I know that with the release of their latest film a few weeks back, I should be writing about the Coen Brothers' most recent movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. However, with all of its publicity, which has reminded us of their inspiration-inducing stylings--seeing the articles, social media posts, and the expected "what-was-that?" questions that abound from viewing any of their works--I thought I'd dip a bit further back to one of my faves: the 1991 oddity Barton Fink.
If you haven't seen it, here's a crash course: Barton's a playwright; he temporarily leaves New York (his love) to make more money; moves to Hollywood to write for the film industry; makes deal with exec.; lives in decrepit motel; has writer's block; befriends Charlie; discovers a lot of crime... which begins to be tied to him; finds the crime to be Charlie's doing; can't escape the deal with exec.; sees that he is in his own purgatory; finally finds hope and freedom.
Ok, that doesn't do it justice at all... not by a long shot. But in short, it's the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil, so to speak, and realizes just how weak his own power is. Shrouded in mystery, and sprinkled with just the right amount of subtle imagination, Barton Fink lives up to the Coen's reputation of slightly insinuating the reality of a spiritual/metaphysical/ethereal realm, and its undeniably penetrating effects on our own physical, everyday lives.
But there's much more within this film. As Mark Conard points out,
To get a little more philosophical... It's... pretty clear that Barton's hotel room resembles the inside of a skull... and so it's likely we're to think that we're inside Barton's head (or mind).1
Conrad goes on to show how a metaphor or allegory can break down over time. He points to the hotel as being both/either Fink's head, and/or his friend Charlie's. But don't miss the purpose. The Coens are attempting to show the reality of the marriage between the mind and the body. Now, I don't mean to bore you with over-"philosophying" a movie, but, I do hope to point out the breadth of the Coens' intentionality.
This movie can simply be a fun John Turturro movie if we want it to be. However, this would be an injustice to both the artists and ourselves if we were to just leave it there. By being patient and taking some time with it, their film might show us a bit of the truth of our own reality. Here's what I'm getting at - Barton Fink seeks to show us the inseparability of the mind from the body, as does the Bible. We are to love The Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). But that's just one verse; the entire Bible is written with this premise. As we have Paul's propositionally-rich epistles, we also have David's existentially-real Psalms. Both are needed. Both make the whole.
So, what's the point? There's a profoundly climactic scene where John Goodman's character is running down a hall of fire. With the hall painted in flames--again, signifying a spiritual/mythical element--Goodman runs down it yelling "Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind! I'll show you the life of the mind!!" The very phrase itself, "the life of the mind", demands the audience's attention. We as a culture too quickly separate these two entities; the life (or physical/body) should go this way, while the mind is to go that way. The mind is part of us. Ostracizing it to its own island only compartmentalizes the self, and in that compartmentalizing, can hinder our worship of God as a complete, whole person.
Though it can be dark at times, Barton Fink resounds the truth of Scripture. And this isn't uncommon for the Coens. Whether it be a seemingly unstoppable evil character that is defeated in the last moments, an all-knowing sage prophet that speak guidance to the protagonist, or the simple importance of recognizing virtue-ethics, the Cohen Brothers continue to make silly, zany stories which immediately entice us, while simultaneously and beautifully continue to reach deep into our hearts, stirring us for the better. Barton Fink is a beautiful example.