Saturday, January 05, 2008

"I could tell you some stories . . . ": Barton Fink, narrative, and listening

"What's in the box?" indeed. Image found here.

Barton Fink (1991; dir. Joel Coen)

[Spoiler alert: I do talk explicitly about certain important scenes in the film, especially below the fold, but my sense, given the nature of this film, is that it's unspoilable. Knowing what's coming will make it no less mysterious.]

Last night, I decided I needed some weirdness in my life, so I watched Barton Fink. In the article I linked to just above, the consensus of the three post-ers on the film is, "It's about heads." Yup: I got that, too (the film is filled with references to them). And?

And that, I realized this morning as I was walking the Scruffmeister and thinking about this hermetic film, the echo-chamber that political dialogue has become in the blogosphere, and Winnie-the-Pooh, is precisely why this film is so hard to talk about: It needs a verb.

At the level where most films and, by extension, narratives function, Barton Fink is as inscrutable as the box Charlie Meadows puts in our hero's "good hands." Most films, even Coen Brothers films, are "about" Something. It's not a derogatory thing to say that someone has given shape and direction to the vast majority of narratives such that, when the reader/viewer comes along, s/he follows a pre-determined, marked-out path that, if the maker(s) has/have done well, the audience won't be aware of--or, in the case of certain genres that carry familiar expectations with them, won't care or will even demand be present. Barton Fink, though, feels more like a surveying of a surface of events and images that someone--the viewer--is required to make some sense of. It's a film about a theme, as opposed to most films, which "just" have themes.

The box is inscrutable because it remains unscrutinized, at least by Barton. This member of the audience, at least, scrutinizes it more than he does.

The verbal analogue to the box is Charlie's catch-phrase, "I could tell you some stories"--a phrase which, each time he utters it, Barton not only doesn't invite him to share one, he cuts him off. The occasion of their first meeting, in fact, is Barton's complaining about Charlie's noise and Charlie's wanting to confirm that Barton was the one who complained--in effect, Barton wants to shut Charlie up before he even meets him. Of course, the irony in all this is that a) Barton reveals that he (apparently) has only one story to tell; and b) doesn't even recognize this fact. To put it another way: Even as Barton tells Charlie that he wants to "write about people like you. The average working stiff. The common man," we get the strong feeling that Barton is, at least during the time of the film, only able to write about writing about them.

More below the fold.

From a transcript of the shooting script:

Well, I don't mean to get up on my high horse, but why
shouldn't we look at ourselves up there? Who cares
about the Fifth Earl of Bastrop and Lady Higginbottom
and - and - and who killed Nigel Grinch-Gibbons?

I can feel my butt getting sore already.

Exactly, Charlie! You understand what I'm saying - a lot
more than some of these literary types. Because you're a
real man!1

And I could tell you some stories -

Sure you could! And yet many writers do everything in
their power to insulate themselves from the common man -
from where they live, from where they trade, from where
they fight and love and converse and - and - and
. . . so naturally their work suffers, and regresses into
empty formalism and - well, I'm spouting off again, but to
put it in your language, the theater becomes as phony as a
three-dollar bill.

Yeah, I guess that's tragedy right there.

Frequently played, seldom remarked.

Charlie laughs.

Whatever that means.

Barton smile[s] with him.
One way to talk about Barton Fink is as a dramatization of the Death of the Author2. Here, though, I want to talk about Barton the character as someone who is dead as an author. It might as well be his head in that box . . . assuming, of course, there's a head in there.

Accompanying the film's obsession with heads is one about listening--or, more accurately, not listening. "Listening" would extend here to include attentiveness to visual noise, of which the Earle Hotel is full (such as, to give a couple of examples, a hall full of shoes waiting to be polished yet whose owners, with the single exception of Charlie, remain invisible and all-but-unheard, and the picture of the woman (a Siren with no song?) sitting on the beach--accompanied by the sound of surf when the camera turns on it). But Barton asks no questions of any of these things; instead, he stuffs things into his ears to keep from hearing them3.

The producing of narrative requires listening--to language, to circumstance, to a place and time--and out of that listening derive meaning, or at least a point. Barton has an ideal he wants to achieve through his art, but ideals are not plots. The result is pretty but ultimately empty language. Once a (traditional) narrative is produced, though, it can't "listen"--that is, it has to keep out at least some competing possibilities or else it will collapse under the weight of negotiating all of them.

Charlie, unlike Barton, hears too much: even though Barton's room is located between Charlie's and the lovers who disturb Barton (they're barely audible to us), Charlie not only hears them in his room, he says he can practically see what they're doing. It's no surprise that Charlie is the one with the stories to offer an ear-plugged Barton. But Charlie's problem, we learn, is not that he has a surfeit of stories; it's that he has one that subsumes all those other stories, one he can't keep under wraps but which oozes out of him like the pus from his infected ear.

The film's climactic scene (a still from it leads off this post) is one that will feel familiar to fans of the Coen Brothers, drawn as they are to apocalyptic moments involving figures who locate their actions beyond good and evil: think Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, the sheriff with the mirrored lenses in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. There is no arguing, either literally or figuratively, with these men. Their actions are in service to a narrative; what's more, that same narrative creates a white noise that drowns out all else--which is, of course, what is so frightening about apocalyptic narrative. Of these figures I've listed, though, Charlie is an exception. His actions are no less evil; but, even as he explains why he does what he does--just "help[ing] people out," he says--he also says, "I just wish someone would do as much for me" and berates Barton for--guess what?--not listening.

Regular visitor Sheila, a big Coen Brothers fan, comments here that she thinks Barton Fink is the Brothers' finest film. I think personally that I would give the nod to Fargo; having said that, though, I will say that their work is full of ideas and that, if one likes that sort of things in one's films, Barton Fink surrenders fully over to the exploring of its ideas and does so with extraordinary complexity and subtlety. It's like that box, yes--but shake it around more than Barton shakes around his box, and you'll marvel at that box.
1Maybe it's just me, but I hear here an echo of the Grandmother's exclamation, "Because you're a good man!" in Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Surely, though, the scene that follows is a rewriting of The Misfit's exchange with the Grandmother at the end of that story (about which, if anyone's interested, I had some things to say here):
How you been, buddy?

He props the shotgun in a corner and sits facing Barton, who stared at him.

. . . Don't look at me like that, neighbor.
It's just me - Charlie.

I hear it's Mundt. Madman Mundt.

Charlie reaches a flask from his pocket.

Jesus, people can be cruel . . .

He takes a long draught from his flask, then gives a haunted stare.

. . . if it's not my build, it's my

Charlie is perspiring heavily. The fire rumbles in the hallway.

. . . They say I'm a madman, Barton,
but I'm not mad at anyone. Honest I'm
not. Most guys I just feel sorry for.
Yeah. It tears me up inside, to think
about what they're going through. How
trapped they are. I understand it. I
feel for 'em. So I try and help them
out . . .

He reached up to loosen his tie and pop his collar button.

. . . Jesus. Yeah. I know what it feels
like, when things get all balled up at the
head office. It puts you through hell,
Barton. So I help people out. I just wish
someone would do as much for me . . .

He stares miserably down at his feet.

. . . Jesus it's hot. Sometimes it gets so
hot, I wanna crawl right out of my skin.


But Charlie - why me? Why -

Because you DON'T LISTEN!

A tacky yellow fluid is dripping from Charlie's left ear and running down his cheek.

. . . Jesus, I'm dripping again.

He pulls some cotton from his pocket and plugs his ear.

. . . C'mon Barton, you think you know
about pain? You think I made your life
hell? Take a look around this dump.
You're just a tourist with a typewriter,
Barton. I live here. Don't you understand
that . . .

His voice is becoming choked.

. . . And you come into MY home . . . And
you complain that I'M making too . . .
much . . . noise.

He looks up at Barton.

There is a long silence.


. . . I'm sorry.


Don't be.

2In the film, Barton's name often gets shortened to "Bart"--perhaps a nod in the direction of Roland Barthes (pronounced "Bart"), author of the essay "The Death of the Author" (see Wikipedia's discussion here)). To fully explore the intersection between the film and that essay would take another (lengthy) post or, even, article. Surprisingly, a quick Google search turned up no such article, but the link seems blatantly obvious to me. But, you know: consider the source.

There's also this: I had a friend at Rice who made the argument that the tight shot of Barton's typing the word "postcard" at the end of his wrestling-movie script (the same word, by the way, ends Barton's play that we see performed at the opening of the film) is a nod to Derrida's book The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Maybe. It does seem to be the case that this little passage, from the introduction, is echoed by the fact that Barton isn't aware that he's essentially re-submitted his stage play as the screenplay: "You were reading a somewhat retro loveletter, the last in history. But you have not yet received it. Yes, its lack or excess of address prepares it to fall into all hands: a post card, an open letter in which the secret appears, but indecipherably." The ultimate indecipherable text would be the one which its own author cannot even recognize as his/hers.

3I need to watch (and listen) again before I comment too fully on this, but this film's use of ambient noise in the scenes set in Barton's room, much of it barely audible, is fascinating to me. It's surprising that, so far as I know, it is available only in stereo; a 5.1 mix would, I suspect, be quite a treat to listen to.


Sheila said...

Wow, John, it's great to read such an extended (and smart!) disquisition on Barton Fink. (And, yeah, even though I respect your opinion re: Fargo, I still think Barton Fink is the the Best o' the Coens.)

"Is it yours?"

"I don't know."

John B. said...

Thanks for the kind words. I don't know how smart this is--there's a fair amount of commentary on the film, but it tended to head in slightly different directions from the stuff I found myself thinking about.

I give the nod to Fargo because the story is fascinating and morally weighty to me. It engages me emotionally as well as intellectually. It has a clear agenda: that it's extremely bad form to have your wife murdered for money. Okay, okay: for any reason. It's Barton Fink's intellectual play that I very much admire, but ultimately (speaking for myself) a story has to be present to move me in other ways.

Michael Grant Smith said...

Funny coincidence, John: Kathy and I watched Barton Fink this weekend, too. We had not seen it in a couple of years.

My recollection was that I did not like it as much as other Coen movies, but after seeing it again I have to move it up my list. Not to the top, yet better than I remembered.

The Coens can frustrate, especially when it comes to coherence, plot linearity (if there is a plot), and pace, but their ability to capture my attention and tear it away from the world outside the screen is what's important; to me, at least. Their visual and spoken images haunt in a way few other cinematic works ever succeed in doing.

I agree that a solid plot with structure and clear motivations make the experience more satisfying and complete, but there's lots of other art that I cannot fully fathom, and it moves me nonetheless.

Thanks for your very thoughtful analysis. It makes me think harder about what I liked, and why.

R. Sherman said...

Great. Something else to add to the 72,000 page Amazon Wish List.


Sheila said...

Yeah, Michael. John does that (makes one think harder about what one likes, and why).

I reckon I will just have to re-view Fargo. I wrote it off years ago, John, for precisely the reasons you favor it. I found it emotionally thin compared, say, to Barton Fink!

I know I'm in a ridiculously tiny minority!

John B. said...

Thanks to all for the kind words.

Michael, you said:
I agree that a solid plot with structure and clear motivations make the experience more satisfying and complete, but there's lots of other art that I cannot fully fathom, and it moves me nonetheless.

Me, too; I have some notions as to what "Kubla Khan" might be about, but the truth is, it works at a level that is beyond me. Yet, it may be my favorite poem in the whole wide world.

Randall, adding to Amazon Wish Lists (my own included) is what I seem to have been put on this earth to do. Seeing as I was born in 1962, God's prescience is truly astounding. By the way: how was No Country . . . ?

Sheila, your and Michael's comment that I said something that causes you smart folks to think about things is, I think, the nicest thing someone can say to me. Thanks to both of you.

Sheila said...

Oof. You are kind. I'd just logged on in order to say that I really need to re-view Fargo before I go blowing off like I did.

Michael Grant Smith said...

I are smarter than monkeys.

I like monkeys.

Anonymous said...

The part when Fink says: "Frequently played, seldom remarked"
reminds me of the last sentence in Gaddis' The Recogntions, but
in reverse.

At the end of the novel Stanley goes into this ancient church and begins
to play a piece that he has been working on practically his entire life.
A priest comes up to him and warns him not to play with so much bass
because the church is very old and fragile. Stanley doesn't listen and
continues to play. The church crumbles around him and swallows him.
The last line of the book reads:

"He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterword, most of his
work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high
regard, though seldom played"

A stretch I'm sure, but that was what came to my mind.

John B. said...

Anonymous, whoever you are, thanks for that comment. The Recognitions is on my To Be Read Someday List, and it may just get bumped up a little.