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…