Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Barton Fink


This one pretty much baffled me when it was new, twenty years ago. Is it a spook story? A horror about a crazy multiple murderer? A sly Hollywood satire? I guess it’s all of those, and more. What I am sure is that it’s chock full of symbolism, and what I usually say to symbolism is, Nuts! Some things are obvious to anyone, but some things only matter in the way an individual perceives them, and we’re all different, right? I believe your symbols may be entirely different from mine, those assholes Jung and Freud notwithstanding. So usually it just annoys me. Which is probably why I didn’t have good memories of this one. But this time I just sat back and watched it, and enjoyed it, and the hell with symbolism. You can have your interpretation and I’ll have mine, okay? And mine is, who gives a shit?

This is a stunning movie. John Turturro is the guy who frequently appears in CB films: the hapless fellow in way over his head, without a clue what is going on. (Just like me.) Or what to do about it. He’s a serious playwright, convinced he can change the world through his writing, and he has almost no conversation beyond that. On the strength of a hit play in New York, he is offered a job in Hollywood (I’m crying out don’t! Don’t!). He checks into a hotel reminiscent of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disneyland. Though the long, long corridor has shoes put out at night for every room, we never see anyone but his neighbor, traveling salesman John Goodman.

They hired him for his social conscience, so what do they assign him to write? A wrestling picture, naturally. Well, they did it to Faulkner, and there is a Faulkneresque character here, nicely played by John Mahoney. The wonderful Judy Davis is his lover/secretary. Poor John has absolutely no idea how to write a boxing picture. He is totally dominated by the studio head, Michael Lerner. (His office is perfect; the offices of the Thalberg Building at MGM, where I had many a meeting, are exactly like that.) He got an Oscar nomination.

But the picture is totally dominated by John Goodman. He is physically dominating simply by his size, but it’s more than that. His weird personality strikes you right in the face, and you never know from one scene to the next what he’s going to be like. I’m not going to get into the end, which is shocking, but will say that it involves a gruesome murder that happens off camera, revelations about Goodman, and a spectacular fire in the hotel. I was totally mesmerized this time around, and to hell with symbolism.