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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