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Barton Fink: Kiss His Feet!

By Karel Segers

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To my taste, each of the first seven features by the Coen brothers is a masterpiece. Right in the middle of that first decade and a half sits Barton Fink, starring John Turturro and John Goodman. It tells the story of the eponymous New York playwright who leaves his dream of creating theatre for the people — to go and write for the moving pictures. Fink’s arrival in California immediately boasts Roger Deakins’ hyper-stylised photography and the gorgeous, lush production design by Dennis Gassner. Both belie the Coen’s independent production budget.


I’m not always the fastest in picking up symbolism and theme. It took me a number of viewings before I spotted the Big Metaphor in Barton Fink. Once you see it, you will notice the image system is present in the entire movie. When Barton arrives at the Hotel Earle, Steve Buscemi appears from a hatch in the floor. Barton learns that he is a ‘rez’, a resident as opposed to the ‘tranz’, who travel through. Charlie Meadows, the hotel guest in the room next to Barton’s turns out to be a dark horse, who precedes about every other line by “Hell, yes,” “Hell, no,” or “Hell, why not!” And the final scenes of the movie complete the metaphor to a T. Trust me, I haven’t spoiled much of the story at all. In any case, thematically this is the story of a playwright who sells out for Hollywood dollars.


Soon after arriving in SoCal, Barton meets studio boss Jack Lipnik (Michael Lerner), a big man with a big vision - at least so it seems. Later it will turn out that really Lipnik’s assistant Lou (Jon Polito) does all the work. “Jack can’t read; you got to tell it to him.”

The Coen brothers are dialogue masters. Just listening to the words, their sounds and rhythm gives sheer delight. The scenes with mogul Lipnik tower above all others. The Coens wrote three, and they are each brilliant. But it took the exceptional talent of the two actors to bring them to life. If the title role of anti-hero Barton Fink was Turturro’s career-defining performance, it was the part of studio mogul Jack Lipnik that earned Michael Lerner an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.


Barton keeps on struggling with a very bad case of writer’s block. Before he goes to visit Lipnik a second time, he is warned that the studio boss has taken a liking to him. This means trouble. Barton is concerned, and pretends that things are going fine. When he is asked to give the broad outline of the story, rather than admitting his failure, Barton lies.  The tension is palpable. Then, Lipnik explodes…


About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.


Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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