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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As this story is traditionally told, Hollywood is the great corrupter of innocent talent, luring it away from righteousness with false promises of easy money for easy work, then blunting and eventually ruining it with vulgar values and stupefying assignments. In the Coens' revision of this legend, their title character (John Turturro, quite correctly a Coen favorite) is a proletarian playwright who calls to mind that real-life theatrical leftist $ Clifford Odets. Working on a wrestling picture at the behest of a studio boss (Michael Lerner) straight out of every literary intellectual's nightmares, and turning for advice to drunken, softly cynical W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a figure unmistakably inspired by William Faulkner, Barton is neither a heroic symbol of resistance to materialism nor a sympathetic victim. He's just kind of a jerk.

Historically Odets is usually seen as the great cautionary example of what Hollywood can do to a principled artist. But as the Coens reimagine the type, it is actually his unexamined political principles that undo him, not Hollywood crassness. Believing not wisely but entirely too well that all virtue resides in the common man, he befriends Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), his next-door neighbor in the hotel, who could not be more genially common -- nor better played. Goodman's sunny menace sheds a glorious crosslight on Turturro's superb performance as an almost perfectly unattractive man, at once arrogant and self-effacing, politically articulate yet incapable of ordinary human connections.

Anyone else but Barton might have read the danger signals Meadows sends forth, might have guessed at the murderous madness beneath his bonhomie. When, eventually, Meadows strikes perilously close to Barton, and the writer finally asks why, he gets a chilling answer that contains, perhaps, the entire moral of the movie. "Because you don't listen," Meadows says. This is, of course, precisely the problem with people who substitute grand ideological fantasies for clear and realistic observation of the world.

The Coens, who themselves like to play boyish innocence, are in fact odd ducks, not least in their symbiotic closeness. In conversation they have a slightly spooky habit of finishing each other's sentences. "You're only working with one boss," says Barry Sonnenfeld, the cinematographer of their first three films. "He just happens to be in two bodies." In their compulsively careful (and frugal) working methods, the Coens are as alienated from contemporary Hollywood as their protagonist is from the old-time movie colony. Growing up in a Minneapolis suburb, the sons of university teachers, they made little super-8 parodies of the movies they saw on TV before going their separate ways for a while -- Joel, now 35, to study film at New York University and start a career as editor of low-budget features, Ethan, now 32, to major in philosophy at Princeton. It may be that the former's intelligence is the more cinematic, the latter's the more literary, but only they know for certain the details of their collaboration.

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