Ktismatics

11 April 2010

Barton Fink by the Coens, 1991

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:13 pm

“You read the Bible, Pete?”

“Holy Bible?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, I think so. Anyway, I heard about it.”

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18 Comments »

  1. Always liked this one… and the Hudsucker Proxy… it’s been years, though, since I’ve seen either.

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    Comment by anodynelite — 13 April 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  2. This movie is what turned me on the Coens. If I understood film criticism, I could tell you why I think it’s so awesome.

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    Comment by Asher Kay — 13 April 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    • If I understood film criticism, I could tell you why I think it’s so awesome.

      must you be cryptic? Film criticism doesn’t even exist as much as the objectologists do, anybody can do it. You just want to withhold, that’s what it is. Hee hee, probably don’t know what to say, or maybe it’s even WORSE…you maybe don’t have anything to say, and want to worship the grandeur of film criticism, which has been called ‘petit point on kleenex’. Judy Davis marvelous, and the Faulkner part all good. I liked this too.

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      Comment by Anonymous — 13 April 2010 @ 2:32 pm

      • Yeah, I must be cryptic. It’s just how I was made.

        What I was thinking when I wrote that is that with fiction (and to a lesser extent, poetry) I have a grasp of how to go about discussing it, and a certain amount of confidence that my opinions are meaningful. With films, I feel at a loss. I don’t worship film criticism, but I do worship the things that filmmakers can do to my head without my being able to fully grasp or analyze it. So I guess I’m jealous in a way.

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        Comment by Asher Kay — 13 April 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  3. I’m guessing that it’s been awhile since you saw this movie, Asher, so you might not remember much detail beyond the general positive impression. This was my position too before watching it again last night.

    I agree about Judy Davis’ performance, Anonymous: a hilariously tragic figure, yet still touching.

    I read that the Coens wrote this movie about writer’s block while they were bogged down in writing Miller’s Crossing. They wrote the whole thing in three weeks.

    The Hotel Earle reminded us of a place we stayed once in Montauban, France. Two old witches ran the place; the wallpaper and furniture were hideous, the layout labyrinthine; the guy in the next room sounded like he had consumption. Maybe everybody has his or her own personal experience with the Hotel Hell.

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    Comment by john doyle — 13 April 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    • It has been quite a while. What I remember are snapshots of various moments in the film. I also remember being ticked off by the ending (the bit with the box) the first time I saw it, and at the same time liking it.

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      Comment by Asher Kay — 13 April 2010 @ 5:14 pm

      • ‘What I was thinking when I wrote that is that with fiction (and to a lesser extent, poetry) I have a grasp of how to go about discussing it, and a certain amount of confidence that my opinions are meaningful.’

        YOu might have real instincts on this one, you know. Those who have worked in Hollywood films, at least, think even the most professional film critics say idiotic things, because you can’t see an enormous amount from the finished, edited product. So it’s mostly reveries and dreaming, although the more auteur type of films you can analyze to some degree just like fiction or poetry. You can also review evne the most collaborative films in a superficial way, that’s what most people do? Why must you be so humorless? Most people are willing to write pure shit about movies, you know. I can see no reason why you ought not to just ‘get with the programme’ and write stupid-ass reviews just like everybody else.

        Seriously, once you know that films’ production is hard to see from the finished product, you can do some research, that guy Gold wrote a good one on the mechanics of production, so that you at least know what you definitely can’t know, how you can’t know what a director did with something, what a writer did, the way you can even with a play.

        But beyond that, you can just accept that you don’t know those technical matters, and go ahead and work at the fragments from the finished product, read some decent film research and history, preferably by those in the business, and then go about it rather pointillistically. That’s what some were recently asking about dilettantism and having some training, say, in music, but being able to savour some subtleties anyway. Since we can’t be expert at everything, if you look at films’ peculiar and singular form of mystery, there’s no reason you can’t just jump in: This, for example: “but I do worship the things that filmmakers can do to my head without my being able to fully grasp or analyze it. So I guess I’m jealous in a way.”

        Oh, don’t be silly. In fact, the things that they do to your own head can ONLY be described by you. You don’t think the director or stars know anything about the way you worship them with your own head, now do we? I keep running into these babies today, all you do is write a list to begin with, then make a tiny outline. This solves all kinds of writer’s block. I employed just such a method today for a poem I must now write about female ghosts.

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        Comment by Anonymous — 13 April 2010 @ 7:25 pm

      • “all you do is write a list to begin with, then make a tiny outline. This solves all kinds of writer’s block.”

        The Coens claim that they weren’t experiencing writer’s block on Miller’s Crossing when they wrote Barton Fink — they just felt sort of sluggish and ponderous in their progress. They needed some fresh air, something else to look at and think about for awhile. So they wrote this movie, felt refreshed, and finished Miller’s Crossing. They do have a knack for taking a premise and carrying it out to an interesting conclusion. On Barton Fink, though, it seems that they had in mind both the beginning and the almost-end when they started, so it was a matter of getting from point alpha to pre-ordained point omega in an entertaining way. But the sets and costumes and sound effects are works of art as well, the toxic hotel itself being a kind of “life of the mind” in its own right.

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        Comment by john doyle — 13 April 2010 @ 8:50 pm

      • “I can see no reason why you ought not to just ‘get with the programme’ and write stupid-ass reviews just like everybody else”

        I think you’re right, Anonymous. When I get back home from my trip, I’ll watch Barton Fink again and attempt a review.

        Part of my intimidation about this stuff comes from the fact that I know someone who works in films — a person who, when we lived closer, used to bring over films like Barton Fink, Memento, Anchorman, Wild At Heart, etc., and make me watch and discuss them. He’s not a “big, important” film person, but he won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2003 for a screenplay, and talking to him makes me keenly aware of what I don’t know about film.

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        Comment by Asher Kay — 15 April 2010 @ 10:37 am

  4. The Coens typically disavow any deep meaning or extensive symbolic value of their movies. Of course that shouldn’t stop us from finding whatever there is to be found.

    “the things that filmmakers can do to my head”

    Here’s Madman Mundt’s big speech as he walks on down the hall with his wide-gauge sawed-off:
    “LOOK UPON ME! LOOK UPON ME! I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!!”
    …and with that he blows Detective Deutsch’s head off.

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    Comment by john doyle — 13 April 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    • Was “the life of the mind” a phrase he used apropos of nothing? Or did it come from something Fink had said to him earlier in the film?

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      Comment by Asher Kay — 13 April 2010 @ 7:14 pm

      • Also, Asher, I should mention that this has made me think of the ‘movie reviewer style’ that has become so prevalent with the advent of IMDb and the blogs; the latter are not quite as sickening, in that they don’t do imitations of professional reviewers, at least not in this sphere of bloggers, which get all religio-ideological about everything. But most of the IMDb writers are hilarious, because they write things like ‘this is clearly her greatest film’ and ‘Welles was never to achieve such heights again’ and ‘what disappointed me was the lack of attention to detail…’ etc., they get the pompous style they’ve learned from old anthologies of Kael and Simon down to a T.

        John–hotel horrors in France very often include a poor consumptive in a nearby, but often difficult to pinpoint room. Paris is very happy to oblige this way, giving it that permanent melancholy of death which is always close to the stereotyped young lovers. I’ve had a number of nightmare hotel experiences in Paris, including finding myself in a wino hotel at the Place du Pantheon, which was called the Hotel des Grands Hommes, and was full of cutthroats. I actually slept there for 2 hours in exhaustion even after seeing that the doors had been forced open and the locks broken numerous times, and then got up and just went ahead and paid for something decent. They were hanging out with their pints right in the hallways, and is more like sometning I associate with the old Bowery in New York pre-gentrification, than I do with a very nice area of Paris.

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        Comment by Anonymous — 13 April 2010 @ 7:37 pm

      • We stayed in another Hell Hotel in Milan. An attractive young woman solicited us at the train station, and for some reason I took her up on her recommendation to stay at the hotel she was pitching. No lobby on the ground floor: we had to go up to about the 5th floor to check in. I suspect a lot of patrons paid by the hour. The room had mosquitoes, just like Barton Fink’s. Our window looked out on the tallest building in town, which just a week before had been intentionally crashed into by the suicidal pilot of a small plane, so the upper floors were a charred wreck. Ah, Milano!

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        Comment by john doyle — 13 April 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    • Barton prattles on pompously about how Hollywood is the place for him to explore the life of the mind, a place where there are no roadmaps, and so on. He’s trying to be the great auteur of the common man, writing pieces filled with meaning and truth, but he’s been hired to write a wrestling picture. Mundt demonstrates what sort of life of the mind is called for in Hollywood: mad men with shotguns running down flaming hotel corridors blowing peoples heads off. I think this is the Coens’ insight about making movies, although of course they disavow any self-referentiality in this film.

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      Comment by john doyle — 13 April 2010 @ 8:34 pm

  5. “and talking to him makes me keenly aware of what I don’t know about film.”

    In that case, Asher, you’ve got someone who’s started you off right, because it can then be recreational. If you look at my long ‘extravagance’, as John calls it, that I wrote about ‘Chinatown’, that’s the way I discovered I’d write about films, that’s my ‘cine-musique’ style. There’s a chapter of reviews in my book that are written largely like that post today, and I find it a very loosening thing to do. There’s one long new passage in the forthcoming book with cine-musique based on my most recent sojourn in Los Angeles, but having written this one today, I was then able to go ahead and write out the rough draft of a fifth chapter of this new book, since we have delays of publishing it, given that my publisher has many artbook projects to do (even though his own drawings are included in our book.) This last chapter was definitely subject to real writer’s block, and I didn’t want to write it. Not that anybody else is going to write about movies like I do, but at least even in the published ones that John has read, I don’t try to be authoritative about the films themselves, in the sense that I can be sure of a lot of things, but I do exactly what you were saying, ‘write about what the films do to make me worship them with my head’ (great line, btw), and in the case of a powerful film like ‘Chinatown’, you can see that it made me seek out locales.

    One of the strangest things about writer’s block is that you can’t tell that that’s what it is sometimes. Serious writer’s block occurs when someone won’t even do some automatic writing, because s/he can’t even stand the ‘garble’ that comes out. But it often starts with garble. Well, maybe I’ll dedicate the last chapter to Unnameable, that way we can use his name even without giving him credit for the work he wrote himself, and I certainly couldn’t have written the last chapter without his outrageous tutelage and assistance. He’s already a character in it, now this will be a way that he can always be my Great Heroin…hee hee…I probably ought to dedicate the first one to CollapseP., since without him I’d never have started it, nor finished, although he can’t be said to have been of any technical help after that first rejected chapter…sadly…

    But yes, your friend would be one of the few who would be actually equipped to write real film reviews if he wanted to. Most in the business don’t.

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    Comment by anonymous — 15 April 2010 @ 7:34 pm

  6. […] just hope the pool is ‘Ballardian’ (pdf file) and drained. You suddenly feel like Barton Fink […]

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    Pingback by Plain Text Files Rock « How To Play Big Science — 5 December 2010 @ 10:12 am

  7. […] Let’s just hope the pool is ‘Ballardian’ (pdf file) and drained. You suddenly feel like Barton Fink […]

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    Pingback by Why Plain Text Files Rock « «HOW TO PLAY BIG SCIENCE» — 1 January 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  8. […] Let’s just hope the pool is ‘Ballardian’ (pdf file) and drained. You suddenly feel like Barton Fink […]

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    Pingback by Why: Plain Text Files Strange Rock | ALIEN FICTION — 7 July 2011 @ 8:43 pm


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