Every semester, I show my Creative Writing 1 students the 1991 Coen Brothers film Barton Fink. Those students who are foolish enough to enroll in Creative Writing 2 (and unlucky enough to have me again for a teacher) watch it a second time in that course. Students always ask: “Why are we watching this?” This is a good question — I encourage my students to seek answers, and questioning authority has been my modus operandi since I was a child. I’m happy to discuss all of this.
I’ve worked very hard to make my intentions clear: I spent weeks making a 20-minute multimedia presentation about the film. I spent months researching, writing, revising, and editing the 23-page Wikipedia page about Barton Fink with 152 citations to reliable sources; in January 2009 it was classified as a Featured Article. I have recorded an audio commentary for the movie, and I created a list of “Questions for Your Second Journey Through Barton Fink”. I would have thought these efforts were sufficient to explain why this movie is so important. But the questions are still coming, so apparently I haven’t been didactic or thorough enough.
Therefore I want to explain here, as clearly and directly as I can, why this movie is so important for writers. I doubt anyone who dislikes the movie will read this whole thing (just as I doubt they have read the Wikipedia article or considered deeply the questions I have provided), but I can’t risk leaving things unsaid. (Obviously the following are merely my opinions, and please note that many spoilers lie ahead.) So here we go.
#1: The Ego is the Enemy of Excellence
Barton’s ego is the villain of this story. So convinced is he of his genius that he becomes blind to the desperate needs of everyone around him — Charlie, WP Mayhew, and Audrey. He fails to see his art as a tool to improve the world, and instead sees it only as a means of attracting praise. Therefore he fails as a writer. I don’t want my students to follow in his footsteps.
I want my students to understand the danger posed by the ego. I want them to understand that the ego is both the little hater and the swollen pomposity. I want them to be confident in their work, but avoid falling into the traps of pride and arrogance. I want them to listen before everything starts falling apart around them. Just as we read Macbeth (repeatedly) to avoid making deadly mistakes of excessive ambition and ignoring conscience; and just as we read The Bluest Eye (repeatedly) to interrogate white supremacy and patriarchal violence; so too should serious writers examine Barton Fink (repeatedly) to avoid falling into traps of the ego, to which we are uniquely susceptible.
#2: Writing is Peace, but Also Pain
I agree with WP Mayhew when he says to Barton: “Ain’t writin’ peace?” But I also agree with Barton that the best writing comes from “a great inner pain”. It’s necessary for writers to wrestle down these paradoxical contradictions — along with the truism that it’s fun to spend time “makin’ things up”.
I want my students to find the peace that writing affords, without hiding from the inner pain that can drive their work to greatness. I want them to recognize that their lives are valuable but not sufficient by themselves for creating powerful stories. I want them to practice walking the tightrope between the peace and the pain. (Mayhew uses writing as an escape from his misery and distress, which is helpful and important. But I don’t want young people to “build a levy”, as he does with alcohol, to hide from the world. On the other hand, it can be useful to protect ourselves from “that ragin’ river of manure”; I just think we should find healthy forms of protection that don’t cut us off from people we care about.)
#3: Show Me the Life of the Mind
Barton claims to wrestle with “a type of pain most people don’t know anything about”, but of course Charlie is quite familiar with that pain. (Watch Charlie during the scene where Barton says this line.) He tells Barton to “make me your wrestler”, but Barton refuses to confront the totality of who Charlie really is, and as a result he is incorporating a life of the mind that is incomplete and therefore (I assume) incoherent. (We don’t know much about Barton’s script Burlyman, except that it has several lines in common with the play he wrote in New York, Bare Ruined Choir. We also know that Lipnick considers it “a fruity movie about suffering”.)
I want my students to engage honestly with the life of the mind, both their own and others’. I want them to celebrate the lovely, supportive, generous, kind elements that lurk within us all; but I also want them to examine and challenge the selfish, violent, bigoted, hateful elements that also lurk within us all. I want young writers to listen carefully to the people around them — not only to write authentic dialogue, but also to capture the honest essence of real people.
#4: Writers Have a Responsibility to the Audience
We cannot discuss Barton Fink without considering this quote from the Italian writer Italo Calvino:
There are two ways not to suffer from the inferno we are all living in every day. The first suits most people: accept the inferno and become part of it to the point where you don’t even see it any more. The second is riskier and requires constant attention and willingness to learn: seek out and know how to recognize whoever and whatever, in the midst of the inferno, is not inferno, and help them last, give them space.
The Hotel Earle is obviously an inferno, in which many people are suffering every day. Barton has the unique power to tell the stories of these people — especially Charlie — and thereby “help them last, give them space”. He refuses to listen to Charlie, of course, and pays a horrible price for it. What parts of Charlie’s story should Barton include, and how marketable would that story be? We can’t know, and part of the problem of writing in capitalism is the need to sell a product, while also (or instead of) telling important truths. But Barton fails to take his responsibility to Charlie (and the rest of his audience) seriously, and that’s a deadly mistake for any artist.
I want my students to consider their responsibilities as writers (and/or artists of other kinds). I do not want them to automatically agree with me about what those responsibilities are, but neither will I accept the common mindless refrain about how artists have no responsibility to anyone. Serious writers know that stories are more than “just stories”; they “create people”, as the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said.
#5: Empathy Requires Understanding
Once Barton realizes he needs to show empathy toward certain other people (Mayhew and eventually — perhaps — Audrey), he is told that “empathy requires understanding”, with the implication that he does not understand Mayhew well enough to truly empathize with him. Whatever we think about Audrey’s relationship with Bill and Barton’s take on it (and I’m honestly not sure what I think), we must recognize the tendency among humans to assume that we know what’s going on in the minds and souls of other people. But as the saying goes: “Always be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
One of the most common mistakes we humans make is to become certain in our assumptions, especially about other people. Many teachers believe they know what’s best for students. Many students believe they know everything worth knowing. Barton is certain that he knows what Charlie’s life is like, and look where that gets him.
I want my students to recognize the folly of false understanding, and stretch their muscles of empathy. I want them to put themselves in the shoes of others — as Barton briefly does with Charlie, with results that can only be described as bewildering. I want them to care genuinely about the distress of others, rather than simply claiming to care when their neighbors come knocking. I want them to write from a place of deep empathy, rather than simplistic judgment or mere sympathy.
#6: You Know the Drill
The “drill” that everyone speaks of in Barton Fink is a crucial shorthand for a drudgery that we are all familiar with, some more than others. Teenagers are quite familiar with the drill of school, listening to teachers drone on endlessly about subjects that may or may not prove important later in life. (The most difficult thing about constructing one’s intellectual toolbox is that we don’t know what’s going to be useful later in life.) They know the drill of walking through crowded hallways and eating processed food. They know the drill of juggling homework, jobs, friendships, parents, and life.
But as David Foster Wallace said in his immortal 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College: “[Y]ou graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means”. One of the most important parts of adult American life, he points out, is about “boredom, routine, and petty frustration”. Of course Barton — like many people — refuses to succumb to the drill of ordinary writing, or what Audrey calls the “formula” of 20th century filmmaking. (“Orphan? Dame?”) This is healthy; the worst thing an artist can do is mimic the mediocre work of a thousand forgettable others. But refusing to “lead lives of quiet desperation” (as Henry David Thoreau said) requires more than just rejecting “the drill” completely. We must find ways to skillfully resist the mundane without contempt for those (including, at times, ourselves) who are trapped within it.
I want my students to understand that many people have no choice outside of “the drill”, and empathy requires familiarity with it. I want them to reject the standard brain-dead modes of thinking and living, but I also want them to recognize the beauty in every moment, whether it’s a new path, or one we’ve walked a thousand times already.
#7: Industry Rule #4,080
WP Mayhew sings spirituals like “Old Black Joe” because he considers himself a slave to the Capitol Pictures industrial movie studio. As Lou Breeze says to Barton: “The contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures”, and at the end of the story, studio chief Jack Lipnick makes clear: “Everything you write is the property of Capitol Pictures, and Capitol Pictures is not going to produce anything you write.” Could there be a more atrocious position for a creative person to be in? (This is exactly the same reason why the musician Prince wrote the word “Slave” on his cheek in 1993. 22 years later he told Rolling Stone: “Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word — slavery.”)
In their 1991 song “Check The Rhime”, A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip said: “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty / Record company people are shady”. This is a lesson Barton learns the hard way. At the start of the film, Lipnick promises loudly that “the writer is king here at Capitol Pictures”, and assures Barton that if he doubts this promise, “take a look at your paycheck at the end of every week. That’s what we think of the writer.” But, as the saying goes, if money is what you love, then that’s what you’ll get. Dignity, control of your art, creative voice, and self-respect; all of these are on the table when you are beholden to a creative contract. In fact, “that’s what we think of the writer” is an insult, considering everything artists are expected to give up in exchange for those big paychecks.
Then there’s the whole matter of how Capitol Pictures tells stories. Ben Geisler tells Barton his project is “just a B picture”, and Audrey explains that “it’s really just a formula”. Given Lipnick’s insistence at the end that Fink’s script “won’t wash”, they appear to be correct. What does that say about our culture, that so much of our entertainment is robotically churned out to satisfy the simplistic bloodlust of the mob that wants (according to Lipnick) “action, excitement — wrestling! — and plenty of it”, and nothing else? (Of course Charlie says a wrestling picture with Wallace Beery “could be a pip”, which suggests that maybe the common man does just want simple fun-time entertainment so he can [as Mayhew says] “escape myself”. Therefore when Charlie says he likes Jack Oakie pictures, it may actually be helpful to understanding and/or locating him, despite statements to the contrary by Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch.)
I want my students to approach the world of professional writing with a fair understanding of how the industries of creative production work. I want them to be savvy about how capitalism works, and what will be expected of them if they wish to make a living with the written word. I want them to respect themselves as artists and as people, without suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. I don’t want them to be exploited by people making promises of great wealth or fame. I want them to heed the warnings of creative people who have gone before them, and live healthy lives of artistic freedom.
#8: Who Are You, and How Do You Know?
The twin principles of self-knowledge (who are you?) and epistemology (how do you know?) are deeply enmeshed in Barton Fink, as they are in the lives of all people who take writing seriously. When I can write fiction effectively, I feel as though I can make sense of the world around me — which is, after all, what philosophy is all about. Are you a good person? How do you know? What does it mean to be a good person, anyway? What does it mean to be a good writer? Remember, too, that appearance is often different from reality; we must avoid blurring the two. How can you be sure that what you believe to be true is actually true?
Think about this in terms of the movie: Are you Barton or Charlie or Audrey? Are you Charlie Meadows or Charlie Mundt? How do you know? (Of course you don’t murder people with shotguns. But have you never hurt anyone? How do you know?) Do you aspire to be Jack Lipnick or Lou Breeze? When and how are you Chet!? What mistakes do the characters make, and how could they avoid them?
One line that resonates deeply with me is from the end of the film, when Charlie tells Barton: “Take a look around this dump. You’re just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton. I live here.” I feel this way sometimes when students come and go through my classroom, and I’m left behind to stare at the same walls, the same desks, the same whiteboards. (Many times I feel like I’m reading the same stories from students over and over, heh.) This links also to Ben Geisler’s comment to Barton about how he should consider acting as an Indian in a western he’s producing because “Writers come and go. We always need Indians.”
I want my students to understand that identity is fluid and dynamic. It changes over time, and writing can play an important part in that process. I want them to recognize themselves as rivers into which they can never jump twice with the same outcome. I want them to appreciate the fluid and dynamic identities of others, and capture that essence in their writing.
#9: What Do You Want?
Just as in Good Will Hunting and Illtown, Barton Fink revolves around the question of what the main character really wants. He talks a lot of junk about wanting to help “the common man”, but he obviously isn’t willing to do that. He probably does want to create good writing, but for what end? Money? Fame? To assuage the distress and “inner pain” which torments him? Does he want to deal with his loneliness? (Barton enjoys one solid, authentic moment of community with his neighbor, when Charlie says: “You’re no stranger to loneliness, then.” How ironic that they get to have a tender moment together while discussing how alone they both feel.) Does he love Audrey? What does their love scene signify? Does she “understand” Barton in that moment, or is she merely helping him satisfy some base urge that might stand in the way of his story? Is her willingness to spend the night tender, or generous, or foolish, or selfish, or does it derive from some other desire? What does Mayhew want? What does Charlie want?
I want my students to consider carefully what they want, on a regular basis. Our desires can change quickly, and priorities can easily get twisted as time goes on. I want my students to consider their short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. I don’t want life plans and granite-carved schedules, but neither do I want brain-dead automatons (or starry-eyed insubstantial dreamers) wandering aimlessly without purpose. I tell my students all the time: If you don’t know what you want, someone else will be happy to fill the gap and send you on a mission of their own.
#10: It’s a Well-Told Story
In addition to all of the above, Barton Fink is a remarkably well-told story. As such, it deserves keen attention from storytellers who want to study the best written (and cinematic) art. The script contains deep symbolism (the mosquito, the woman on the beach, the bells); profound foreshadowing (“fire, theft, and casualty are not things that only happen to other people”); and remarkably authentic dialogue (“I want to know how many of Bill’s books you wrote!”). Notice how Audrey praises a book she probably wrote, during the outdoor luncheon scene. (And if you read the Wikipedia article, you’ll learn how one hard-to-hear line from Mayhew in that scene — “Silent upon a hill in Darien!” — is a reference to John Keats’s 1816 sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”.)
Then there’s the filmmaking technique itself: subject/object shots, zooming into the sink drain, the creepy atmosphere of the Hotel Earle, the costumes, the music, the sets, the sound editing: the Coens wield these tools with extreme precision and incredible attention to detail. They are among the most skilled filmmakers in the world, and this is among their finest films. Anyone keen to study the art of cinematic storytelling must take the Coen Brothers seriously.
I want my students to develop a taste for quality films that goes beyond simplistic entertainment like Happy Gilmore (a movie I love) and Michael Bay’s Transformers (a movie I despise). By introducing them to Barton Fink and insisting they take it seriously, I hope they will develop a more refined appetite for thought-provoking movies that do more than simply excite their bloodlust and funny bone. (I think the Coens succeed in part because they — like William Shakespeare and Toni Morrison — blend the desire for humor and excitement with deeper truths about human nature and painful beauty.
#11: Typewriters are Important
One final point (and there are many others I don’t have time to explore) concerns the noisy typewriters we find in Barton Fink. There’s an energy and power in these machines, giving the words a force they don’t have when we click quietly on laptops or mobile phones. (The Smith-Premier Typewriter Company originally made shotguns, then realized they could make more money producing typewriters using many of the same parts. The pen, in that instance, was more profitable than the sword.)
I want my students to write in different ways with different tools. I want them to consider the power of language and consider how we make our words, and which words we choose, and when, and why. I want them to understand the historical evolution of writing, and recognize the potential for harm and liberation that exists in every letter we create.