Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Coens Part 4: The Artsy Fartsy

Barton Fink (1991)

This is the fourth film made by the Coen’s and the first to garner overwhelming critical praise. Of course it’s a movie about people who make movies. Film critics love that. It makes them feel like they’re enjoying an inside joke.

To be honest, this was the film of theirs I had the hardest times really liking. It’s one of those art house movies that make you feel stupid at the end because you’re not sure if it’s overblown and pretentious or if you’re just too dumb to get it. Well, the first time I saw Barton Fink, I didn’t get it. But upon further analysis I really came to enjoy this film.

This film is a skewering of creative process in mass media context. Barton Fink, played by John Turtorro (Coen regular), is a highly touted play-write from New York who heads to Hollywood to write for Capital Pictures. He checks into a strange hotel where he is stricken with writer’s block and befriended by talkative traveling salesman played by John Goodman (another Coen regular).

It is an obvious allegory in which Hollywood is very literally hell. Can something within an allegory be literal? Barton descends into the depths of disillusionment and self doubt. He discovers his idol is a drunken fraud (a not so subtle reference to Faulkner). The film states pretty clearly that movies seem to be either made by formula obeying, bottom line focused hacks or self important, intellectuals who are full of their own crap.

The ending of this thing is a strange one. It will leave you thinking, “Was that a dream? Did it really happen? What the hell did I just see?” Believe me. If you give it the thought that it deserves, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of insight.


Great scene that introduces the strange hotel Barton stays in.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

I really enjoy having a love of obscure music, films, books, TV shows. Anonymous masterpieces that no one know about but me. The Man Who Wasn’t There qualifies as one of these gems.

When you film a movie in black and white, you pretty much know that no one is going to see it. I would guess this film is the least viewed of their twelve movies. Well, I say to you all, join the elite club and see this movie. It is a straight up Film Noire complete with the voice over, dramatic lighting and plot twists. Billy Bob Thornton plays a bored and defeated man named Ed Crane who makes a botched attempt at blackmail in an effort to break out of his life. Of course it all goes wrong and the all hell piles on top of him and everyone in his life.

One element of Coen brother films that needs to be acknowledged is Roger Deakins. He is the George Martin to the Coens' Beatles, if you will. He has worked as their director of photography for eight of their movies. He is a huge reason why their movies are always distinctively beautiful. The black and white medium of TMWWT gives them unique opportunities to build tension and mood. Look at the clip of attorney Freddy Reidenschnieder below as he explains his defense strategy. That light pouring over him, like he was an angelic deliverer of God’s word. It highlights the fact that he totally full of crap.

Again, this is a movie that has some strange parts to it. But it also has Scarlett Johansen. It can be as weird as it wants to be. Damn it, she’s hot.


Ed Crane describing his life.

Freddy Reidenschneider and the law of uncertainty (referred to above).

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