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It is neither a particularly new nor a particularly insightful declaration that there is quite a bit going on in Barton Fink, Joel and Ethan Coen's 1991 masterpiece. It is at once unbelievably funny, horrifying, and deeply, deeply strange. Structured as a journey into one man's soul through an ever-morphing location, it bears just as much similarity to Repulsion or Mulholland Dr. as it does a typical Coen brothers comedy (if there could be said to be such a thing). Which is to say there's a lot more mental breakdown happening here than I'd really noticed before watching it again recently; it's just not the sort typically suggested by the term.
There exists a certain subset of films in which our protagonist is quite suddenly revealed to be insane, and all of a sudden their whole world comes crashing down all at once. I wouldn't want to spoil anyone on those films, and as merely mentioning their names would do just that, you'll just have to trust me. But it's interesting, then, that for all the insanity creeping on the edges of Barton Fink that Barton himself is a relatively stable guy. His collapse is a minor one because he has relatively little on which to cling.
Now, Barton's unproduced Wallace Beery wrestling picture may in fact be the masterpiece he believes it to be. Everyone - critics and audiences alike - apparently adored Bare Ruined Choirs, the play that landed Barton a job writing screenplays in Hollywood, and Barton was likely proud of his own achievement (even if he says he's only "close" to success). But the fact is that regardless of the screenplay's quality, it is totally at odds with the medium for which he is now writing. Barton's certainty that the stories he wants to tell are in line with those the audience is ready to receive is unfounded. He should have, and could have, been able to discern this when Charlie tells him about his love for Beery and Jack Oakie, a populist comic little remembered or noted today (Oakie himself described his role in the Hollywood industrial complex as the bread and butter - that is, a reliable moneymaker).
The prior evening, Barton had found out that the closest thing he had to a friend, Charlie Meadows, is actually a deranged serial killer. The evening prior to that, he found a woman, Audrey, he was more than a little friendly with dead in the bed they had just shared for the first time. With these three successive blows, Barton is cast off to sea, 3,000 miles from home, without any friends or purpose. Worse, he's now stuck in a hotel next door to a murderer who may just be the devil himself. Less than two weeks ago he was the toast of the town. Whatever and whoever he was there is meaningless here.
And in fact, if you look for it, Barton seems to have precious little to cling to - he tells Charlie that in spite of whatever friends or family he's around, he constantly feels alone. He has no girlfriend. Nobody from New York seems to get in touch with him. Even his agent seems unaffected - either professionally or emotionally - by the idea that his client could have a major work on his hands. The one thing Barton has is his mind, and the cause to which he dedicates it. Every major spell of euphoria is triggered by his passion for what he calls "real theater," and he'll later try to equate the finishing of his screenplay with military service (an especially unpopular sentiment in the World War II era in which the film takes place).
That, in spite of his commitment to telling the story of "the common man," he never gives Charlie a moment to tell his own story has been noted elsewhere, and it reveals not only his extreme narcissism but also, more damningly, the precise reason he has no true connection. Charlie is a friend of convenience - he's the lonely guy next door - and his every interaction with Audrey is predicated on the hope that he'll gain some guidance as a writer. Everything feeds his job, which is now creatively if not financially worthless. Soon after finding Audrey dead, Barton tells Charlie he thinks he's losing his mind, and he is. It's just not happening exactly how he means.
Tomorrow: Rachel tells us all about her secret Identity.