A Three-Espresso Hallucination

Audacious, difficult -- all right, weird -- Barton Fink confirms the status of the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, as distinctive postmodern film artists

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You're going to be hearing a lot about Barton Fink in the next few weeks. Gnomic, claustrophobic, hallucinatory, just plain weird, it is the kind of movie critics can soak up thousands of words analyzing and cinephiles can soak up at least three espressos arguing their way through.

It is, as well, the first film to accomplish the hat trick at the Cannes festival (best picture, best director and best actor), and we all understand, don't we, that when it comes to our own movies, the French always know what's best for -- and by -- us American primitives.

Finally, it is the work of two brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, who have, professionally speaking, rolled themselves into a single, significant auteur in the course of just seven years and four films, in the process developing cult and critical followings of large and vociferous proportions.

In other words, intrinsically problematic as Barton Fink is, it is good copy, especially in August, when scarcely an interesting creature is stirring in the theaters. Whether or not it is likely to prove good box office is quite another, if equally problematic, matter. For this is Terminhood season, and one has to wonder: Do a profitably large number of American citizens, out for a good time, or at best a conventionally inspirational one, really want to see a movie that is essentially about a man sitting in a hotel room suffering a monumental writer's block in Hollywood a half-century ago?

The answer is almost certainly no. This is not, putting it mildly, a subject of wide or particularly pressing current interest. Barton Fink's capacity for spiritual uplift is nil, and though the plight of the eponymous scrivener is often bleakly funny, we are not talking Hot Shots! here. In fact, with its long passages in which, literally, we are invited to watch nothing more stirring than paper peeling off the walls (or not moving through Barton's typewriter), the movie may challenge the faith of even the most loyal Coenheads.

But it will never shatter that faith beyond repair. For even when its narrative stalls and its dialogue stammers incoherently, the picture seems at worst a necessary mistake for its creators. At its best, and especially considered in the light of the Coens' previous ventures, Barton Fink seems both marvelously audacious and quite inevitable.

The Coens' earlier films, like those of many young filmmakers, worked out of, and off of, the American genre tradition. Blood Simple was a film noir, Raising Arizona a screwball comedy of sorts and Miller's Crossing, which was probably 1990's best movie, a reanimation of the classic gangster dramas of the 1930s. But these movies were not send-ups, rip-offs or slavish homages. Each was, instead, a dark, devious and witty reinvention of whatever inspired it. Barton Fink is, in this context, a logical next step. Evoking no particular genre, it is nothing less than a shrewdly perverse gloss on the darkly romantic (and wildly oversimplified) dialectic by which people have for ages tried -- and failed -- to understand how the whole movie enterprise works.

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