Barton Fink

brtonToday’s script comes to us from the Coen Brothers; it was suggested for review on the site forums by contributor Eclectic Lexicon.

According to legend, this script was COMPLETED in three weeks. The Coen’s began and finished the script while taking a break from writing Miller’s Crossing. They say they were having difficulties finishing Crossing and, apparently, convinced themselves writing a whole new script would solve those difficulties. [Oh, to have Coen Brothers problems!]

If I sound mildly unconvinced by their story about their stories, it’s because I am. Whenever I read anything by the Coens about their craft, I can’t help interpreting them as still making stuff up. The right word to use in that last sentence is… pretending. I don’t use it because it makes them out to be un-serious about writing. I think [and if I ever have the chance to ask them one [and only one] question it will be an attempt to confirm this idea about them] they take screenwriting more seriously than film-making. So, pretending is and, much more importantly, is not, the right word. Basically, my instinct with regard to believing what the Coens say about their work is this: they never tell you more than half the truth.

If we do take them at their word [and believe they spent no more than three weeks designing and writing this script] then we would be justified in saying they didn’t intend for Barton Fink to be a very deep script. [I’ve said before the Coens are geniuses, but even geniuses need a little more time than three weeks to make something meaningful.] Is it possible the Coens wrote this script, couldn’t quite solve it, still wanted to make it, and then spoke disparagingly of the effort that went in to producing it to deflect future critics like me from skewering them for not solving their story? Maybe, maybe not. It will depend on what I end up thinking of the story’s merits.

I can tell you that I read this script, and then thought about it a lot. I’ve decided to forego the five question review [mainly because I can’t copy and paste from the PDF, and the analysis I’d like to do would require much copying and pasting]. Instead, I will focus on two of the ideas the Coens may have meant, and the storytelling devices which support those ideas.

Here, in list form, are the plot points any analysis of Barton Fink must discuss:

1. The hotel as metaphor for Hell.
2. Is Charlie Meadows Real?
3. Is any of this story Real?
4. What’s with the picture of the girl on the beach?
5. What’s with the girl on the beach in the last scene being equivalent to the picture of the girl on the beach throughout the rest of the movie?
6. What’s in Charlie Meadows bag?
7. Why is the script using famous authors as inspiration?
8. Why does it say about art that those famous authors chose to go to Hollywood?
9. Why are these famous author substitutes acting so degenerately?

I wrote that list as the ideas came to me. Interestingly, the list divides cleanly into items 1-6 [or, reality vs. fiction… and what is the “real” difference?] and items 7-9 [ or, what is the definition of Art?].

barton-fink-73The Coen’s have written a script which allows the reader to ask all those questions. I, as that script’s reader, choose to answer only the first two.  Because of the copying and pasting issue detailed above, I’ll make do, primarily, with naming page numbers as reference points.

We’ll begin our discussion with a look at question two.

2. Is Charlie Meadows Real?

Mr. Meadows is introduced on page 19 [of the pdf on the site forums]. His loud laughing [or is it crying?] disturbs Barton so much that he phones down a complaint to Chet [the desk clerk]. Immediately following the complaint, the phone rings in the room beside Barton’s, Barton hears someone answer, “muffled” conversation ensues, and then the phone is “pronged” down.

From this we can deduce two things.

1. Charlie Meadows is real, or
2. Chet the night desk clerk is conspiring along with Barton in his delusions.

One would be the answer, if we weren’t dealing with the Coens but, we are dealing with the Coens, so we must look for more evidence.

Charlie makes his appearance at Barton’s door and “befriends” him in spite of the fact that Barton works very hard to keep from forming this friendship. Five pages of Coenesque banter follows during which Charlie repeatedly informs Barton that he “could tell you some stories”… a conversational invitation which Barton perpetually ignores. Nothing in this scene allows for any decision about Charlie’s Realness. I will note for future reference, that Charlie gives Barton a drink.

Ten pages pass before Charlie emerges again. Barton is back in his room trying to write, and is again distracted. This time by a “moaning woman”, an “incongruously giggling” partner, and some “creaking of bedsprings”. It is during this interaction that we first learn about Charlie’s “chronic infection” which requires him to plug one of his ears with a cotton ball.

This scene also continues for five pages. During their talk, Charlie references dissociative identity disorder [and applies the reference to himself], wrestles Barton, hurts Barton’s head, and forgets to turn the water off in Barton’s sink. Of these, the injury to Barton appears most real, but it is unclear whether or not he could have done this to himself [fight club style]. The other events could all be products of Barton’s imagination, so I incline slightly toward this segment supporting Charlie’s non-reality over his reality.

Charlie drinks again. Barton does not.

Charlie next appears on page 48. The inciting incident for this meeting is a mix-up in shined shoes. Somehow, Chet has given Barton Charlie’s shoes, and vice-versa. In this scene we learn that Charlie has had a bad day selling “peace of mind”, went to see a doctor about his ear infection [leading to an “argument” with that doctor, the same doctor who later turns up minus his head], informs Barton of his trip to New York, and has Barton give him his parents address in New York. In an odd moment, the scene concludes with “thumping” noises from the room upstairs. These noises resolve into a typewritten “T”.

Charlie drinks again. Barton does not.

Charlie doesn’t enter the script again until page 66. Audrey has been killed during the night, and Barton denies, sincerely, responsibility. At first, Barton refuses Charlie entry. After thinking about his alternatives alone in the sanctity of his room, he goes to Charlie’s door and asks for admission. Charlie does not allow Barton in. Instead, he barges into Barton’s room, sees Audrey, and then rushes to the bathroom to throw up. When he comes back Barton asks Charlie to wait with him while he calls the police. Charlie tells Barton that they can “sort it” without police intervention.

The interesting thing about this scene is that Barton says, when explicitly asked by Charlie how Audrey’s murder happened:

I don’t know. Maybe it was her boyfriend… I passed out.

A plausible explanation, for sure, except… Barton DID NOT drink in the scenes previous to his encounter with Audrey. In other words, there seems to be no physical explanation for what caused Barton to “pass out”.

This fact becomes more glaring later when Charlie begins to clean up the murder mess. In the instant Charlie leaves Barton’s room, the camera goes:


His neck goes rubbery. His eyes roll up. His head lolls back to hit the wall.

The next scene is of Charlie waking Barton in the bathroom. It is accompanied by this glaring line of dialogue:

You passed out.

Interesting word choice and, clearly, intentionally dealt to us by the writers. This is the first time I lean [heavily] toward the idea that Charlie is a figment of Barton’s mind. You could almost convince yourself, based on this sequence alone, that Barton is the serial killer.

Charlie does not drink. Barton does not drink.

Charlie returns, briefly, on page 76 to announce his departure for New York. This is the famous scene where he gives Barton the “one foot square parcel” wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. There is nothing in this scene [either way] to make a judgment about Charlie’s reality.

Charlie does not drink. Barton does not drink.

The next appearance for Charlie is his last. It comes on page 96. He shoots the detectives who are closing in on “him”, frees Barton from his room, and then retreats to his own room while flames engulf the hotel.

This scene is also interesting to interpret because, on the surface, it seems that the police are interacting with both Barton and Charlie. Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch, and Chet, are the only people other than Barton who actually speak with Charlie in the whole script. In this scene, the detectives speak to Barton about Charlie as though he and Charlie are two different beings.

No kidding, bright boy – we smelt Mundt
All over this. Was he the idea man?  [Italics mine.]

There seems to be verbal necessity, from the structure of this sentence, in saying there are two people being referred to by these words.

Of course, as we wondered with Chet, we can also wonder if the detectives are figments of Barton’s imagination too. We are helped in this interpretation by their names. Deutsch = German, and Mastrionotti is so Italian as to steer you toward thinking of Mussolini. When Charlie utters this line as he executes Deutsch:

Heil Hitler.

It feels as though we are being steered again. In this case, to some Holocaust metaphor. Is Barton a symbol of the fractured Jewish psyche’s “rational” response to the horrors of the concentration camps? It is quite possible—even more so when one considers that the person who commissions Lipnik in the army [in the final scenes] is Henry Morgenthau—an historical figure associated with trying to prevent WWII atrocities from being committed against the Jewish people.

barton-fink-55More importantly for our purposes, there is startling symmetry between Barton’s entrance into this scene and Charlie’s entrance. They both arrive on the sixth floor after “interacting” with elevator operator, Pete. Then, they both speak with the detectives.

Again, it is bizarre [to the point of needing an explanation] that either Barton speaks with the police, or Charlie speaks with the police, but their conversations are mutually exclusive. In other words, once Charlie appears in the scene, Barton disappears.

At this point, I am prepared to say that Barton is identical with Charlie. Before I get to the final support in that argument, however, I would like to take one stab at the Hotel Earle as metaphor for Hell idea. In point of fact, I don’t think that’s what the Earle is meant to symbolize.

After working through all the premises in the identity argument, I believe the Earle is really a metaphor for the human mind. More specifically, the human mind under the influence of mental disorder. The Earle is a diseased, decrepit, overly hot place. In my opinion everyone Barton first meets at the Hotel IS NOT real. They’re all figments of his “life of the mind”. Not only does this tidy up the problem with Chet and the detectives, but it also fits the facts. The Earle is so decrepit, so run down, it can’t be a real place. Forcing it to be actual strains credulity beyond the margins that writers as competent as the Coens would ever attempt. [I think.]

Also notice that there are only three floors visited in the Earle. There is the lobby where Barton meets Chet. There is the basement where Chet takes the shoes to be shined. [Barton sees him emerging from this basement when he first enters the hotel.] And, there is the sixth floor where Barton and Charlie spend most of their script time [where, technically, Charlie spends all of his script time].

It is easy to draw the Freudian conclusion that these three Hotel levels are id, ego, and superego– but giving breath to that interpretation is tricky. That the basement is the id works well—all the unseen work in the hotel [mind] gets done down there. The ego as lobby area also works. This is the place where you prepare a face to meet the faces you meet. But, how about level six as superego?

At first glance, this interpretation might seem ill-fitting. The superego is supposed to be where we house are feelings about what is right and what is wrong. It is the place where our darker desires are sent to be reigned in. How can a creature like Charlie Meadows live here?

However, I think the interpretation does fit– if one remembers that the Hotel under consideration in Barton Fink is diseased. This script is about a disordered mind. In actual point of fact, it’s about an artistic disordered mind [but we will leave that extra adjective be for now]. That the conscience of a disordered mind would be Charlie Meadows does not seem like such an ill-fit, upon further review.

One last point. As I read through the initial conversation between the Detectives and Barton, I was stopped cold in my reading progress after the detectives give Charlie Meadows “real” name. In my notes, I wrote:

This is too weird a name to be a coincidence. Investigate.

After reading, I did investigate. It turns out that there was a US Senator named Karl Mundt. A pretty uninteresting guy whose main claim to fame was his association with Senator McCarthy. I read through his Wikipedia page never more than half sure that I was on to anything with this line of inquiry. That all changed when I finished the entry, scrolled back to the top of the page, and looked at the picture of Senator Mundt. Over his image, his full name is given:

Karl Earl Mundt

Karl Mundt=Charlie Meadows=Barton Fink=Hotel Earle

Mixing my metaphors, this is an example of literary planets aligning. This is far too many coincidences to just be a coincidence. And yet, I was still not satisfied. Why did they include the extra “e”? If there were a reason for everything else, then there must also be a reason for this. I wrote the name down in my notes:

Karl Earle Mundt

Then began to experiment with it, anagram style. Eventually, this dropped out:

Dark Mental Rule

Also a coincidence? I’ll leave that for you, the reader, to decide. (1)

RATING: Recommended Reading


1. At this time, the above is all I am inclined to write about this script. However, I never found a space to mention how odd it was that when Barton first meets Chet, he tells him:

…Those your only bags?

The others are being sent.

If I’m right and Barton=Charlie, then the “parcel” Charlie gives to Barton was ALWAYS Barton’s. I’m guessing it contains the heads of his parents and his uncle.


3 responses to “Barton Fink

  1. I’ve left many points undiscussed. For a future followup review? Foremost among these is:

    Why [if my interpretation is correct] is Charlie German and Barton Jewish?

  2. On the whole, me thinks at this level of digging interpretations one ends up finding even more than ever crossed the minds of JoelEthan themselves. But I admit after seeing the film for a fourth time that id ego superego popped unwilled up in my considerations… that id = Charlie ; ego = Barton ; superego = the policemen. But then…
    On “writing in three weeks”, I very much disbelieve it took less than a year in the creation process.
    The way I see it, the girl is sanity regained. Sensuality & a beautiful day

    • Sergio,

      Thanks for commenting, and welcome to the site.

      I had not considered the girl in the picture as a metaphor for sanity. That is an interesting interpretation. It definitely works in terms of proximity. She is the thing that is always removed from him during his time at the Earle. He doesn’t meet her in real life until after Charlie is dead– until after he has left the Hotel Earle.

      You are unassailably right when it comes to the level of digging in these interpretations! Sometimes I get on a roll and I just start having fun.

      I tried with this review to make it interesting and eerie, just like the source material. The review may be brilliant, it may be trash, and it may be both. But the decision on its merits rests with the… audience. I make no claims.

      I hoped all of that would make the review of Barton Fink a miniature of the script for Barton Fink.

      If they really wrote this in three weeks, they are even better than I give them credit for being :)

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