• Barton Fink



    Released By: Kino Lorber
    Released On: August 22, 2017.
    Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
    Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub
    Year: 1991
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    The Movie:

    While I have to admit that films made by Joel and Ethan Coen don't contribute largely to my list of favourites, there's no disputing that when they're on, they're really on. Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and Blood Simple are brilliant works of art, allowing me to give them a pass on tripe such as The Ladykillers and yes, the insanely boring fan favourite Inside Llewyn Davis. 1991's Barton Fink, while not a film I revisit often, places itself with the best of the Brothers' entries; dark, brooding, and even a little unsettling while still retaining an uncommon comedic edge, and a title character who would be out of place in any other world.

    New York City Playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is enjoying success on 1940's Broadway, courtesy of "Bare Ruined Choirs"; a theatre piece written for the Common Man. Fink fancies himself as a pioneer in this new genre, with an eye on piloting a whole new movement based around such material, and the critics and producers couldn't agree more. Reviews of his work in The Herald catch the eye of some movers and shakers in Hollywood, and it isn't long before Barton is offered a contract to write for Capitol Studios...employment that Fink considers to be beneath him, but will nonetheless finance even more theatrical odes to the Lower East Side.

    Whisked off to sunny Los Angeles, Fink is placed in the once majestic but now oddly dilapidated Hotel Earle, with strange little concierge Chet (Steve Buscemi) extolling the many fine features of Fink's new residence, like daily shoeshines. Already out of his element, Fink visits Capitol studio boss, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), who is exuberant in documenting the new writer's future project; a wrestling (pronounced, "rasslin'") picture starring a known but slightly lesser regarded acting talent. Rasslin', explains Lipnick, is in line with Fink's, "Poetry of the Streets", and Barton heads back to the Earle and his Underwood suitcase typewriter to spit out his cinematic debut.

    Barton Fink, however, is a man easily distracted. Mosquitoes in his room, slowly peeling strips of wallpaper, and an escapist photo of a sunbathing beauty on a pristine beach usher Barton from the task at hand after writing only a few words, dropping a sizable chunk of writer's block into his path. A rowdy neighbour in an adjoining room doesn't help matters, either, and Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) makes it a point to stop by Barton's room to address the noise complaint call the new tenant has made to Chet. Charlie may have a few things wrong with him, but Barton is impressed by how "common man" his sweaty neighbour is, striking up an awkward friendship and attempting to learn about rasslin' from the burly man, in hopes of defeating his writer's block. But Fink ultimately finds his muse in Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), the secretary and sometimes lover of famed author and legendary alcoholic W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a woman who can unlock the secrets of Fink's brilliant mind, but whose indiscretions lead the unknowing author into a personal hell.

    Widely open to interpretation and largely regarded as a satirical look Hollywood, Barton Fink holds many secrets and surprises for those not willing to take the film as a straight story. Duality of man, the tortures of writer's block, or a trip into a tortured artist's mind? All are perfectly valid plot descriptions, but no matter which avenue the viewer chooses, the scenery will be impressive and disturbing. The Hotel Earle makes for a splendid example of setting while also doubling as a character in the film, similar to The Shining's Overlook; while it begins as old but inviting upon the naive Barton's arrival, the Earle reveals an ugly aesthetic more in line with Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (thanks largely to the set and art departments, not to mention the cinematography of Roger Deakins) as Barton heads down the spiral of hopelessness and despair.

    And while the attention to detail in costumes and set is more than impressive, and the writing high caliber, such an accomplishment would not be possible without a powerhouse acting ensemble. It's hard to imagine a more perfect fit for his role than John Goodman, who drips bodily fluids, menace, and jovial guffawing in equal measure; Michael Lerner is a bang-on studio exec in his open robe and high-waisted swimming trunks, with an outlandish bravado and hair-trigger temper; Judy Davis manages to be both alluring and off-putting with her charming accent and haunted gaze, and John Mahoney passes as a drunken intellectual with convincing song and dance. It's Turturro who really shines in every frame here, though, bringing so much to the title role from his giant hair to facial tics, awkward gait and unsure dialect, pulling the viewer along for the ride from his boldly confident start on Broadway, to his panic-following uneasy sense of complacence in the final act of the film. The success of this film relies on the sum of the parts, all of which fire perfectly in harmony from start to finish.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Kino brings Barton Fink to Blu-ray in a 1.66:1 AVC-encoded transfer that will inspire lively debate among fans of the film. Much has been mentioned regarding the age of the scan, which certainly lacks the the pop and crispness that we've come to expect in this age of 4K remasters, but I seem to be more impressed than most with the striking detail in many of the scenes, notably in facial close-ups and in shots that show off the texture of the Earle's wallpaper. True, softness does abound, and the unmatted aspect ratio shows off some defects that are most likely not intended (boom mics, for example, as well as some furry shadowing), but the picture is overall very natural looking with healthy grain and good contrast, with detail strong enough to take in the excellent set dressing and costumes. Dirt, debris and speckling do occasionally appear, but are certainly not a hindrance.

    The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track provided for this release is really surprising for a stereo track, opening up the soundstage nicely to dialogue, foley, and the score. No distortion was evident, nor were the hisses, crackles or pops of a poorly rendered soundtrack. Balance is good, dynamic range is impressive. English Subtitles are available.

    First up in the supplemental material is an Interview With John Turturro (14:28). The star of Barton Fink discusses his introduction to the Coen Brothers through Frances McDormand and the genesis of the film and also talks about the character of Barton and how he contributed to the physicality of the character. Interpretations of the film, dance lessons, and being covered in vaseline are just some of the other topics Turturro gets into.

    Interview with Michael Lerner (15:52) features the actor who plays Jack Lipnick attempting unsuccessfully to light a cigar and his thoughts on the taste of Cuban tobacco. Lerner, who may very well be insane, spends the majority of the interview spitting out his lines from the film, but also manages to talk about how he got the role, his versatility, and also spends a little time on fables.

    In contrast to Lerner's spot, Interview with Executive Producer Ben Barenholtz (12:00) slows things down a fair bit as the aged subject gives some info on his background and his love of film, as well as his role in "discovering" the Coens, and other topics.

    Headspace: The Inner Sounds of Barton Fink With Carter Burwell (Composer) and Skip Lievsay (Sound Editor) runs a second over twenty minutes and features the two talking about the manipulation of natural sounds to give the film a strange, otherworldly characteristic. The pair have a lot to talk about and detail how they handled splitting the scoring duties and the instrumentation, as well as their working relationship with the Coens.

    8 Deleted Scenes, which are more like Extended Scenes, are also presented here in unpolished form, featuring material that appears to have wisely been left on the cutting room floor.

    A Theatrical Trailer for the film is also included.

    The Final Word:

    Though the quality of the scan appears to be a matter of some debate, Kino's Blu-ray of Barton Fink looks and sounds great as far as this reviewer is concerned, an upgrade over existing versions.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!