The video game I’ve been playing is called PaRappa the Rapper and yes, its as fun and hilarious as it sounds. Its a Japanese rhythm game, with a similar skillset to that of guitar hero in that the player’s goal is learning to press the right buttons as the on screen avatar gets better at rapping. The protagonist of the narrative of the game is an adolescent dog who is in love with a sunflower named Sunny Funny. In each level, PaRappa learns new life skills (ie how to drive, how to make cake, how to play karate, etc) while also learning different styles of rap. His goal in the game is win Sunny’s affection through rapping. The final level is a rap concert which you have to master in order to win Sunny’s heart. If you don’t, she shrugs coyly and says “maybe next time”, enticing the player to gain back their pride and get the girl. In any given level, depending on your proficiency at mimicking the rhythm of the particular rapping teacher, PaRappa is deemed rappin’ “cool” “good” “bad” or “awful”. At certain points, if you lose a level, there are graphic interludes. During one of the karate levels, for example, PaRappa really has to go to the bathroom, but must learn to rap and play karate at the same time. If you lose, there is a zoom in on PaRappa’s stomach, in which you see a rocket ship blasting off and dropping poop into the sky.
The randomness of the rapping teacher’s species (including but not limited to a chicken, a moose, a frog, and a cockroach) is trumped only by the randomness of the lyrics, with gems such as “Money money money is all you need” and “I never dreamed it would be like this I am the number one ruler of the seven seas” or “The skunk over here will bring you luck – The pump over here comes with a truck”.
The game was created for the Sony Playstation and according to Wikipedia was considered ahead of its time, and influenced by the 1980s game Simon. You not only have to master repeating the sequence, but also the rhythm of the sequence. While playing, you find yourself dancing along with the raps, and picking favorite teachers and lyrics.
While the player gets better at pressing buttons in rhythm to make PaRappa’s rhymes sound tight, PaRappa learns to drive, bakes a seafood cake, uses the bathroom, and learns how to shop at a flea market. Its funny, the same way guitar hero allows you to watch an avatar actually playing guitar, the player just learns to press keys rapidly, not using any real musical skill or creativity. Similarly, as PaRappa learns to do lots of new things, you just get better at pressing keys rhythmically, which leaves me essentially and completely uninspired.
Thus was my short lived affair with video games. I will look back on my adventures with PaRappa as he comes of age, and hope that one day, I too will learn to bake a seafood cake.

The poetic use of the dream world in cinema is a classic mode of narrational style. With frequent use, it has become somewhat of a cliche – of an “easy way out” that people chalk up to laziness, pretension, and predictability. But in certain ways, the dreamworld provides an opportunity for two simultaneously existing universes to be at play in the same movie, which provide each other with narrative themes, depth, and interpolations.
In both The Wizard of Oz and Mullholland Drive, albeit two very different genres of film, actors exist in parallel universes – whether we accept them as dream worlds or inexplicable other realms – as manifestations of different aspects of the self. Subconscious desires, tendencies and visual themes are used to separate the worlds and make them distinct, while using the same faces. In The Wizard of Oz everything in the real world of Kansas is black and white, and everything in the post-twister land of Oz is in technicolor. In Mullholland Drive, all of the colors in Diane’s apartment, face, clothing, hair, are more muted, almost deathlike. The innocent world of Betty seems to pop more with a colorful innocence, a playfulness.
The conversation that occurs in Winkie’s with the man talking about his dream world is an fairly overt clue to the fact that we are watching a dream – however, it could be interpreted that everyone has a dream world, and sometimes they compete intensely with reality. The man in Winkie’s appears in the dream world and the real world, even though Betty or Diane didn’t know him. This introduces the idea that perhaps we are all walking around in our own dreamworlds – that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference. And that the material of the real world can be easily shuffled around in our dreamworld to make something that is equally as real to us.
In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy wakes up, it doesn’t mean we as viewers are any less invested in the Lion and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, or in the quest they have shared. To Dorothy, as it is to us, the world of dreams doesn’t disappear upon waking. If anything, it infuses the “reality” we are presented with, with another layer of meaning.
In a way, that is how I felt about Mullholland Drive. Because the film is structured in a way that intentionally obscures our bearings on reality, reality is never of paramount importance. The world which we are shown is no less real to us than the world that is later revealed as real. By accepting the concurrent worlds as equally important, the question of what is dream and what isn’t ceases to determine what the viewer is invested in. The construction of the fabula therefore, is more based upon experience than logic. In this way, the style of the film overrides the structure, or rather, dictates the structure. The conceptual and visual themes in the movie are just as important as plot points. In my mind, this means that the film can be analyzed parametrically, especially since what we see and perceive as viewers is based on limitation.
In The Wizard of Oz, we wake up with Dorothy. We are with her at the bedside when she is trying to explain the world she was just in. But when Diane wakes up, we are in some ways still with Betty. Because Betty turns into someone else, it is more difficult to follow her in her new life. But because of this, in some ways, we never fully leave the dream world and we never fully wake up. The black and white turned to color world is more clear cut, more comfortable. Mullholland Drive makes us question what is dream, what is real, and why? And it doesn’t give us any answers…so we make them up. Or we try.

Parametric narration transcends movements – time periods – filmmakers.
Professor Mittell raised the question of whether or not its useful as a way to read art films.
Do we use these to map the text of the film, or do we take these films and try to fit them into the parameters of these theories?
One of the main facets that Bordwell characterizes as parametric is the use of style as an influential factor in the construction of a film. The way a viewer perceives meaning and order in parametric films are all tied into the style of the piece. Therefore, the construction of the syuzhet is inextricably linked with the way it is constructed, ie style. So here, meaning, order and style combine to create parametric film. This makes way for aspects of such films to have elements that may not play an important role in plot or character development – but may contain elements that are there in order to elaborate on the established style.

As we discussed in class, part of the model of art cinema invites interpretation.
Whether or not Barton Fink is an art film may hinge on the intent. Perhaps there is no deep meaning behind the movie – perhaps it is highlighting, as Professor Mittell points out, that Barton Fink is a hack, and this is the type of movie he might right – full of big ideas and stylization, but with no real narrative arc – with nothing hollywood would consider sellable or worthy. In this way, it fits a parametric model. The style of the film is a key element in how we perceive and interpret the narrative structure.
Implicit in parametric films, and in the terminology as well, is the use of parameters, of limits and control as to how the film is presented and perceived. The formal elements of the film are highlighted because the structure isn’t bound by a plot driven schema. In fact, the style may intentionally complicate the construction of the fabula. The point of parametric films is the telling of the story, the way it is presented and scrambled and hidden and elevated rather than what the story is about. It takes a specific kind of viewer to appreciate a film for the sake of it, with no grand plot payoff or heroic journey narrative with a satisfying ending. Parametric films, evident in much of art cinema and independent cinema as well, is useful to categorize what is intentionally uncategorizable – to try to understand the reasons and the value of what we don’t understand.

Narrative presentation in Robert Bresson’s Pickpockets and Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie

After much consideration, I have decided to ground my work in the work of two filmmakers I greatly admire. My paper will address the similarity in technique, formal elements, and theoretical construction of Robert Bresson’s Pickpockets and Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie. My central research question will be uncovering how the formal elements employed by these two auteurs de-emphasizaes traditional narrative elements, and how the works are paralleled and disparate. I will attempt to answer this question by examining closely the innerworkings of these two films, and how they address similar issues of narrational experimentations.
Robert Bresson is considered to be one of the most important auteurs in film history, creating his own theories, style and film language. His book Notes on Cinematography describes in poignant fragments his style of working and his philosophy on filmmaking. His intense commitment to realism is an important and influential component of many filmmakers of the French New Wave, Godard in particular.
The similarity in presentational narrative style in both Pickpockets and Vivre sa Vie use subjective style which limits the perspective of the viewer, implementing a style of filmmaking which emphasizes editing and juxtaposition over narrational motivation – drawing on formal elements of filmmaking rather than traditional forms of narration to tell the story.
In my paper I will explore Bresson’s use of ellipses, as he ties events together not by causal construction, but instead through separation, which de-emphasizes the viewer’s reliance on traditional narrative. The act of witnessing in limited terms becomes part of the fibula’s construction, necessitating a greater level of engagement by the audience with the text.
Similarly, Godard makes use of formal elements to destabilize the traditional narrative model of film language. He uses voice over narration and intertitles, drawing attention to the act of watching and synthesizing the storyworld of the film.

I will of course use the films themselves as the primary texts for my own analysis.
Here are some of the primary and secondary sources I will be consulting:

1) Bresson, Robert. Notes On Cinematogrpahy. New York: Urizen Books, 1977.
2) Burnett, Colin. “Robert Bresson as a Precursor to the Nouvelle Vague: A Brief Historical Sketch.” March 31, 2004.
3) Godard, Jean Luc, Interviews. Ed. David Sterritt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
4) Godard, Jean Luc. Godard on Godard: Critical Writing by Jean Luc Godard ed. Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. New York: Da Capo Press, 1986.
5)Millar, Daniel. “Pickpocket.” The Films of Robert Bresson. Ed. Ian Cameron.New York: Praeger, 1970.
6) Ed. Quandt, James. Robert Bresson. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998.
7) Thompson, Rick J. “Pickpocket.” 1998.

I was very impressed by the projects that came out of this assignment – especially in the variety of techniques and aims used to articulate different interpretations of already existing material.
The Scott and Leslie took a precise approach in constructing an entirely different narrative out of disparate parts of the show – playing with time, characterization, and syuzhet – resulting in an entirely new and unique fabula. Louisa and Ioana’s re-interpretation of Stranger Than Paradise focused on the pacing – and by using a more rapid succession of dialogue and images, managed to created a sense of urgency in the character’s motivation and the plot structure – heightening the tension between the three characters and escalating the stakes of the plot.
I found Aaron’s re-narration of the first five minutes to be thoughtful and well executed. Equipped with the entirety of the series, Aaron synthesized an opening sequence which more holistically represented the various components and facets of the show – and as he says – teaches the viewer how to read the show and the way in which it is weaved together.
As I mentioned in my process blog about this project, I think that removing the established layer of the conventional storyworld is very informative about the text – just as taking apart a machine makes its functioning less mysterious, more comprehensible, and gives you more respect for the construction itself.

In the strange and rather arduous process of re-narrating Simple Men, I have found that the imagery of a movie, when re-arranged like puzzle pieces, can produce some very profound juxtapositions. The thematic echos of framing, composition, and audio refrains become distilled and illuminated in the re-arrangement of parts. The persistent presence of newspapers – women framed like paintings hanging on walls – the catholic school girl fantasy and the nun all comprise a language of subconscious manifestations of trouble and desire.

We had some frustrating technical hurdles, but in the end, peppered with some rather cheeky affects, the video strives toward a narration of the subconscious of a movie’s very brain – the visual language. A movie’s skeletal structure has several layers which mirror levels of consciousness. The metaphorical undertones of a well crafted film are like the associative layer of the brain – the dreamstate. When all the layers of story structure are stripped away, there lies a subtler language of imagery interacting with sound underneath – the language of A Simple Man’s Dreams

I haven’t owned a television in four years. During the recent election madness I have watched alot of tv, and the experience has been both fascinating and somewhat bewildering. I was particularly struck last night on CNN, when Anderson Cooper appeared on a studio set, talking to a hologram. Its potent metaphorical value for the political process as hollow and engineered is amusing and resonant, but beyond that it holds even greater significance. The camera’s POV during the conversation were dominated by over the shoulder POV shots from Cooper’s perspective, and therefore the viewer was privy most of the time to Cooper’s perspective, looking at this figure. The over the shoulder POV shots from the hologram’s perspectives showed Cooper’s face, rather unexpressive and unfocused. Was this because he was literally talking to a blank space in front of him? Or does laser technology beam a three dimensional image into the studio for him to talk to? The image left me confused but also a bit frightened. I was brought up to not to believe everything you see on TV. Even an event as culturally significant as the moon landing is disputed by some to have been engineered. This hologram brought up the issue of seeing and believing. What is real? What is fabricated? Is the goal of TV networks to allow us to see the difference or be diverted from it? The syuzhet of the election, if you will, is in some ways alot of smoke and mirrors. 

The visual representation of both candidates in the media from print to commercials to television appearances are extremely important aspects of their  public images, and more often than not have more to do with pageantry than politics. But ultimately, it all feels so constructed, so carefully controlled, and so, well, hollow, that its hard to know if what we are seeing is real, or to figure out what that even means. Constructing a fabula, or a story out of the election results was an important process of the synthesis of politics and story telling. Barack Obama’s victory as the first black president of the United States is a long story of causal relations that has lead up to this point in time. Drawing on the significance of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106 year old woman who voted for Obama, brings the story of his victory into a whole new perspective, one of time and struggle and perseverance. Making these ties to history in the narrative of his speech allows for a more complete picture of what this election means, beyond color wars and polls and numbers. It is the narrative that we remember, the writing of history. 

The world of Potter’s Singing Detective may not be three dimensional visually speaking, but in terms of storylines, the world opens out in three distinct directions – often using the same actor to represent multiple characters in various settings of time and place. The three worlds that are woven together are the present hospital world, Marlowe’s childhood, and the storyworld of Marlowe’s novel. In the process of narrating these three worlds, as in all processes of life and art, the visceral details that compose each world crossover and become conflated in the telling of the story. Marlowe’s memories largely fuel the material in his novel, and his current state is largely colored, haunted or plagued even at times, by his past. The paranoia inherent in his countenance as a mystery writer causes Marlowe to process information by creating violent or disturbing stories to explain things he doesn’t understand or doesn’t have access to. This creates an inverse relationship with the subplot of his therapy. As he becomes more mentally stable, he is forced to confront traumatic memories, which in turn produce paranoiac fantasies. The unleashing of his repressed childhood is what allows him to improve, while at the same time, keeps him in a state of living in the past. The combination of these forces confuse the present action, causing him to write a murder into his own story – of his ex-wife killing her partner in crime. Because Marlowe is such an unreliable narrator, there is no way to establish a codification of reality. Artistically, using the same actors to parallel each other in the three different worlds creates associations and crossover between the stories, explaining the writer’s associative process as well as creating a richer crpss-hatching of story world construction, completely unique to the form of the series. But because this elaborate set-up has been established, the audience is prepared for a mind blowing payoff…which, in my opinion, is never delivered. In a story with so many subtleties and subplot-lines, it is indeed impossible to tie up every loose end. But, on the same token, Marlowe’s three dimensional world cannot be justifiably flattened into a Wizard of Oz-esque “but I was only dreaming” scenario. Ultimately, the inner and outer worlds that compose Marlowe’s consciousness are too complex to be explained away in a formulaic matter, but the construction of the conclusion should sustain some of the poetry with which it was originally conceived. Otherwise, what was the point of all that careful weaving in the first place? 

Maybe my disappointment in the conclusion lies in the fact that the set-up was so damn good. I can’t accept that Marlowe just gets to go home one day, happy, leaving all of his demons conveniently behind. But maybe in this situation, I’m just holding on to the richness of his fantasy world. Once he becomes stable and healthy, all of those subplots fall away like leaves. Its partially why it takes Marlowe such a long time to leave – because the world of the mad, although confusing and scary and isolating – is still a world of its own, sequestered and safe from the real world. Maybe, for selfish reasons, I didn’t want Marlowe to get better, to work his way out of that hole. Because maybe what’s on the other side is scary in a different way – in that it will disappoint you. And you can’t rely on constructing your own world with all of its poetic connections and metaphors. Maybe reality is scariest most of all because you relinquish control. And what you find…well, it just isn’t as good as the fantasy. 

In my endless pursuit for productive procrastinatory activities, tonight was a good night all in all. I finally watched a documentary I’ve been wanting to see for a long time, called The Devil and Daniel Johnston.videosearch?client=safari&rls=en&q=the+devil+and+daniel+johnston&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&um=1&sa=X&oi=video_result_group&resnum=4&ct=title#

For those of you who don’t know, Daniel Johnston is a mentally challenged Jesus enthusiast, musician and cartoonist. He’s more or less a living legend, a complete anomaly. In creating this documentary, director Jeff Feuerzeig was faced with the challenge of telling the story of someone larger than life – who lives outside the boundaries of well, reality. In and out of mental institutions, jail, and music venues all around the world, the story had to not only be told, but told in such a way as to evoke the man, not just his story. Feuerzeig uses many of Johnston’s original movies, drawings and songs to narrate his story. Many paramount moments in Johston’s life are actually recorded on cassette – and these voice overs are weaved throughout the movie. In addition – Feuerzeig re-interprets the classic documentary technique of re-enactment’s in order to evoke certain spaces – such as old bedrooms, music venues, towns, and locations Johnston was in, but without any of the contrived acting involved in many historical documentaries. Johnston at present day rarely appears in interviews – his world is constructed more by way of his work, not him reflecting on it. This provides a more experience of the work. 

Re-creating someone’s entire life is an incredibly daunting task. In an unconventional documentary like this one, where there is no voice over narration, the audience constructs a fabula, but in a different way. The interviews with his friends, the old photographs, the old concert footage, the cartoons, all supply the material of the story and syuzhet, but the various narratorial voices necessitate a distillation by the viewer. Johnston is not the narrator, but his world is being narrated. We are watching his world from our own various vantage points. His early movies provide a glimpse into the way he saw the world, but the documentary itself tells the story of how the world sees him. We are seeing his world made of the things he created, but in the end we are constructing him ourselves, and he doesn’t get much say in the matter. With this in mind, if every movie were a person, the viewer would be the creator of each person, projecting their own views of who and what that person is and represents. From a formalist point of view, that is the role of the viewer. In our daily lives, we interact with people, we see the way they speak and represent themselves, and then we take that and interpret them, sometimes only seeing what we want to see, and projecting our own interpretations onto them. 

The Devil and Daniel Johnston was a very voyeuristic experience, listening to private recordings of him speaking, looking at old family pictures, witnessing him dancing and playing music. But the man himself is being shaped by the people talking about him, by Feuerzeig, by the images they they have chosen to show. We can never really see the whole picture, because there is no whole picture. I think Daniel Johnston puts it best…

“My hopes lay shattered like a mirror on the floor
I see myself and I look really scattered
But I lived my broken dreams”

Every person is a collection of fragments; like narratives. But we live through them, trying to make out the picture. 

Leslie’s post about echoes of Weimar cinema in Barton Fink got me thinking about influences and associations. I found an interview with the Coen brothers which sheds some light on this matter…its sort of long so I’ve included some highlights…

“Well, whatever. Let it suffice to say that Barton Fink does a tantalizing job of confounding an audience’s expectations. On one level it’s a pungent satire of Hollywood in the ’40s; on another it’s a comic character study of a callow and arrogant intellectual; on yet another it’s a sort of allegorical horror film…

And when Barton is alone in his seedy room at the Hotel Earle, it resembles nothing so much as Roman Polanski’s moody and demented 1976 psychological shocker, The Tenant.

Ethan: “Yeah, it’s kind of ironic that Polanski was…”

Joel: “…the head of the jury at Cannes” (where Barton Fink walked away with so many prizes).

Ethan: “Well, wait. I mean, if you had to describe (Barton Fink) generically, you couldn’t do better — not that this is a genre — but it’s kind of a Polanski movie. It’s closer to that than anything else.”

Joel: “It’s true. And The Tenant is a movie that we’re both familiar with and like.”

Ethan: “It’s also like the ‘Person Alone in the Room’ genre.”

Joel: “Yeah, (Polanski’s) Repulsion is sort of like that. There are definitely influences from Polanski, I’m sure.”

Ethan: “That was kind of cool, meeting him at Cannes.”

Joel: “He’s got his own sense of humor and it’s present in all of his movies, even though you wouldn’t call his movies comedies, exactly.”

Exactly. Not unlike the films of the Brothers Coen. Although Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer on all Coen movies, their collaboration — like their conversation — involves much more give and take than the separate titles would imply.

Joel: “In Cannes, we took a co-directing credit, because it more accurately reflects what actually happens. For us, here, the fact that we separate the two credits is fairly arbitrary to a certain extent…”

Ethan: “Well, not totally arbitrary. I mean, Joel talks to the actors more than I do and I probably do production stuff a little more than he does. But it’s largely overlapping.”

Joel: “It also sort of stakes out the territory we want to keep exclusively ours by, in a sense, assigning it to each of us individually. Psychologically, it’s sort of important to us to realize that Ethan produces the movie and I direct, so, in a sense, we don’t want another producer — or another director. That’s sort of why we keep it separate that way, but it doesn’t really reflect what happens on the set.”

Although there are a number of idiosyncratic filmmakers out there, few get to have their visions released intact by major studios. Even David Lynch has made Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart (and in 1997, Lost Highway) for smaller independent companies.

But 20th Century Fox (under studio president Joe Roth) released Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink, through an arrangement with the Washington, D.C., company Circle Films. Circle has financed all of the Coens’ pictures ever since releasing their independently made first feature, Blood Simple.

Ethan: “We don’t have to convince everybody that the story should go like this and not like that. We haven’t had to defend anything to anybody. We have a really good relationship with Circle Films, who’ve produced the last three movies. We just give them the finished script and the budget and they go, `Yeah, OK. Fine.’ “

Joel: “We’ve been remarkably lucky in that we’ve been free to make the movies we’ve wanted to make the way we’ve wanted to make them. They’ve all been made for a price.

They’ve all been low-budget by Hollywood standards. “But that’s part of why we’ve been able to do it that way — or mostly why. Miller’s Crossing was the most expensive one: about $11 million. Barton Fink was considerably less.”

Some critics and audiences have found the uncategorizable weirdness of Barton Fink frustratingly off-putting and insular, as if the Coens were attempting to be strange and obscure just for the sake of being strange and obscure. But the brothers say it isn’t so.

Joel: “It’s not a conscious decision to be, uh…”

Ethan: “I think the movie’s really entertaining. We tried to make it that way…” He laughs. “Was there any whining there?”

Joel: “Well, to be fair, we knew that it wasn’t… What’s the best way to say this? It’s like, we knew that it wasn’t going to be Terminator 2, you know? So, we weren’t surprised that we’re not in 2200 theaters.

“But I also don’t think it’s as difficult as some people think it is. I mean, some people come out going, `I don’t get it.’ And I don’t quite know what they’re trying to ‘get,’ what they’re struggling for.”

Ethan: “It’s a weird story, but it’s a fairly straightforward story that I think can be enjoyed on its own terms… Barton Fink does end up telling you what’s going on to the extent that it’s important to know –you know what I mean? What isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that.”

Joel: “But we have had the reaction where people leave the movie sort of uncomfortable and befuddled because of that. Although that wasn’t our intention to do that. I was going to say that maybe our telling of the story wasn’t as clear as it should have been, but I don’t think that’s true. In terms of understanding the story, it comes across.

“The question is: Where would it get you if something that’s a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Like The Box, for example? Most filmmakers would feel they had to reveal what’s in the box that Charlie leaves with Barton. But, of course, this is a movie about how much Barton does not understand (“Empathy requires understanding,” Judy Davis drawls to him), so it’s much more fun to leave the box unopened. Indeed, the fact that Barton doesn’t open it may be seen as a sign of a slight maturation on his part.

Joel: “It’s almost like a genre rule: Don’t Open The Box.”

The ending may be enigmatic, but it’s undeniably right. Barton sits by the sea when suddenly a pelican dives into the frame and drops into the water in front of him: Plop! The screen goes black. It’s a moment that makes you laugh with delight and gives you shivers, for reasons it may not be possible (or desirable) to describe. The Coens say it’s just part of the way they make movies.

Barton Fink, which deals with the subject of Barton’s writer’s block as he’s attempting to write awrestling picture for Wallace Beery, was written when the Coens themselves were stymied during the writing of the intricately plotted Miller’s Crossing.

Ethan: “It was just going really slowly. It took us areally long time. I guess because the plot was so involved, we just got sick of it at a certain point. And we decided to take a vacation from it in the form of writing something else, which turned out to be this.”

Joel: “We were about halfway through and… It’s not exactly writer’s block, but sometimes you hit a wall in terms of thinking about the plot or something and it just becomes easier, when we’d get together to write, to think about something else. That’s how Barton Fink happened. And it actually got written very quickly, in about three weeks. I don’t know what that means.

“It’s not an enormously complicated movie from the point of view of, like, the sequence of the plot, the sequence of events or anything like that….

Ethan: “Miller’s Crossing got sort of intricate and this one, for whatever reason, we just never got hung up.”

So, did they know where Barton Fink was headed when they started writing?

Joel: “Roughly, but not exactly.”

Ethan: “We sort of knew about the turn that happens two-thirds of the way through.”

Joel: “We had a fairly good idea, early on in the writing, what the resolution of the main part of the story — the Charlie and Barton part — would be.

Did they steep themselves in Hollywood lore to come up with the hilarious scenes at the mythical studio, Captiol Pictures?

Ethan: “We didn’t do any research, actually, at all. Maybe one of the things that contributed to the writing of the script was that we’d previously read some stuff. There’s a really good book called City of Nets, about German expatriates here (in Los Angeles in the ’40s).”

Joel: “It’s a book not exclusively about the movie colony. It’s also about the musicians and the writers who came here. It was a sort of interesting picture of Hollywood in that period. It was one of the things that started us thinking about Hollywood as a setting. But we didn’t go out and do research beyond it.”

The Coens describe their writing technique as, well, fairly non-structured.

Joel: “He does most of the typing.”

Ethan: “Yeah, I usually type, because I type better. It’s incredibly informal. I mean, us writing is basically just us sitting around in a room, moping for hours.

Joel: “With an occasional burping out of some pages.”

Ethan: “Sort of like our interviews.”

Each of the Coens’ films has created a world of its own, only tangentially related to reality as most of us are familiar with it.

And although certain characters in Barton Fink appear to be modelled after historical figures — studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) after Louis B. Mayer; Southern novelist/screenwriter W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) after William Faulkner; and Barton Fink himself after playwright Clifford Odets — the similarities are only superficial.

“(John Mahoney) really does resemble Faulkner, physically,” Joel says. “Although, the character in Barton Fink, obviously — outside of the physical resemblence and the fact that he’s an alcoholic — he really doesn’t resemble Faulkner very much in any other respect.

“Barton is based on Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing!) from the point of view of his background, but it’s not really supposed to be… Odets had a much more successful career in Hollywood than Barton.”

The two main roles, of Barton and his intrusive next-door neighbor Charlie Meadows, were written with John Turturro and John Goodman in mind. Both actors had worked with the Coens previously — Turturro on Miller’s Crossing and Goodman on Raising Arizona. (And both actors later appeared in The Big Lebowski, in parts written for them.)

The Coens say they came up the idea of Barton’s Wallace Beery wrestling picture because they thought it was funny — only to find that Beery had indeed made such a movie for director John Ford in 1932, called Flesh.

“We thought it was like a joke,” says Ethan. “It kind of goes past people: ‘Oh yeah, wrestling picture.’ We were sort of disappointed that there actually was such a thing. It makes it a little more pedestrian that it really exists.”

Polanski seems to be a big influence on the film – but the process of writing and creation seems to be such a fluid collaboration between the two that all the material they draw from is fair game. The point for them is that there doesn’t have to be a point – a bottom line – a big reveal. The woman in the picture materializing on the beach is more of a poetic ending than tying up all the details in a neat “satisfying package”. Narrative for them is more of a journey than a destination – a nuanced movie that cuts across genre and expectation. 

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