Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Day or a Lifetime - Some notes on context

I realise that I’ve said very little so far about the historical context of Barton Fink.  It would probably be a mistake to get too far into this series without addressing the matter, as many identify a political subtext to the film which I suspect I’m going to end up referencing sooner or later.  Roger Ebert, for example, saw the film, or at least specific aspects of it, including Charlie’s relationship with Barton, as an allegory for the rise of Nazism:

"[The Coens] paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the “common man” but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer’s mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster."

You can read Ebert's full review of the film here.

Barton Fink is set in 1941, the year in which the US entered World War II.  The impending threat of war goes unreferenced for much of the film – for a while, the only hint we get of what’s going on in the wider world outside of Hollywood is via the date 9th December 1941 on the clapperboard in the wrestling picture dailies that Geisler orders Barton to watch.  This indicates that the latter half of the film takes place during the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor of 7th December 1941.  Later, while out celebrating the completion of his screenplay at a USO hall, Barton runs afoul of a group of sailors who state that they are shipping out tomorrow.  Finally, when Barton meets with Lipnick at the end of the film, the latter is dressed, somewhat absurdly, in a military uniform assembled from the Capitol Pictures wardrobe department (an allusion to the real-life activities of Jack L. Warner – see below), ranting about how much he’d like to take on the “little yellow bastards.”  Lipnick ultimately dismisses Barton by telling him “there’s a war on.”

The film’s only direct reference to Nazism comes from Charlie, who says “Heil Hitler” at one point, although given the context the significance of this is unclear.  There is nothing else to suggest that Charlie’s actions are motivated by any kind of political agenda, although the implication that he might have murdered Barton’s family while in New York (perhaps the most chilling moment in the entire film) arguably carries overtones of the Holocaust.  Personally, I think that it would be flat-out wrong to interpret Charlie’s “Heil Hitler” as a sign that he is a Nazi sympathiser, or to assume that his treatment of Barton’s family is rooted in anti-Semitism, although the insidious nature of Charlie’s character arc does act as a reminder that charisma can be used as a front to disguise a variety of evils, and that the affable everyman has the potential in them to commit great atrocities.

If any characters in Barton Fink are suggestive of a Nazi allegory, it’s the two detectives on Charlie’s trail, Mastrionatti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney).  Their names, Italian and German respectively, are a nod to the Axis Powers, which, coupled with the anti-Semitic and homophobic views they express in their encounters with Barton, is evocative of the rising threat of Nazism.  Significantly, it is Deutsch to whom Charlie addresses his “Heil Hitler” remark, while pointing a shotgun at his head, implying that Charlie is redirecting his ideologies back at him in a final taunt.

In addition to the WWII backdrop, Barton Fink contains multiple allusions to real-life figures who worked in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.  While the Coens have denied that any of the characters in Barton Fink are intended to be representative of real people, a number were used as starting points in devising their backgrounds and characterisation.  For example, Barton himself is loosely based on the left-wing New York playwright Clifford Odets, who wrote the Broadway plays Awake and Sing! and Waiting For Lefty in the 1930s, and went on to a career as a Hollywood screenwriter (albeit more successfully than Barton).  W.P. Mayhew, meanwhile, was inspired by the southern novelist William Faulkner, who worked as a Hollywood screenwriter throughout the 1930s and 1940s and had a tendency toward binge drinking – John Mahoney even bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Faulkner, which led to his casting.  Also noteworthy is that Faulkner, like Barton, got his start in Hollywood working on a Wallace Beery film about wrestling, Flesh (John Ford, 1932), although the "wrestling picture" was never a popular Hollywood genre in the manner that Barton Fink suggests.  Finally, Jack Lipnick takes inspiration from a number of different Hollywood producers of the period, including Louis B. Mayer of MGM (whom he most strongly resembles, and who originally hailed from Minsk, Belarus, like Lipnick), Jack L. Warner of Warner Brothers (who famously referred to screenwriters as "schmucks with Underwoods"), and Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures (whom Michael Lerner had previously portrayed in the 1983 TV film Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess).

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A Day or a Lifetime – Peeling Wallpaper #1 (and Mosquito Encounter #2)

As with the soft whines of the mosquito, the Coens’ ability to milk honest-to-god fear from something banal as wallpaper peeling is one of one of the things that I relish and admire most about Barton Fink.  For my money, this beats The Shining and its iconic imagery of blood gushing from a hotel elevator hands down.

Wallpaper is a fairly prominent motif in Barton Fink - the film is book-ended by images of the Earle’s wallpaper, which form the backdrop to both the opening titles and the end credits.  An obvious interpretation, and one that I’ve never seen much reason to argue with, is that it symbolises inner tensions and demons being covered up and kept below the surface.  Even the cheap and unattractive wallpaper of the Earle is a preferable sight to the sheer horrors that lurk beneath it.  Unfortunately for Barton, this fa├žade is destined to come crashing down sooner or later, and the perpetually-peeling wallpaper becomes one of his greatest nemeses for the first half of the film.

Barton’s futile struggle with the wallpaper in his room originates after his first meeting with Charlie.  Despite his initial indifference towards Charlie, Barton admits that he is “alright” (he gave Barton the opportunity to behave self-importantly for the first time since coming to Hollywood, after all, so he’s not without his uses) and is glad that he stopped by.  His satisfaction is cut short, however, by the sounds of a strip of wallpaper peeling at one of the corners from above his bed.  As Barton attempts to reaffix the paper, he discovers that the walls are dripping with an unpleasant sticky substance.

As noted, dripping in Barton Fink is indicative of malaise and exposed ugliness, and it’s one of Charlie’s defining characteristics.  At this stage in the film, a first-time viewer, however attentive they may be, is unlikely to connect the substance on the walls to the moisture seen dripping from Charlie’s face, but the connection is reinforced in subsequent encounters, where Charlie discusses his chronic ear infection and his need to staunch the flow of pus with cotton.  Like Charlie, the Earle subsists in a state of perpetual sickness, and its feverishness makes it highly volatile.

Charlie seems to exude heat, or at the very least it follows him, so we might assume that it was his presence in the room which caused the adhesive to melt and the paper to peel.  It’s surely no coincidence that he was sitting on the bed, directly beneath it, during his conversation with Barton.  What’s particularly curious, however, is the suggestion that the picture of the sun-bathing woman may even have had something to do with this.  After Charlie has left the room, Barton’s gaze falls dreamily upon the picture, and it is at this point that the wallpaper begins to peel.  As Barton turns away from his desk and goes to investigate, the camera shifts its focus, intently, to the picture.  It’s as if the Earle has reacted with jealousy to Barton’s fantasies about a world outside of its own walls, by dragging him back into his immediate surroundings (personally, I subscribe strongly to the interpretation that Charlie is in love with Barton, and that there is indeed a homoerotic subtext to their relationship – more on that later).

Barton’s world, fragment by fragment, is falling apart.  To top it all off, we hear the whines of that troublesome mosquito from above him, reminding him that things are only going to continue spiralling out of his control.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A Day or a Lifetime – Charlie Calls #1

Charlie: Well, Barton, you might say I sell peace of mind. Insurance is my game.  Door to door, human contact, still the only way to move merchandise.  In spite of what you might think from tonight, I'm pretty good at it.

Barton: Doesn't surprise me at all.

Charlie: Hell yes, because I believe in it.  Fire, theft and casualty are not things that only happen to other people - that's what I tell 'em.  If writing doesn't work out, you might want to look into it.  Providing for a basic human need - a fella could do worse.

Prior to the dramatic reveal that turns his Hollywood experience into an all-out nightmare, Barton is visited three times by Charlie, his fellow tenant at the Earle, and the only one whom Barton or the audience ever actually sees.  The relationship between the two men becomes the emotional crux of the film – Charlie has an odd, imposing presence, but he brings in an air of geniality which is largely absent from Barton’s interactions elsewhere in Hollywood, while communicating a sense of isolation that makes his need to keep on returning to Barton’s room seem understandable.  Over the course of the three meetings, we see Barton progress from being standoffish toward Charlie to actually starting to exhibit a degree of dependence upon him – of course, by then the intense isolation he’s experienced at the Earle and in Hollywood as a whole has been getting to him too.  Even on subsequent viewings, when the viewer is aware that there is much more to Charlie than meets the eye, it is still every bit as fascinating, if not more so, to watch the bond between these characters as it develops.

Their initial meeting comes about when Barton, in the preliminary stages of writing his screenplay, becomes preoccupied with the noises coming from the room next door (Room 623) and telephones Chet at the front desk to complain about the disturbance.  At first, we might assume that these noises are laughter, but as the scene goes on it becomes increasingly unclear whether they are really the sounds of elation or of suffering.  Thanks to the tissue-thin walls of the Earle, Charlie’s reaction to Chet’s subsequent call to his room is audible, and he immediately heads over to have it out with Barton.  It is an uncomfortable moment, emphasised by the reliance primarily on external sound to signal the threat closing in on Barton, and by the accompanying shots from Barton's perspective, making the viewer feel as if they too have nowhere to run.

Charlie seems ready for a confrontation, but Barton sheepishly tries to explain that he called the front desk not to complain, but out of concern for Charlie – as he does so, we see a trickle of sweat (or is it a tear?) run down Charlie’s cheek, an indication that there are tensions bubbling underneath.  Barton states that he is trying to work and that the noise had been making it difficult.  This is followed by a long, awkward pause, during which Charlie glares at Barton quizzically – then, we see a change in Charlie’s demeanour as he appears to let things slide and suddenly becomes apologetic and jovial.  Charlie offers to make things up to Barton by sharing a bottle of whiskey (he does so in the manner of a standard pick-up line, the first hint that Charlie may be seeking more than just conversation), but Barton wants nothing to do with him, to the extent that he pointedly refuses to return the gesture when Charlie cordially extends out his hand.  Nonetheless, Charlie is intent upon coming in and becoming acquainted with Barton.

Barton is initially indifferent toward Charlie’s attempts to strike up conversation, although he becomes more amenable when it opens up the opportunity to talk about his work as a writer and how he envisions himself.  He becomes very animated and impassioned at this point, in fact.  It’s here that a recurring feature of his interactions with Charlie is established – Barton talks with great vigour about how much he wants to represent the dreams and aspirations of the common man in his work, yet whenever Charlie offers to tell him some stories of his own, Barton immediately cuts him off.  Barton’s hypocrisy in this scene is hardly subtle – he criticises writers who purposely attempt to keep the common man at bay, yet his interest in Charlie does not extend beyond his capacity to act as an audience to his own ego.  A few minutes ago Barton was not even willing to shake hands with the so-called common man for whom he so desperately wants to speak.

Charlie, for his part, is evidently not the unwitting simpleton that Barton has pegged him for, although he is quite happy to humour him in this regard.  There are points in their conversation where he appears to be toying with Barton – his impulsive laughter upon learning that Barton is working as a screenwriter for a Hollywood studio comes off as derisive, despite his insistence that he is merely embarrassed at having underestimated Barton.  He regards Barton’s condescension with obvious amusement, at times even willingly playing up to it (for example, when he states that Barton has caught him “trying to be fancy”, allowing Barton a smile of smug satisfaction).  Nevertheless, his irritation at twice being cut off by Barton when he attempts to weigh in with his own perspective is unmistakable.  As Barton goes into his spiel about a theatre for the common man, Charlie appears to be genuinely invested in what he is saying, although it is unclear exactly what is being stirred in him – his trembling movements and heavy breathing suggest that he is pained, possibly even aroused by Barton’s words.  The tensions from earlier continue to fester – when Barton refers to him as an “average working stiff”, another trickle of moisture can be seen dripping from Charlie’s nose.  As will later become apparent, dripping in Barton Fink is synonymous with sickness, desperation and all manner of exposed unpleasantness.

Barton is at his most condescending when he tells Charlie that, “to put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phoney as a three dollar bill.”  On top of everything else, it’s a phrase that Charlie (whenever he was able to get a word in edgeways) had never used, nor does he in any of their subsequent interactions.  When Charlie gives his response - “Well, I guess that’s a tragedy right there” - Barton fails to detect the sarcasm, much as he fails to grasp the implicit criticism in Charlie’s parting statement that, “Too much revelry late at night, you forget there’s other people in the world.”

What little information Charlie is able to divulge about himself is that he works as a door-to-door insurance salesman – crucially, he tells Barton that he “sells peace of mind”.  From the start, Charlie’s dialogue betrays a fixation with heads which will play into later revelations about his character, but it also points toward Barton’s own preoccupations with the life of the mind, and the idea that it is his unique responsibility, as a writer, to traverse this torturous, unmapped territory.  In a subsequent meeting, Barton will tell Charlie that he envies him for being able to live according to a daily routine that entails very little thought or pain.  It’s yet another condescending view of Charlie that’s derived from mere assumption, but if Barton had been more attentive to Charlie’s words then he might have picked up that his daily routine is very much attuned to the chaos of the world, and to the fire, theft and casualties that do not only happen to other people (on repeat viewings it’s hard to miss the implicit threat in Charlie’s sale pitch).  Charlie also spews the words “hell” and “damn” a lot – initially, this might be taken as a sign of a lively, unsophisticated personality that stands in refreshing contrast to Barton’s, but, coupled with Charlie’s persistent dripping, it later becomes suggestive of the dangerous levels of torment lurking within.

Charlie leaves Barton for the evening, at which point the latter has his first encounter with the peeling wallpaper of the Earle (coupled with his second mosquito encounter).  It’s such a wonderful and critical moment in the film, in fact, that it deserves to be set aside for its very own entry.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisted: Series 1 - The Hedgehogs

We’ve reached the final deaths of the original series, and they saved by far the most heart-breaking for last.

Back in 1993, I was keen to archive every episode of Farthing Wood, and had a special VHS set aside for just that purpose (a good move, as the official VHS releases, when they came, were not much cop, shaving off bits and pieces from each episode in an effort to keep the overall running time down to 80 minutes or so).  Every week, we set our VHS recorder, and I would usually dedicate a portion of my weekend to watching and re-watching the latest episode, fully digesting it, while also having the option to revisit any previous moments from the Farthing Wood saga that took my fancy.  This episode was the anomaly -  it caused me so much upset that, not only did I watch it just once, but my mother insisted that I tape over my recording of it the following week.  This was not merely a preventive measure to ensure that I was never tempted to revisit it, but also a gesture geared toward somehow erasing the episode, and all the distress that had accompanied it, from the continuity of the show.  I happily complied, as I couldn't envision ever wanting to go back and watch this one again, completism be damned.  Doing so spared me the burden of having to hit the fast forward button every time I wanted to progress from episode 9 to 11 (although I did still have to skip through the recap sequence if I wanted to be completely clean of it), but it never really shook those final Hedgehog-related images from my head.  Their absence from subsequent episodes was in itself a sad reminder of what had come before.  It had happened, and there was no getting around that.

Unlike most of the animals who died en route to White Deer Park, the Hedgehogs were not what you would call useless.  They weren’t useful – like the Squirrels, there was very little they could do to benefit the party as a whole along the way (though they did help to rescue the rabbits during the river crossing episode, so there is that), but they were nonetheless capable and competent, and were able to get as far as they did without causing any trouble.  Unfortunately, the gargantuan task of having to cross a busy motorway caught them directly by their Achilles’ heel, and here’s where it ended for them.

Learning that they will have to cross a motorway in order to reach White Deer Park comes as a massive shock to the animals, as even their guide Toad had no idea what lay ahead.  It transpires that the motorway was still under construction when Toad initially crossed it, but now that it’s up and running and abuzz with traffic, getting across won’t be half as easy.  Fortunately for the Farthing Wood crew, traffic on one side of the motorway has come to a complete stand-still, so making it to the centre proves straightforward enough.  No such luck on the remaining side, however – all the animals can do is wait for a wide enough gap in the traffic and make a bolt for it.  As we all know, a hedgehog’s natural defence when faced with danger is not to flee, but to curl up into a tight, spiny ball, a tactic which works well against predators but is sadly of little use against cars.  The Hedgehogs themselves are painfully aware of this, but quelling their instincts in the face of imminent danger is another matter.  Badger purposely insists that the Hedgehogs, along with the Rabbits (fast but incompetent), wait until an especially wide gap has materialised, at which point he orders them to run.  In a particularly poignant exchange, the Hedgehogs express doubts as to whether they actually are capable of making it to the other side, but ultimately decided that White Deer Park is worth trying for.

Badger and the Rabbits make it across with little difficulty, but the Hedgehogs struggle to fight their natural urges to stop and curl up.  When a huge lorry starts tearing down upon them, this finally proves too much for Mr. Hedgehog, who becomes paralysed with fear.  Mrs. Hedgehog pleads with him to keep going, but to no avail.  Faced with the option of abandoning her mate and continuing without him, or remaining by his side and sharing in his imminent death beneath the wheels of the lorry, Mrs. Hedgehog chooses the latter.

HORROR FACTOR: 10. This is a real shocker, as we actually do see the wheels of the lorry roll right over them onscreen.  Naturally, the show doesn’t go as far as to show us their crushed and mangled bodies in the aftermath (although Adder does later insinuate that she can see them), but what we do see is still pretty horrifying.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 9. In the end, Mr. Hedgehog was a victim of his own instincts, pure and simple.  Mrs. Hedgehog, on the other hand, died one of the most courageous and honourable deaths in the entire series.  It does irk me a little later in the episode, when Owl informs Adder that, “Those cowering hedgehogs curled up and died.”  Nothing cowering about the way Mrs. Hedgehog died, thank you very much.  Not to mention, the mere act of trying took a considerable amount of guts on both their parts.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 10. If this particular Farthing Wood death doesn’t move you tears, then none of them will.


The GOOD news is that everyone who makes it across the motorway goes on to make it to White Deer Park (Badger even spoils this fact in his opening narration to the subsequent episode when he states that “For the survivors the final hurdle had been overcome, and now nothing could prevent us from reaching White Deer Park”, so we could all rest easy).  There were further run-ins with pesticides, wedding attendees and golfers, but thankfully none of these proved fatal.

Problem is, White Deer Park is far from the all-out haven that the animals were hoping for, offering safety from the specific type of human encroachment that reduced Farthing Wood to tatters, but also a fresh set of perils in the form of hostile locals, limited food resources during a particularly harsh winter, and the odd human who assumes that they can pick off one or two creatures without the authorities ever knowing.  So, yes, for those animals formerly of Farthing Wood, the challenge was far from over, and I'll still have a lot to talk about for Series 2.