as he realizes Barton is wasting his time. “You’re not a writer, you’re a write-off,” he spews at the end of the film, spitefully refusing to cut Barton free.
The only figure in the movie who defers to Barton’s self-importance is affable Charlie Meadows, a hulking door-to-door insurance salesman rendered pitch-perfectly by John Goodman. (“Fire, theft, and casualty are not things that only happen to other people,” he prophesies.)
What strikes more fear into the fragile psyche of a writer than seeing another writer sit in a room alone and slowly lose his mind? Despite the film’s apocalyptic culmination, it carries the weight of an allegory of the writing life. The real world, the one that cares very little for the writer’s task, exists. It’s here, it exerts gravity: in that photograph, living next door, pounding on the door.
In his Pensees, Pascal laments that “all of humanity’s problems come from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It’s the photograph—and, in part, what’s on the far side of the photograph—that lures Barton out of his concentrated solitude.
At the beginning, of course, all Barton desires is to sit and work in peace, alone with his mighty themes. But the clamor of the world comes to him, through the thin wall, in the sound of a man weeping in the next room. Or is he laughing? As with much in Barton Fink, the answer is ambiguous, endlessly interpretable, even contradictory.
The horizon, claims French poet Yves Bonnefoy, exists as a temptation, drawing us away from the here and now towards an imagined country—Bonnefoy calls it the arriere-pays. Thearriere-pays (translated imperfectly into English as the “hinterlands”) is not a real country—or even a country; part of its allure is its endless mutability and its ability to keep its distance. You can never reach the other side of the horizon. Therefore, this place or non-place existing on the far side of the unapproachable horizon is similarly out of reach.
For Barton, the horizon exists on several levels: the enigmatic woman whose face he can never know, the unapproachable distant edge of the sea, and what’s just over there, the next room over. (The closest we come to seeing the inside of the room next door happens just after Barton discovers that the woman he slept with the night before has been butchered in his bed. A cold blue light spills out.)
The horizon also represents an escape. And, we sense, there’s little Barton wants more than to escape the situation he has gotten himself into.
Despite my cynicism about our ability to escape certain uncomfortable facts about ourselves, part of the reasoning behind my move from one coast to another was that I would get a fresh start somewhere new. I never say that aloud, because it feels naïve. But now, seeing it in writing, I understand it’s more complex.
The over-there need not always be taken so literally—often it’s more effective as a metaphor. Yet all of us at one time or another feel pulled toward something new and unknown, something that will resonate inwardly, reminding us that we are bells struck by the world whose tones change depending on where we are rung.
The Hotel Earle is an uncanny place. Its yellow-and-green wallpapered hallways are putrid. It’s full of incongruous elements: mosquitoes—which, Geisler emphatically states, do not exist in Los Angeles; a half-dead elevator operator (or, more optimistically, half-alive); seeping walls; and pairs of empty shoes lining its ghostly corridors.
In a film full of uncanny elements, perhaps the most jarring scene is not the revelation of a butchered woman in Barton’s bed, as shocking as that is, but something more uncomfortably close to home: when Barton finally feels a surge of inspiration (only after the fateful crime), he sits at his desk burning with feverish intensity and slips his feet into a pair of shoes, which he realizes are not his.
The layers of symbolism in this scene are rich and understated. (Barton’s ability to create an art capable of elevating the common man is debatable, but he certainly does not measure up otherwise.) What makes it the uncanniest scene in the film lies in the nature of its transgression: it severs the false distance between the mind and the body. At the moment Barton slips his feet into the shoes of a poor working stiff, the distinction is abolished. His feet, down below, are revealed to be just as much a part of his being as his head, where the struggle takes place. And his feet don’t lie: something is off.
Karl “Madman” Mundt rises like a creature from the deep—remember, he resides somewhere within that blue distance hanging on the wall in his neighbor’s room—to prey on Barton. Whether or not we think Barton is deserving of his cruel fate, there are two indisputable facts: one, Barton summoned the beast up from the depths; and two, full of confidence in his ability to speak for the common man, Barton was, like other intellectuals of his time, blind to that common man’s hidden recesses.
A film as ambiguous as Barton Fink invites multiple readings, especially of the relationship between Barton and Charlie. The two are lovers; Charlie is the devil and the Hotel Earle his private hell; Charlie is a manifestation of Barton’s overworked, feverish brain; Charlie, the good-natured everyman within whom lurks a Karl Mundt, is an embodiment of the perversion of National Socialism; etc. Each of these interpretations has its particular merits and each casts the film into a new light, shimmering and shifting like the perpetually moving sea.
Dante reserves the sixth level of his Inferno for heretics, whose punishment is to suffer eternally in flaming tombs. After Charlie—or, at this point, Karl “Madman” Mundt—breaks the bars on Barton’s bed, allowing the unshackled victim to escape, Barton stands in the flaming hallway and watches Charlie enter his room.
Before being freed—not out of mercy—Barton asks Charlie “Why?” Why—this? The murders, the cruelty, the mysterious box? Echoing and perverting an earlier statement that “understanding requires empathy,” Charlie replies, “Most guys I just feel sorry for… I feel for ’em. So I try to help ’em out.”
Then, crushing Barton’s illusions about his role as an artist, he concludes with sadness: “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here.”
Stephen Sparks lives in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared in Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and the LA Review of Books.