Commentary on Coen Brothers' Barton Fink

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This is an attempt to analyze Barton Fink from a psychoanalytical perspective. The whole analysis occurred to me while I was watching the movie. Neither had I read any analysis before, nor did I read any after the movie, except for a few passages from Wikipedia. My views and approach are very much inspired by Žižec's "The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema", a documentary which at the time had a tremendous effect on me.

The movie is full of symbolism and is essentially a story of an introvert artist's story of opening up to the world and connecting. The point-of-view to this process is neutral, however, it is implied that overall, it is indeed a positive change.

The first fundamental point is that many scenes in the movie are not strictly "real" or "surreal", but rather stand somewhere between the two. The directors take a liberal approach to the concept of reality: What seems to be real can easily slip sideways into surreality, and what is surreal feels eerily real. You could say that the movie is reminiscent of the morning dreams we have while slipping in and out of sleep.

The second point is that we slip into this realm of "pseudo-surreality" right at the beginning of the movie, and exit only at the very end. The only "real" scene in the movie is the beach scene, right at the beginning and also at the very end. The feeling of surreality does increase after this first slip at various occasions throughout the movie; nevertheless, no other scene is as real as the first and the final scenes. As I will explain at the very end, the whole sequence of events can be regarded as being outside of the objective reality - as a dream sequence. However, it is much more elegant to regard it as somewhere between a dream sequence and the objective reality, perhaps as the reflections of a series of events in the objective reality on Fink's own subjective reality.
The first clue into this setup is the picture that hangs Fink's room over the study: When the audience first sees this picture, we immediately recognize it as being the same as the location of the first scene. In fact, the picture even contains the woman. However, Fink shows no signs of surprise at seeing the same woman both in the picture and in the real life. This is our first clue that Fink has stepped into an alternate reality. This presentation is further enhanced by the ambient sounds: We hear the waves splashing whenever we see the picture from Fink's point of view: The subliminal message is that Fink never really left the place, and that all this is really happening inside Fink's head, in his own reality.

In fact, this reality is Fink's own subconscious. In this reality, his superego and his id clash. However, the symbols in the movie are not as clear as black and white. Each symbol represents a certain aspect of Fink's id or superego. This alternate reality is Fink dreaming. It is Fink meditating, imagining.

Within this alternate reality, we have as an important setting the room of Barton Fink. The room symbolizes his personality within this subconsciousness, the picture being a window into the real world. This window is the subliminal passageway; it is a symbol of connection between alternate realities that we see very often in cinema. This role of the picture as a window, an opening to an alternate reality is further enhanced by brilliant use of color: The picture is sunny and full of bright colors, whereas the room is poorly lit with darker shades of colors.

The room, in Freudian terms is Fink's "id", it is the place where Fink retreats in his own mind where he can be himself. This space is where Fink is free of all societal pressure, but it is also a dark space, much like Freud's conception of subconscious. Throughout the movie, the ambient music ensures that we understand that the papers peeling off the walls is a horrible event, not just a nuisance. At various occasions, the look of horror on Fink's face confirms this understanding. The papers that peel off the walls are actually Fink's personal, psychological barrier that is breaking down in face of the approaching "society". This process reaches its peak when finally, the whole room, in fact the whole building is set on fire.

Therefore, our first dominant symbol in the movie is the room, acting Fink's personal space within his mind. The second dominant symbol is Charlie. Charlie is the cause of the sounds that break Fink's concentration in his room. Further into the movie, Charlie is typically a cause of nuisance for Fink, by intruding into his room. Eventually, Charlie is the person that sets up the fire in the room, collapsing Fink's personal, inner identity. Charlie symbolizes the society. This is not necessarily a Freudian symbol, but it can be said to be one type of superego. (I'll explain the other superego in a minute.) Charlie's relationship with Fink is the main theme of the movie: The movie is a story of an introvert Fink opening up to the society. Fink takes his first step in the wrestling scene with Charlie. Even the word "wrestle" is a common, clear metaphor: We can easily say that we "wrestle" with the problems throughout the day at work, or we can even say that we "wrestle" with the societal pressure. Fink's first "wrestle" with Charlie ends in Fink being injured. Fink is further stunned by the savage force of Charlie. Charlie goes on to apologize - Fink is again surprised by this contrast: Charlie is both careless and capable of potential harm, yet can be overly caring when he chooses to be. In fact, Fink is for the first time facing the society which he has shunned up until now. Fink is first perplexed by how his ego can be injured by the society. He is then further surprised that society can also be understanding and helpful, restoring his confidence, repairing the damage to his ego.

One common theme throughout the first quarter of the movie is how Fink fails to take interest in the abundant story material coming from Charlie. Fink is looking for inspiration, and inspiration constantly failing to come to Fink when he sits in front of the typewriter. Ironically, inspiration is right where Fink is trying avoid: Charlie constantly relates stories from his work life that can give rise to a number of stories for Fink. This is actually Fink avoiding mixing with the society and concentrating on his own work. The irony is that the solution to his lack of inspiration is actually the very action he is trying to avoid: Mixing up with the society, represented here by Charlie.
The third and forth dominant symbols are W.P. Mayhew, (John Mahoney) the screenwriter which Fink aspires, and his wife, Audrey Taylor, played by Judy Davis. Mayhew is characterized by his alcoholism and violence towards his wife. Mayhew and Taylor come together to symbolize a mother and a father in an almost pure Freudian fashion. Mayhew is the steorotypical evil aspect of the father. Fink adores Mayhew as a role model - typical of a child's adoration of the father. When Fink gets to know Mayhew, he recognizes Mayhew's failings, typical of an adolescent boy growing up. This process of "growing up" is a parallel to the general theme - Fink opening to the society. This growing up is complete with the ultimate Oedipal victory, sex with Taylor. However, this victory is immediately followed by Taylor's death. In his mind, Fink suspects himself to be the murderer - even though the audience is presented with no reason for this suspicion: Fink has no prior record of misconduct or of psychological instability or blackouts. This is another clue for us to recognize that we are in an alternate reality. The death of Taylor is accompanied by a very distinct, eerie and strongly symbolic key scene: The camera, right before we learn of Taylor's death, zooms in on the sink in the toilet, then continues to zoom in on the hole, eventually the hole covers the whole screen, indicating to the audience that they are passing through a portal. This dark hole in the sink is a psychological symbol of a portal. This portal is a passageway from one state of existence to another. In this case, it is Fink's passage from childhood into adulthood through a Oedipal victory. At the same time, as the mother figure dies, we understand that something inside Fink has also died: It is the "child" within Barton Fink who wants to exist without interacting with the society. This part of Fink who just wants to be left alone dies in the scene. Later, we learn that it was Charlie, signifying the society that killed this part. Even in his final conversation, Charlie mentions that he has actually "helped" Fink through this act of murder. In fact, the murder is the murder of Fink's inner child, holding Fink back from interacting with the society. In this sense, Taylor is the the inner child and mother at the same time. In fact, in psychology, it is recognized that in our earliest stage of development, we fail to recognize the mother as being a separate being, sharing emotions in perfect unison. Taylor is such a symbol: It is the inner child in unison with the mother, oblivious of the outside world. It is this part of Fink's personality that the society manages to kill. This transformation is the important turning point in the movie.

Once this transition is complete, Fink's metamorphosis gains speed. Very soon, we reach to the famous fire scene. As the audience learn that it was Charlie who killed Taylor, they witness another crime from Charlie: The whole building is set on fire. As Charlie, symbolizing the society, the common people killed Fink's inner child which detested him, brings on the final assault on Fink by demolishing Fink's room, his personal space, his "womb". Fink is now totally open to the society, and simultaneously, his rite of passage into adulthood and self competence is complete. We learn from Charlie that he has actually "helped" Fink.

This complete change in Fink's personality is projected into his perception of the outside world. This perception is elegantly presented in his relationship with the Jack Lipnick, the producer, played by Michael Lerner. Lipnick is another superego figure: He is strong, in fact, he is almost an all-powerful figure. He is the ultimate authority figure. Throughout the movie, we are constantly reminded of this man's power by various characters, including one from Ben Geisler, played by Tony Shalhoub. At one point, Lipnick gets angry with his close aide, and fails to forgive him even when he apologizes earnestly, eventually firing him and evidently destroying the poor man. This is the characteristic of a God-figure, "smiting" upon the "non-believer". However, at the very last scene, this producer, this great man is further stylized into this figure of authority as he puts on a military uniform unexpectedly! However, this stylization is actually a caricature, as the camera angle from below underlines: This is actually Fink's perception of the guy: The authority figure that once appeared to be so great, so insatiable to Fink is no longer important. In Fink's eyes, Lipnick is no longer a real authority figure: He is a caricature of what he once was. His rejection of Fink's masterpiece is no longer important to Fink: Through the murder of his inner child by his interaction with the society, Fink has both matured, and found a source of inspiration that enabled him to write a great play. Because he has matured, he no longer needs the approval of any authority to acknowledge the brilliance of his masterpiece.

The final realization is even more subverse. The whole sequence being a personal dream, or an internal conflict resolution of Barton Fink can also be interpreted in another way: This alternate reality is perhaps not a meditation of Fink, but the projection of real life events in Fink's emotional, personal existence. Therefore, we can conclude with equal validity that the alternate reality is in fact not separate from the objective reality, but closely tied to it. Therefore, it is not necessarily "surreal", but stands somewhere between "real" and "surreal", hence, "pseudo-surreal". The symbols that I explained above still remain valid within this framework. Therefore, it is possible to analyze the movie as a momentary dream-sequence, totally separate from reality, but also possible to analyze it as standing somewhere between real and surreal. In fact, I believe that the second approach is the better explanation, giving the movie a wonderful, eerie quality, like stuck between reality and surreality. I prefer to call this plane of existence “pseudo-surreal”. Either way, it is a story of an introvert artist opening up to the people, connecting with the society and the change that this process brings on his personality.


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