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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And they're not telling. On all their films Joel is credited as the director, Ethan as the producer and both as screenwriters; but it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Nor will they discuss the quite separate private lives they lead when they leave the Manhattan studio apartment where they meet every day to write and storyboard their films. They also refuse to lay out the meanings of their films or make any large moral claims for them. They say the Barton Fink script arose in part out of a writing block of their own, in part out of a desire to write a good role for their pal Turturro, in part because, in Ethan's words, "we started thinking about a big empty hotel." As he says of these various elements, "Who knows quite how they go together or what precipitates what?" To say more than that, adds Joel, "is just not appealing to us in any way."

Indeed, their dreamlike realization of their script, though often imagistically striking, deliberately subverts their message and all too often alienates the viewer. You get the feeling that visually they are purposely, maybe even maliciously, messing with our heads instead of informing us. But whether they admit it or not -- and it's not something anyone who needs mainstream financing is likely to own up to -- the Coens are palpably, self- consciously postmodern artists, and that sets them apart from almost everybody else making theatrical films in America today. They are therefore entitled to patience, respect and, yes, perhaps a special gratitude for this movie, which never once compromises its fundamentally unpromising yet courageously aspiring nature.

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