“I Will Show You the Life of the Mind”: Barton Fink (1991)

After a credit sequence in which the camera slowly moves down sickly green Art Deco wallpaper, the first shot of the film continues this downward trajectory, moving along a system of ropes and pulleys. We hear the declamatory tones of stage actors. The camera tracks past and then holds on a figure waiting in the wings. The first cut shifts to an apparent POV shot of the stage as the curtain raises to audience applause and calls of “Author! Author!” One of the actors gestures toward the wings.

This opening sequence establishes many of the themes and motifs of the Coen Brothers’ film—the wallpaper points to the interior of the Hotel Earle, as does the onstage dialogue’s oblique mention of a room “six flights up”; the backstage setting indicates that the film will be about the process and perils of creation; the dreams of the common man find voice in the play’s dialogue, expressing Barton Fink’s aesthetic preoccupations. It’s significant that the voice delivering the monologue is John Turturro’s: the same actor playing both the playwright and the play, signaling the film’s eschewal of realism or naturalism for a technique where all polarities—subject or object, dream or reality—are ignored.

The dialogue from the onstage play—its title, Bare Ruined Choirs, taken from Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, an elegiac meditation on decline and mortality—explicitly concerns these oppositions: “Dreaming again!” “Not this time, Lil! I’m awake now, awake for the first time in years! Uncle Dave said it: ‘Daylight is dream if you’ve lived with your eyes closed.’” Given the film’s echoes of Kubrick’s films—the long tracking shots down a hallway, the theme of the suffering writer adrift in a monstrous hotel—an appropriate alternate title for the Coen film could have been Eyes Wide Shut.

The dream motif occurs again in the scene where Barton, in extremis, consults the Gideon Bible. He opens it at random to a chapter from the Book of Daniel: “And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.” The necessity for interpretation (separating the latent from the manifest), for escape from the solipsism of the life of the mind into any sort of objectivity, seems an impossibility in the world of the film. Violence—being “cut into pieces”—is the cost of such feckless navel-gazing: the return of the repressed, in other words. Charlie Meadows (a gentle, bucolic name) turns out to be Karl “Madman” Mundt: “People can be so cruel,” he ironically laments, “if it’s not my build, it’s my personality.”

Meadows/Mundt can be construed as a projection of Barton’s ambivalent view of the common man he so vehemently extols—good-natured and “salt of the earth,” as well as a raving homicidal maniac given to ventilating his prey with a shotgun and removing their heads, that is, relieving them of the burden of thought and dream. An oblique reference bears this out: the book Mayhew gives Barton (called, of course, Nebuchadnezzar) bears the imprint of a publishing house (Swain & Pappas) which refers to the authors of philosophical works concerning the limits of epistemology.

The final scene of the film brings these themes full circle: After turning in a draft of his script which is nothing more than a reworded copy of his play (an instance of repetition compulsion arising from impotence) and being consigned to “Hollywood hell” (he must stay and write but whatever he writes will not be realized), Barton wanders along the strand carrying a box. He sees the girl from the picture in his hotel room. She asks him, “What’s in the box?” He answers, “I don’t know.” “Is it yours?” she asks. “I don’t know.” The limits of knowledge and perception have been reached, art turns in upon itself (Barton enters the picture). The ironic punch line comes: He asks her, “Are you in pictures?” (The ambivalence of his question is perfectly in keeping with the sort of Wittgenstein-inspired language games the Coen Brothers like to employ.) She replies, “Don’t be silly.” But, of course, she is in pictures—and in more senses than one.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to “I Will Show You the Life of the Mind”: Barton Fink (1991)

  1. P says:

    Wonderful film, and a great write-up. Thank you.

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