The audience is left to believe certain conventions about the life of writers in films like John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, James Lapine’s Impromptu and Brian Gilbert’s Wilde. There is often a love interest, one that inspires passion and thus story (or, as in the case of Oscar Wilde, self awareness), yet this passion tends to reside outside the institution of marriage. The writing is always done following the passionate living that inspires it and this passion must include sex. We see art written for the solicitation of money rather the romantic notion of art for art’s sake. To be productive, a personal, quiet space (often in the country) is necessary but an artistic community is also essential for inspiration and critique. And, of course, every writer does the bulk of his or her writing through the far more boring process of revision, which is sometimes portrayed and sometimes simply referred to. Success comes when art imitates life and life is worthy of such imitation. Each of these conventions, or some variation on them, are also incorporated into the fictional authors in the Coen Brothers’ 1991 film, *Barton Fink.
Fink’s (John Turturro) muse is the passion that flows from a connection with the common man, because Fink believes he is the common man. Interestingly, the Coen brothers playfully pair Fink with a real common man (or is he) Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) in a flirtatious game of wrestling. They then toss Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) in for the actual sexual bit. This dual muse conflates sexual passion previously seen in Shakespeare in Love and Impromptu with self awareness (or perhaps the act of being self absorbed) as seen in Wilde. Although Fink’s inspiration comes from two sources, they each get the job done resulting in a movie script.
Fink is not the only author with a non-traditional muse in this film. Although W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) appears to follow the long tradition of finding passion outside his own marriage (however violently induced by alcohol) in order to write a story, the twist is that Audrey, his secretary/lover/muse, authors his stories herself. There is something about secretaries in this film… Every one of them is always typing at the speed of light.
The Living and The Writing
When talking with the bartender early in the film, Fink says, “success stems from life among the common man, not cut off from it.” This explains his choice to stay at the dark, dank Hotel Earle rather than the swank upgrade offered by movie mogul, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). The problem is that occupying this space is not enough. It isn’t until Fink becomes embroiled with the actual living by engaging in surreal events within the common man’s walls that he can break though his writer’s block and produce. Charlie and Audrey become Fink’s writing community and only they are invited to enter his personal (yet rented) space.
In the span of 116 minutes we see Fink’s writing process in great detail. We stare, with Fink, at the blank page. We are distracted, as he is, by sounds permeating the soggy walls. A scenic beach painting inspires Fink’s imagination and we hear the sounds of waves and seagulls come to life. We finally see and hear the typewriter keys emphatically strike the page only to produce nothing of note. Fink’s imagination is impotent. Our next view is that of crumpled pages scattered across the desk under the harsh light of the lamp. The lamp shines down close to the surface illuminating the writing instruments and casting all else in shadow. The pressure to produce is as stifling as the oppressive heat and humidity that releases the wallpaper from Hotel Earle’s walls. When Fink does finally write, he strikes the keys with the stride of every Hollywood secretary we’ve seen. Charlie’s box sits beside the typewriter: The conflated muse. Presumably it is filled with Audrey’s head, everything that matters to Charlie all in one box. Fink ignores the phone, plugs his ears with tissue, tells the story as he types and the finished pages stack up. When the last page is torn from the typewriter, it reads “The End” and Fink decorates the final product with carefully placed crumpled pages. Process meets product.
Is Fink a Success?
As he says to the soldiers at the USO upon the screenplay’s completion:
I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator! This is how I serve the common man. [Pointing to head] This is my uniform.
The fight that ensues is a good bit of foreshadowing to the disrespectful reaction Fink gets from Lipnick. From the time Fink arrives in Hollywood, Jack Lipnick tells him:
We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!
By the end, we learn through Lipnick’s boisterous rant that the script won’t sell. “We don’t put Wallace Beery in some fruity movie about suffering – I thought we were together on that.” Fink may not have succeeded in producing the formula film, but he has done what he set out to do. Fink has written a movie script about the suffering of the common man. With an ending identical to his New York play, he has created his own brand of formula, one that won’t sell in pictures. Personal victory for this writer is also his own personal hell. As it turns out, he did only have one idea in him. Additionally, everything he writes belongs, under contract, to the pictures and yet no work of his will ever see the light of day. We are left to question whether success in writing is truly a success if the work is never critiqued by an audience. By what measure do writers then value their worth?
If a tree falls in the forest?
The Common Man
Last but not least, Charlie is a stumper. We are presented with what seems to be the common man. We fault Fink for never listening to this muse, the focus of all Fink’s work, yet Charlie is in no way the common man. He is, instead, the Devil. From here I can see two interpretations (at least):
We might infer from Fink’s neglect of Charlie that writers have some sort of gut feeling or knowing about life that nobody else does, even if they can’t fully see it themselves. In the beginning, Fink says, “A writer writes from his gut and his gut tells him what is good and what is mediocre. ” Charlie is certainly not “good” and perhaps not worth being the story. If this is true, perhaps Fink is drawn to Charlie because he somehow knows that Charlie is NOT the common man, although he pretends to be in the same way Fink does. Each are flirting with being the common man which manifests as flirtation between them.
If Charlie IS supposed to be the common man, this works too. The common man is always struggling to be heard, suffering from the oppression of the powerful and wealthy, unseen by the egotistical elite and harboring the culmination of this deep seated anger. Perhaps Fink, in his desire to connect with the common man does finally become him, struggling to be heard, suffering from the oppression of the powerful and wealthy, unseen by the egotistical elite, yaddah, yaddah…
The sequel to a previous post…
In response to a classmate who believes that French author Madam George Sand (Judy Davis) in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu, is “attracted to Chopin (Hugh Grant) because she unconsciously learned to be more feminine like he was,” I’d like to respectfully disagree.
Prior to Sand’s pursuit of Chopin, she is already quite feminine as demonstrated through her clothing throughout the film. As a child, she wears a dress and has long hair. Sand’s bed clothes in the very first scene are traditionally frilly with ruffles, bows and layers. At the first party where she is to meet her publisher, Chopin’s presence yet unbeknownst to her, Sand wears a rather eccentric dress/pants combination, but somewhat of a silken embroidered dress with a bow in front all the same. When she visits her mother prior to engaging in her relationship with Chopin she wears a conservatively elegant cloak and, when her mother dies, Sand’s mourning dress is a traditional black gown and her hair is traditionally upswept. Perhaps Sand entertains the idea of being fit for a more traditional dress when in pursuit of Chopin, but she also tries moving in the opposite direction by buying men’s clothing. Overall, I’d say Sand is never portrayed as strictly masculine nor feminine, but rather the perfect embodiment of both at once.
In thinking about the roles of man and woman I find that Sand, rather than learning to be more feminine from Chopin, becomes increasingly masculine once they are lovers. She takes on the traditional role of the courting gentleman buying flowers and advancing in constant persuit. Likewise, Chopin’s feminine behavior is simply reinforced in the process. I see no evidence of him becoming more masculine when he sits like a woman being rowed about in a canoe, is led up an escarpment, sits cross legged on the park bench, etc. Still, the space each occupies in this dichotomy is not enough to explain their relationship. I think it’s more than a topic of masculine and feminine.
What I find most interesting is Sand’s role as “mother” which, in many ways is more like both father and mother. Her own children live with her and are even brought with her to visit the Dutchess in the country when she could have left them with Mallefille, the male tutor who acts more like a mistress. At the same time, Sand is their sole bread winner, which explains the need for Mallefille in times when Sand can’t supervise the children herself. When she visits Marie, she always takes up the babies in a loving motherly fashion, gently coddling them and kissing their heads, yet she is dressed in men’s clothing and spends only brief stints in their presence, promptly handing them back to Marie. Marie, by contrast, is the epitome of womanhood, house bound with her breasts continuously unbound for nursing. Sand is always both, complete, the whole of a societal division.
This theme exists throughout Sand’s interactions with Chopin as well. The struggle of courtship in which Sand acts like a man in pursuit of a women is a complete failure, a ruse set in motion by Marie. It isn’t until Sand comes to Chopin as herself, vulnerable and yet brave to share that vulnerability, that the two connect. Only in this moment does Chopin “see” Sand. Once the relationship begins, Sand resumes the complete mother /father role. She protects him physically during the duel like a father, saves his pride like a mother, and then awkwardly gives him his milk. Rather than bringing out Chopin’s masculine side, Sand seems to be more in the market of raising the boy into manhood, to nurture him as a mother and father would, to help strengthen him into the mature and perfect love.
Sand is not looking for two halves to form one whole, but two complete people who join in one relationship. A perfect lover nurtures, gently guides, holds the hurts of her lover’s heart and has hers held in return. Gender divisions create a divide prohibiting this type connection, but Sand bridges that divide by being all things to Chopin. In doing so, Sand attempts to create her equal in all matters of the heart. When the couple rides off into the grey light of an overcast day, one not purely sunny nor stormy, one can hope this is the path to the perfect love Sand wished for in childhood.
My first introduction to Aurore “George” Sand, the French author, has come solely from my viewing of director James Lapine’s Impromptu. Having never read Sand’s work, nor any form of a biography, I have come to the topic with no preconceived notions. This film’s limited window into Sand’s life provides the opportunity for an interesting experiment. I’d like to compare my first impression of Sand as directed by Lapine with that produced by acquiring additional information. Will my initial understanding be supported, contradicted or enhanced by some quick research? Let’s find out.
When Young Aurore (Lucy Speed) first appears, she is a child running through the wilderness away from an authoritative voice calling her name. She arrives at a self-made altar of stones among the ferns growing at the base of a tree. There she kneels and prays:
Hear me, O Corambe. Corambe, thou who art man, woman and god in one, hear me. I free this bird in thy name. Come to me, sublime being. I want to know the meaning of life. And I want to find perfect, perfect love. I free this lizard in thy name. [To lizard] Don’t be dead. Oh, balls.
This shot dissolves to reveal Madame “George” Sand (Judy Davis) seated at a desk writing her memoirs.
This opening scene sets up the rest of the film entirely. George thrives in nature away from the confines of constructed society. She makes sacrifices to an a-typical God of the time who, rather than existing as a patriarchal being, is complete in both masculine and feminine form combined. There is depth to the author from the start, a desire to explore the many facets of life’s meaning including that of love. Aurore is not a well kempt child pristinely decorated with frills and bows but one willing to get down into the dirt and truly experience a moment from within.
From this point on, little about the character is ultimately shocking whether George appears in men’s clothing or crosses the boundaries of gender-based social etiquette. Still, she is complex, round if you will, open to her own emotion, contemplative and analytical while those who surround her are flat caricatures of the jealous, manipulative and overbearing friends, lovers and wanna-be artists. She drifts between the despair of being married and the despair of her freedom, searching for the happiness which can only be found in Chopin’s (Hugh Grant’s) love. Along the way, she makes her own rules just as she does within their relationship.
Rather than rely upon love for inspiration, as is the case in Shakespeare in Love, George appears to write about the journey, the struggle of life itself in her memoirs. When she and Chopin discuss his impromptu, the connection between this struggle in both art and life are addressed:
Chopin: A perfect impromptu should seem spontaneous and free. No one should be able to guess at all the desperate calculation behind it. And uh, I’ve been struggling with this for so long. It’s like being tangled in a net? I think if I ever finish it, then it will have finished me. Well, you must, you must suffer tortures to find the perfect word that will make it all seem effortless.
George: Me, suffer for art? You must be joking. I suffer quite enough for life.
I want to believe this separation for George is the truth, but there is evidence within the film to the contrary. When she hands the final chapter of her memoirs to her publisher, the pages are thinly bound. George then makes the correlation between the lack of content and a lack of emotional satisfaction in her life. Without one, the other suffers and the two are not as easily compartmentalized as she would like to believe.
I find that George and Chopin have much to offer each other. Chopin reveals to George that the struggle of art is the struggle of life while she reveals to him that he needs to reunite with the world of the living in order to create art. Only together do the two connect with each other, with life and with art, creating their world as would a god the likes of Corambe.
I’m off to read more on Sand now. Back shortly…
As it turns out, and I suspected as such, the depiction of George Sand is rather accurate in personality, regardless of the fictionalized version of her relationship with Chopin and my understanding of Sand has only been enhanced by internet inquiries. Generally speaking, Judy Davis’ skillful characterization personified Sand’s ability to avoid pigeonholing herself within any one particular category. Still, while I never expect a film to incorporate every aspect of a person’s character or story, I find it interesting that Sand’s politics factored in so little within the narrative of Impromptu. According to the George Sand Biography from Ohio University, she produced a great number of written propaganda pieces for the revolution and the provisional government:
Sand appealed to Louis Napoleon for clemency and amnesty for many of the people implicated in the revolution. She was granted at least two audiences, and through her intervention some were saved from execution, others given commuted sentences. Thirteen political detainees of the Indre region were spared exile of prison. She literally pled the cause of hundreds of people, including Bakunin whom she defended in a letter to Karl Marx (July 20, 1848). But she herself was crushed by disappointment, and retreated to literature for solace (see the two prefaces to La Petite Fadette) and to writing her memoirs, Histoire de ma vie, in which she alluded to the revolution only in Aesopian terms.
Timing here is interesting. The writing of her memoirs was the result and evidence of Sand’s ideological stance on the revolution. The film avoids this overt connection, although her thoughts on the aristocracy are made quite clear.