Hydrating with Martinis
October 20th 2008 @ 12:08 am Uncategorized

Aaron persuasively argues in his blog that Barton Fink uses the impersonal subjective, as explained by George Wilson in “Transparency and Twist in the Narrative Fiction Film,” primarily in the hotel scenes to visually show us Barton’s subjective view of the world. The film’s taglines, “There’s only one thing stranger than what’s going on inside his head. What’s going on outside,” and “Between Heaven and Hell There’s Always Hollywood!” seem to support his case. Aaron ultimately decides that it is difficult to discern ‘what happened’ in the film, and that “The pleasure of this film … is indeed hypothesizing (on subsequent viewings) which scenes, events, or characters are real or not real.” 

Frankly, I’m not sure I agree. At a certain point during the film (mine was around 20 minutes) the spectator has to make a choice about the narrative world: surrender or be hopelessly lost/bored/annoyed. Like with Delicatessen or The Sixth Sense, the viewer has to accept the logic of the narrative world whole cloth or end up disoriented and unsatisfied. In a certain sense, trying to suss out the meaning of Barton Fink is a lost cause. Even if we could tie the Coen brothers to chairs and pepper them with all our questions, and even if they gave us answers, I’m not sure we would be satisfied. The world of Barton Fink is so, well, weird, that trying to orient yourself inside it, trying to categorize the rules of its universe, is like trying to hydrate with martinis. The more you drink, the less you’re sated. Returning to a sender-message-receiver model of communication allows for the distinct possibility of misinterpretation. The viewer isn’t passively receiving a programmed message, but constructing the message they perceive within the text. Can we say that there is a message in Barton Fink? There is no easy way to get inside the Coen’s heads or to understand Gregory Currie’s all-important intention in this film. But there is easy access into the brain of Barton Fink. 

The pleasure of the film, for me, is in the ride, the bizarre, wonderful ride where meaning doesn’t enter into the equation in the powerful way it does with most films. I agree that the film relies on impersonal subjective shots quite a bit, but in a certain sense it is a film entirely mediated by Fink’s gaze. We not only see the world the way he sees it, Fink appears to concretely effect the storyworld. Los Angeles is hot, but not so hot that the wallpaper would be peeling off the walls. Fink sees flames, and Charlie starts sweating profusely. Fink sees a picture with a woman and a beach, then walks down the beach and sees the woman. Which happened first? What is ‘real?’ In this storyworld, does that distinction earn us anything? Would knowing that Barton met with Lipnick, but imagined Audrey’s death really change how we read the film? And, actually, come to think of it, do we even read the film the way we read The Singing Detective? It could be argued that both texts utilize the impersonal subjective for the same reason. But there seems to a true fabula that we can construct by sifting through the subjective bits of The Singing Detective. I’m not convinced the same holds for Barton Fink

That’s about all the ramblings I’ve got for now. My roommates like to joke that I’m the exception to every rule, so feel free to set me straight if you disagree. Am I the only one who felt this way while viewing the film?

-Leslie Stonebraker
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