Objective vs. Subjective Reality in Barton Fink

Barton Fink’s unique style and texture certainly made it aesthetically pleasing. I particularly loved the Shinning-esque hallway, the slow pan following Charlie when he first bangs on Barton’s door, the whoosh every time the door opens or closes, and of course, the character Lipnick. But beyond admiring some fantastic mise en scene, acting, and sound design, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was that movie about?

To help me with the question, I found an article called “Barton Fink, Intertextuality, and the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing” by Michael Dunne. The article mentions a number of theories on how to interpret the film; Barton Fink could be an allegory on creativity, a satire of Hollywood, or a piece about a man who sells his soul and goes to hell (aka the Earle Hotel).

Ultimately, Dunne concludes that reducing Barton Fink to a single interpretation does the film an injustice. For it is a film that blends the aforementioned theories in interesting ways, never completely confirming or disconfirming any of them. Thus, Barton Fink is a film less about the intentions of the author and more about the perceived meanings by the viewer. Dunne writes:

In keeping with these critical insights, we may understand that to encounter a film like Barton Fink, to feel conscious of parallels and contrasts to our prior aesthetic encounters, to feel uncertain just how it all fits tidily together, and to accept this uncertainty happily as part of this cinematic encounter-is to experience the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing.

The main uncertainty in Barton Fink is the question of what is real and what is not. So I’d like to run with this a little bit. George Wilson talks about the impersonal subjectivity in his essay, “Transparency and Twist in the Narrative Fiction Film.” He defines impersonal subjectivity as “non-POV shots that are subjectively inflected but do not share their vantage point with the visual perspective of any character in the film.” Sometimes, as is the case with Fight Club, the viewer may consider such subjective impersonal shots to be objective, especially when there are no explicit narrative cues to tell us otherwise. These impersonal shots are a subjective representation motivated by some psychological significance, like a character’s thoughts or emotions.

In Barton Fink, it is hard to pick out the impersonal subjective shots (that aren’t POVs) as there is no clear distinction between reality and fantasy. Upon first viewing, all events seem to be objective because they make logical sense within the story: Barton is given the assignment to write a screenplay and he works on it in his hotel. But how real is the hotel, really? It seems to be more like an artificial hell than a realistic place. The entire atmosphere is eerie and ominous. The seemingly friendly neighbor turns out to be a serial killer. The slogan of the Hotel Earle is “For a day, a lifetime.” And the fire doesn’t burn anything nor does it concern anyone in the hotel. But we don’t question the authenticity of any of these things because we attribute them to the “as if logic” of an eccentric place. That is, until the perplexing ending.

The pleasure of this film, as Dunne noted, is indeed hypothesizing (on subsequent viewings) which scenes, events, or characters are real or not real. If I were to pick out instances of impersonal subjectivity in Barton Fink, I would probably choose almost all of the hotel scenes. Why? Because every conversation, object, and character in the hotel could have some psychological significance to Barton’s feelings or thoughts as they exist outside of the hotel.

For example, Charlie’s deceptiveness-his transition from someone who wants to help Barton to someone who ruins his life- parallels Barton’s experience with Lipnick. Audrey’s confession to Barton may represent a hidden desire of Barton’s: he doesn’t want to admit that the author he respects is actually a drunk. The mosquito on Audrey may represent W.P. Mayhew’s parasitic relationship to her. As for the painting on the wall, Dunne projects that it “is probably intended to represent everything Fink lacks-sex, beauty, social acceptance, innocence, the healthy outdoors, the appeal of the West Coast.” So I think it’s reasonable to suggest that everything in the hotel is a manifestation of Barton’s consciousness or unconsciousness; all of it is subjective.

I don’t know what any of this means, (and I won’t attempt to analyze it in light of Dunne’s analysis) but I do think that in order to clear up the relationship between the subjective and objective, we must draw on our understanding of Barton’s psychology and personality. I guess what I liked so much about this film, and I usually hate feeling confused, is that the viewer must add subjectivity in the way they feel most appropriate (as oppose to Fight Club which reveals the objective truth in the end). This film would be a great candidate for the video essay. I’d like to alter how we perceive subjectivity in the film-what if the last scene in the movie came first?

Update: Leslie wrote a great response to this post so I’ll post my comment here:

Perhaps the beauty of Barton Fink is that it counts on our natural and involuntary tendency to read the film like we read The Singing Detective–to separate the objective fabula from the subjective. But in Barton Fink, such a task is impossible. Ultimately, because we can’t distinguish between reality and the fantasy, we may consider the entire film to be subjective. Perhaps the message, if there is any, is that all filmmaking is subjective and that it is the role of the viewer to construct objectivity from it. Even though there are always filters and slants in film, we still consider impersonal shots to be truth. (unless we know for sure that the character is dreaming, thinking, or hallucinating)

Distinguishing between the real and the not real is important to me, no matter how fruitless, because it changes how I construct the objective truth and the fabula at large. And I need to find some shred of objective truth. I can’t consider the whole thing to be imagined because I’d feel cheated. (like discovering it was all a dream) So I find it very intriguing to make a hypothesis about the film and then find proof to support it. (like the process of viewing any film) The film’s meaning may be indecipherable, but I refuse to write it off as such. Frustrated that I can’t get all the answers from Barton’s mind, I’m forced to speculate about the minds of the Coen brothers. I depend on the author (and my perception of their intentions) to help me find meaning in a text; I simply cannot rely on the text alone. Thus, for me, it is virtually impossible to enjoy the film without making some effort to figure it out.

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