John Torturro as Barton Fink



“Barton Fink”
Director: Joel Coen
Released 1991
Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen
With John Torturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, and others

The story takes place in 1941. It begins in New York City, where the playwright Barton Fink (John Torturro) attends the successful opening of his play “Bare Ruined Choirs.” The audience is enthusiastic, and the author is called on the stage to warm applause. The reviews turn out to be good as well. Among connoisseurs of contemporary drama Barton Fink has become a rising star--"the toast of Broadway."
Later that night Barton Fink sees his agent who informs him that Capitol Pictures, a major Hollywood studio, wishes to hire the newly famous author to write screenplays for $1000 a week. Garland strongly recommends that Barton accept the position for a while, as that would solve the writer’s financial problems, and allow him later on to write plays for the theatre without having to worry about making a living all the time.

Barton does not like the idea. He is sure that writing for Hollywood would mean writing “pap,” and Barton would much rather continue his present collaboration with the theatre group that is dedicated to creating serious and socially progressive drama. Improving the lot of “the common man” is high on Barton’s agenda; he hopes “to make a difference" as a socially committed playwright. Going to Hollywood would be nothing short of selling out to commercial entertainment for money. “It just doesn’t seem to me that Los Angeles is the place to lead the life of the mind,” he tells his agent. “The common man will still be here when you get back,” the agent replies. “Hell, they might even have one or two of ‘em out in Hollywood.” “That’s a rationalization,” Barton replies--being the high-minded idealist that he desires to be. His agent smiles: “Barton, it was a joke.”

There is a shot of the sunny California coast; surf is crashing into a rock. Then we see Barton as he arrives at the seedy Hotel Earle in Los Angeles. The desk clerk (Steve Buscemi), who also collects and cleans the shoes of the guests, signs him in as a resident. Barton moves his few things into a room on the sixth floor. (The ominous number six will be emphasized throughout the film.) It is uncomfortably hot. Mosquitoes give the writer a hard time, and the wallpaper tends to peel off because the glue is melting in the heat.

There is no view from his room’s double window: all one can see is the brick wall of an airshaft. The only cheerful note is provided by a small print that hangs above the desk. It shows a bathing beauty sitting on the beach under a blue sky. One hand shields her eyes from the sun as she looks out past a rock in the surf. Barton will frequently gaze at the print. It offers a vision of beauty and light that contrasts sharply with the darkness of Barton's dingy room.



Next morning Barton presents himself to Jack Lipnik (Michael Lerner), the overbearing president of Capitol Pictures. Lipnik expresses what seems to be deep respect and great appreciation for writers: “The writer is king here at Capitol Pictures.” After unleashing a flood of platitudes about Hollywood and movies on the confused playwright, he assigns Barton to write a scenario for a wrestling picture, an action film starring Wallace Beery. Lipnik wants to see a first draft by the end of the week. “We‘re all expecting great things,” he tells the alarmed writer.


Back in his room Barton tries to work on the script. He is disturbed by muffled noises that sound like troubled laughter, and at times like weeping or sobbing. The noises seem to be coming from the neighboring room. Barton calls the desk clerk downstairs to complain. The noise stops, but a little later there is a forceful knock on Barton’s door. Barton, apprehensive, opens the door and faces the burly figure of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), his troublesome neighbor. In spite of his threatening stare and appearance, however, Charlie turns out to be jovial and intent on getting along with the writer. He apologizes profusely for the noise, and, making himself at home in Barton's room, offers the new resident a drink from his flask.

Barton resents the intrusion, as he is rather anxious to return to his work, but he accepts the drink and takes the time for a chat. Charlie tells him that he is an insurance salesman, and that he takes pride in providing peace of mind for his clients. When Barton tells him that he is working in pictures, Charlie is impressed, and he indicates several times that he could tell the writer some amazing stories. Barton, however, shows no interest in what Charlie might tell him. He is absorbed in his own idea of himself as a champion of the “common man.” Repeatedly interrupting his visitor, he tells Charlie about the importance of a new kind of theatre that ought to replace the conventional comedy of manners and the formalistic aestheticism of the past. The two men do not really communicate, but they enjoy their little talk and part on good terms.

Barton makes no headway with his assignment. For one thing, he knows next to nothing about wrestling, and he has not the slightest interest in either spectator sports or the sort of formula movie that he is supposed to come up with. He goes to the studio lot to see Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), the producer of the planned picture, in order to get some advice. They have lunch at the commissary. The impatient producer does not know what to tell Barton, and he recommends that he talk to one of the more experienced writers on the lot. Barton says that he does not know any writers. “Jesus," Geisler tells him, "throw a rock in here, and you’ll hit one.” And taking his abrupt leave he adds: “And do me a favor, Fink: Throw it hard.”

Eventually Barton runs into the alcoholic William Mayhew (John Mahoney), a famous Southern writer whom Barton has always admired. Mayhew, too, is in Hollywood for the money, and he has worked on a couple of wrestling pictures. He is not happy with his mercenary work, and that is one of the reasons why he drinks rather hard. He agrees to see Barton in his office in the afternoon. When Barton shows up at his door, however, only Mayhew’s secretary and lover Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) receives him. She apologizes that the famous writer is "indisposed." Mayhew, in fact, is rip-roaring drunk; Barton can hear him rant and scream in the background.

Back at the hotel Barton broods over an almost blank page in his Underwood typewriter. He cannot get beyond the first words of his story: “Fade in on a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside. Faint traffic noises are audible.” Charlie walks into his room and tries to cheer him up. Barton explains that he does not know enough about wrestling. Charlie gets down on the floor and invites Barton to do likewise. Charlie used to wrestle, and he wants to show the writer a few practical things. Barton resists, but eventually joins him in a wrestling position on the floor and is expertly thrown on his back. He is hurting, and Charlie takes his leave, apologizing profusely for showing off in such a rough way. Barton, profoundly discouraged, is left with his blank page and his worsening writer’s block.

Next day he has a picnic lunch with Mayhew and Audrey. Mayhew presents him with an autographed copy of his novel Nebuchadnezzar. While they are eating and chatting, the great novelist gets increasingly soused. Audrey remarks that imbibing is not going to do him much good, and Barton pompously adds: “You’re cutting yourself off from your gift, and from Audrey, and from your fellow man, and from everything your art is about.” Mayhew snorts at such cant, and he staggers away, drinking and singing “Old Black Joe” out of tune and at the top of his voice. When Audrey tries to calm him down, he drunkenly strikes her. Barton gets angry at "that sonofabitch," and he tries to comfort the crying woman. Audrey appreciates his concern, but in the end only tries to find excuses for her unhappy lover.

At night Barton is still pondering over the first few words of his scenario when Charlie comes into the room. The salesman has had a rough day: "People can be goddamn cruel. Especially some of their housewives. O.k., so I have a weight problem..." Eventually Charlie announces that he will soon be leaving for New York. “Things are all balled up at the head office,” he explains. Barton is genuinely unhappy about the news, as he feels utterly alone in L A. But Charlie promises to be back in a few days, and he expresses his confidence in Barton’s ability to overcome his writer’s block soon, and to finish the scenario to everyone's satisfaction.

Barton sees Geisler again and is told that Lipnik wants a description of the complete scenario by tomorrow. The producer is worried, and he warns Barton not to "cross" him. Barton is to appear at Lipnik’s poolside home to deliver the pitch in person. When Barton tells the producer that he has still not written a thing, Geisler arranges for Barton to see footage of other wrestling films. The ludicrously histrionic and violent scenes fail to inspire the clueless writer. In his helplessness Barton finally calls Audrey in the middle of the night and implores her to come to his room to help him with his project. He hopes to profit from her experience as the typist of Mayhew’s screenplays.

Since the novelist is dead drunk, Audrey manages to slip away and join Barton in his room. In their conversation it becomes clear that Audrey is more than just a typist: she seems to have written a great deal of what was published under Mayhew’s name. Barton works up a moral outrage about “William Goddamn Phony Mayhew’s” lack of professional integrity. Audrey calms him down: “Don’t judge him… We all need understanding, Barton. Even you, tonight, understanding is all you really need…” Audrey is soothing and seductive, and the two end up in bed making love.

When Barton wakes up in the morning, Audrey is dead and awash in her own blood. Barton screams in terror, and then runs over to Charlie’s door to get help. He tells his neighbor that he is sure that he "did not do it." Charlie calms him down, and after surveying the situation he promises to get rid of the body and straighten things out. He convinces the writer not to call the police. Barton, haggard and in need of a shave, hurries to his meeting with Lipnik. The moment of truth has arrived: Barton has no idea of what he is going to tell the studio boss. When, after some pleasantries, the mighty mogul asks him to describe the plot of the movie, all Barton can do is mumble something about not feeling comfortable with talking about work in progress.
For a moment Lipnik’s face does not show what he is thinking. His underling Lou Breeze insolently tries to call Barton’s bluff. Quite unexpectedly, however, Lipnik comes to Barton’s defense. Instead of turning on the writer he yells at his subordinate: “This man creates for a living! He puts the food on your table and on mine. Thank him for it! Thank him, you ungrateful sonofabitch! Thank him or you’re fired!” He demands that Breeze get on his knees and kiss Barton’s feet as an apology. Barton is horrified. “Mr. Lipnik, I really would feel much better if you could reconsider,” he suggests. But the mogul insists. When Breeze does not comply with his boss’s demand, Lipnik himself gets on his knees and kisses the sole of Barton’s shoe. “On behalf of Capitol Pictures, the administration, and all the stockholders," he tells the flabbergasted writer, "please accept this as a symbol of our apology and respect.”

At the hotel Charlie gets ready to leave for New York. Barton’s room has been cleaned, except for a large brown stain on the mattress. Audrey’s corpse is gone and "taken care of." Charlie gives Barton a neatly wrapped parcel that contains, as Charlie says, some of his personal effects. Barton promises to keep it for him until the salesman’s return. “Maybe it’ll bring you good luck,” Charlie suggests. “Yeah, it’ll help you to finish your script. You’ll think about me.” And as an afterthought he adds: “Make me your wrestler. Then you’ll lick that story of yours.”

Barton feels utterly miserable when Charlie leaves; he fears he is "going crazy." He sits down on his bloodstained bed and cries, long and without restraint. There is a shot of the empty hallway. Behind Barton's door we can hear sobs and moaning. The sounds are as eerie as the ones that Barton heard at his first night at the hotel.


Later on Barton sits at his desk in a daze. The telephone rings, and he is called downstairs to the lobby to be interviewed by two homicide detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department. The two cops, Mastrionotti and Deutsch, tell the writer that Charlie’s real name is Karl “Madman” Mundt, that he is a serial killer, and that he routinely decapitates his victims. They have just found the body of a woman who fits Audrey’s description—without a head. The detectives ask Barton whether he has ever seen such a woman in the company of Charlie, and whether he knows anything else about the killer. Barton assures them that he knows next to nothing about his absconded neighbor.

When Barton returns to his room he wonderingly picks up Charlie's package and looks it over. He shakes it, and then holds it to his ear. After placing it back on his desk and looking at the picture of the bathing beauty for a while, Barton begins to type. Gradually the speed of his typing picks up. By the time of the fade-out the pace of his typing is furious.

From now on Barton writes day and night. He ignores the ringing of his telephone and the knocks on his door. Repeatedly we see the package beside the typewriter and the picture above the desk. Mixed in with the clacking of the Underwood we hear pieces of dialogue that the writer seems to get from the package. In a short time Barton completes the whole script, and he entitles it “The Burlyman.”

Barton takes a shower, dresses up, and goes to a United Service Organizations dance hall. He is a lone civilian male among a crowd of uniformed men and dressed-up women. He dances ecstatically with one of the women to the sounds of a lively swing band. When a sailor tries to cut into his dance, explaining that he is going to ship out in the morning, Barton excitedly shouts at the puzzled seaman that he is celebrating the completion of an important work of art, and that his head is "his uniform." He is crazily ecstatic, and he shouts at the crowd: "I am a creator, you monsters! I am a creator..." A sailor knocks him down, and a general brawl between Army and Navy men ensues. Barton, on the floor, tries to hold on to his glasses, while the music and the battle rage all around him.

Back in his room he finds the two homicide detectives reading his screenplay. They tell him that they have found Mayhew’s body—also without a head. Mastrionotti points to the stain on the mattress. “Sixth floor too high for you, Fink?” the cop sneers. “Give you nose bleeds?” the other cop adds. The detectives want to know where Barton has hidden Mayhew’s head, and whether Mundt is "the idea man” who taught Barton how to perform this sort of killing. “Tell us where the heads are, maybe they’ll go easy on you,” they suggest. “Only fry you once.”
While Mastrionotti and Deutsch try to get information out of Barton, the elevator bell rings. “Charlie is back,” Barton murmurs as if in a trance. “It’s hot…He’s back.” The detectives tense up; they know that Barton is right. Deutsch handcuffs the writer to the bed, and the two cops go out into the hallway. Smoke appears; some flames are shooting through the crack between the elevator and the floor. The increasing heat makes everyone sweat.

Charlie steps out of the elevator. Mastrionotti, drawing his revolver, tells him to put down his case and raise his hands. Charlie seems to comply, but then grabs a sawed-off shotgun from his case and kills Mastrionotti with one blast. “Look upon me!” he roars. “Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!” Deutsch tries to run, but Charlie mows him down with a shot in his legs. After quietly reloading his gun he holds the double barrel to Deutsch’s head and says “Heil Hitler.” Deutsch screams in terror, and Charlie shoots. Ever more flames appear in the hallway; the whole sixth floor seems ablaze.

Perspiring and exhausted, Charlie comes into Barton’s room. Barton accuses him of being Mundt. “Jesus, people can be cruel,” Charlie replies. “If it’s not my build, it’s my personality.” “Why me?" Barton wants to know. “Because you don’t listen,” Charlie cries. "You think you know pain? You think I made your life hell? Take a look around this dump. You are just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton. I live here. Don't you understand that?” Barton finally understands something, and in a humble voice he says: "I'm sorry." "Don't be," a calmer Charlie replies, and he helps the writer to get free of the bed. Wearily retiring to his own room he announces: “I’m getting off this merry-go-round.”

Dressed in the coat and hat that he was wearing when he arrived at the Earle, and carrying the package and his typescript, Barton walks down the burning hall way. He is moving out. In Lipnik’s office he faces the studio boss and Lou Breeze. Lipnik wears an Army uniform with decorations, and he demands to be addressed as “Colonel,” even though his expected commission is “not yet official,” and the uniform is from the studio’s wardrobe department. "It' s all-out warfare against the Japs," Lipnik brags. "Little yellow bastards!" Breeze has read Barton’s script, and Lipnik declares that it “stinks.” There is too little action in the story, and too much “wrestling with the soul.” When Barton mutters that he is sorry for letting him down, the studio Nebuchadnezzar roars: “You didn’t let me down. Or even Lou. We don’t live or die by what you scribble, Fink. You let Ben Geisler down. … He tried to convince me to fire you too, but that would be too easy. No, you’re under contract and you’re gonna stay that way. Anything you write will be the property of Capitol Pictures. And Capitol Pictures will not produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little. You ain’t no writer, Fink—you’re a goddamn write-off.” Barton is dismissed and told to stay in town.

As earlier in the film, we see the surf crashing against the rock on the beach. Barton walks along the water, Charlie’s package still dangling from his hand. He sits down to watch the ocean and the light. A woman in a swim suit, who looks like the beauty of the print in Barton’s room, comes from the opposite direction and sits down nearby. "It's a nice day," she says, and the writer agrees. "What's in the package?" the woman wants to know. "I don't know," Barton replies. "Isn't it yours?" the woman asks. "I don't know," Barton says. "You are beautiful," he then adds. "Are you in pictures?" “Don’t be silly,” she replies laughing. She then turns away and looks at the ocean, shielding her eyes in the way the woman did in the print.

Barton in the Underworld
Before moving to Los Angeles, Barton was what many perceived at the time as a typical New York intellectual--cultured, progressive, possessed by ideas, and convinced of the social responsibility of the arts. He was determined to live “a life of the mind.” He expressed his social commitment when he reminded his agent of his foremost ambition, the "creation of a new, living theatre of, about, and for the common man." And when he has his first conversation with Charlie at the Earle, he still intends to inspire “the masses” by writing his socially responsible plays.

The way Barton advocates his ideas is sincere, but also naïve and pretentious. In conversations with Charlie it is downright condescending. Throughout the film Barton tends to make an ass of himself whenever he explains his ideals. Because of Barton’s awkward demeanor it is easy to overlook how persuasive his ideals actually were at the time. One only has to listen to Aaron Copland's moving "Fanfare for the Common Man," composed in the midst of the Great Depression, to understand the appeal of the Left that challenged the social status quo.
In spite of the timeliness of his ideas, however, Barton's social idealism is systematically debunked in the film. The debunking starts with the very first shots where, off-screen, we hear the up-beat dialogue of Barton's play, while the camera reveals the cranky machinery and mundane operations backstage. Theatre is exposed here as theatrical in the worst sense. While Barton, watching from the wings, is enthralled by the performance of the actors and his own weighty words, the stagehands are indifferent or outright bored. The actor who shouts "Fresh fish! Fresh fish!" is far more interested in reading his paper than in the play or the play’s message. The stagehand in charge of pulling the ropes for the curtains attends to his job without any feeling for what is happening on stage; he would be pulling his ropes whatever writers write or producers produce. There is a ludicrous discrepancy between the common-man pathos displayed on the stage, and the sullen indifference of the workers in the back. By means of this discrepancy the whole medium of stage drama is exposed as something out of touch: an anachronistic, bourgeois institution that is totally alien to the “common man.”

The anachronistic nature of stage drama--particularly with respect to educating "the masses"--is further emphasized by the remarks of Barton’s agent. After Barton has reminded him that he wants "to make a difference," the agent points out: "Here [at the stage theatre on Broadway] you make a difference to five hundred fifty people a night--if the show sells out. Eighty-five million people go to the pictures every week." In an age of mass communication it seems quaint to worry about a "new kind of [stage] theatre," or about making theatre "real." Stage theatre as such is out of date and out of touch with the masses. For purposes of raising the consciousness of the millions, a socially progressive stage theatre is as irrelevant as the formalistic experiments or the traditional comedy of manners that Barton rejects. The whole debate about the new and the old theatre that preoccupied progressive intellectuals at the time of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism was, as "Barton Fink" reminds us, an affair that went on in the minds of people who had not yet fully realized just how profoundly the world and the role of the media had changed. These intellectuals, just as Barton, were prisoners of their own out-dated preconceptions and preoccupations.

Barton's move to California rudely confronts him with the irrelevance of his ideas. Not that he understands right away, but the facts of the matter are made clear in the various encounters he has in Hollywood. In an entertainment industry that calculates its profits and losses in millions, a "serious" writer like Barton Fink is out of place. "This is a wrestling picture," Lipnik tells him in their last conversation. "The audience wants to see action, drama, wrestling, and plenty of it. They don't wanna see a guy wrestling with his soul--well, all right, a little bit, for the critics--but you make it the carrot that wags the dog." And Audrey tries to help the blocked writer by reminding him of what mass audiences actually consume in terms of dialogue and story: "Look, it's really just a formula. You don't have to type your soul into it." Ben Geisler even suggests that Barton abandon writing altogether and work as an extra instead: "Think about it, Fink. Writers come and go. But we always need Indians."

If such a thing as literary quality or artistic integrity is irrelevant in the business of entertaining the masses, the pathos of the "common man" fares even worse. "I guess I write about people like you," Barton tells Charlie. "The average working stiff. The common man." "Well, ain't that a kick in the head," Charlie replies, making nice use of the double entendre. And when Barton assures the two homicide detectives "I've got respect for working guys like you," Mastrionotti remarks: "Jesus! Ain't that a load off!" It is because of Barton's cluelessness and lack of self-knowledge that Mayhew dismisses his ideas as those of a "schoolboy" and "buffoon."

What makes Barton's pronouncements sound stilted and hollow is not just his insufficient grasp of the world. For much of what he tells people is not necessarily wrong. The trouble with his pronouncements is that they are merely thin theory, not something that grew out of actual experience or serious struggles. When he tells Charlie that some writers insulate themselves from the common man, for example, his statement is not false, but he is himself in the middle of doing just what he denounces: he is "not listening," as Charlie keeps telling him. And when Barton talks about the importance of feeling pain, he again is not wrong, but he does not really know yet what he is talking about. He sermonizes about "a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one's fellow man," but he has no idea of what real suffering is until sex, death, and insanity move in on him personally and in threatening ways. Caught in the rhetoric of the "common man," Barton has no depth to look into. The author of "Bare Ruined Choirs," whose play was praised by New York critics as a "triumph of the common man," is in no position to write anything of substance until he is personally plunged into a darkness that will finally make him a different person.

Barton's descent into hell begins with Audrey’s visit and their making love. That having sex with Audrey is tantamount to his going down into some netherworld is made graphically clear by the camera movement in the scene. We first see the couple in bed, slowly becoming intimate. But instead of keeping Audrey and Barton in focus, the camera tracks into the bathroom and to the sink. While the noises of their love making are still audible, the camera moves in on the black drain in the white porcelain, and then goes down the drain into a murky and undefined space. While reaching this unsavory depth, the viewer hears what seems to be painful groaning and faint, distant screaming. Nothing is definite, but it is clear that Barton has moved into a new and frightful place.

Next comes the horror of waking up beside Audrey's corpse. Involved in this horror are feelings of guilt, and the paralyzing fear of standing accused of a murder that he has not committed--or that he desperately hopes he has not committed. For Barton cannot be sure of what has happened; he has no recollection of anything connected with Audrey's death. In a sense he does not know who he is anymore: "I feel I'm going crazy," he tells Charlie in a panic. "Like I'm losing my mind."

From this point on there is no more talk about the "common man" or about making theatre "real.” Barton has arrived at a point where he will not live out of acquired theories anymore, but out of the anxiety, fear, and terror that are thrust on him by his actual situation and crushing despair. As Charlie reminds him later on, he now learns what it is to live a real “life of the mind.” And it is in the midst of this darkness that he suddenly finds himself able to write.

Before Barton gets to type his scenario, however, he is called downstairs to talk to the detectives. What they tell him about Charlie connects the writer yet more thoroughly to the uncanny depth that he has reached. The alleged salesman is a killer, and the madman's modus operandi leaves little doubt that his mysterious package contains Audrey's head. Technically Barton makes himself an accomplice of the killer by withholding crucial evidence from the cops; Barton himself turns into a sort of outlaw.

Surprisingly calm he returns to his room and holds Charlie's parcel to his ear. He hears voices, and he begins to type. The typing now does not stop for days, nor do the voices--pieces of dialogue that find their way into the script. Repeatedly Barton looks at the twin set of package and print. Their mysterious emanation seem to sustain him until the script is completed. Clearly, his inspiration comes out of a depth that lies beyond the pale of moral order and rational thought. He writes in the thrall of a deep Dionysian frenzy.

The title "The Burlyman" indicates that Barton took Charlie's advice by making his troubled neighbor the protagonist of his play. Charlie had predicted that Barton would succeed with his story if he made him the main wrestler in the picture. Since Barton started writing after learning that Charlie was Karl "Madman" Mundt, we can assume that it is the murderous darkness of Charlie's soul that gives life to the protagonist of his script. The psychotic wrestler, internalized by the frenzied mind of the author, was thus the cause of Barton's sudden creativity. Both the subject matter and the mental condition of the author testify to a close connection between insanity and creativity. If Barton's alliance with Charlie Mundt was something like a pact with the devil, the pact clearly paid off for the writer. Barton assures his agent and Lipnik  that "The Burlyman" is by far the best work he has done.


The Darkness of Life
Completing the script is not the end of Barton's descent into hell; a further leg of his journey has yet to be traveled. When the detectives find the blood on his mattress and accuse the writer of murdering Audrey and Mayhew, it looks as if some sort of payment to the devil has come due. For the cops there is no question that Barton will end up on death row. The writer is lucky, however. The man who had gotten him into the depth of hell delivers him from his legal predicament by killing the enforcers of the law. It is in the course of this concluding event that a further dimension of hell comes into view.

Sex and death had brought the writer into contact with his own deeper self--away from the sphere of his intellect and culture, and close to the chaotic turmoil of his unconscious desires and fears. And by making Madman Mundt the dark protagonist of his screenplay, Barton had gotten in touch with a reality that was stranger and far more threatening than anything in his ordinary life and the middle-class world of his "Bare Ruined Choirs." "The playwright finds nobility in the most squalid corners, and poetry in the most calloused speech," the reviewer of Barton’s stage play had written in New York. That reviewer was the voice of the bourgeois patrons of the theatre who, dressed in formal attire and ready to frequent expensive restaurants after the show, enjoy the titillating texture of working-class talk as a form of cultured amusement. Barton's old writing had been enjoyed as a sort of literary slumming. Such a culinary approach to the world is not part of Barton's new writing anymore. His "Burlyman" is superior to his earlier work because it reaches into a depth of human existence and invokes forces of a darkness that make plays like “Bare Ruined Choirs” look like somewhat corny entertainment . “The Burlyman” transcends an evening's cultured amusement in the theatre district in a similar way in which serious painting may transcend the pictures that people hang over their living room sofas.

The further dimension that becomes visible during Charlie's final appearance at the Earle is the global reach and the historic reality of his murderous hell. As presented in "Barton Fink," the horrors of Charlie's killings are not just a matter of individual psychosis, but a manifestation of forces that can claim a more pervasive or even universal presence. The names of the two detectives, "Mastrionotti" and "Deutsch," are an obvious allusion to Italy and Germany, the leading fascist powers that were about to declare war on the United States. Mastrionotti's anti-Semitic remarks, furthermore, brings the historical context of the story into focus: "Fink. That's a Jewish name, isn't it?" Mastrionotti asks. And when Barton confirms that, the detective remarks: "Yeah, I didn't think this dump was restricted." In 1941 the German government decided to implement the “final solution,” and they had already begun to murder the Jews they could capture. The anti-Semitic sentiments that existed in the United States made many Jews wonder whether there would be any place anywhere in the world where they could be entirely safe, and where their human rights would be respected without question. Under the circumstances, rude insults like those of Mastrionotti were vivid reminders that for many people the world was not a safe home, but a dark and threatening place that could turn into hell any time.

When Charlie shouts "Heil Hitler" before murdering  Deutsch, the global and historical dimension of the killer's insanity is rendered explicit. What in Charlie is a personal sickness has with Hitler become a political program. At the studio Barton had seen the wrestling footage where the main wrestler had shouted over and over: "I will destroy you! I will destroy you!" Like many Hollywood scoundrels since, that wrestler spoke with a German accent. Also, Karl Mundt is a German name. The implication for the movie is clear: Charlie, who tried to teach Barton about wrestling, and who appears in the writer's scenario as a wrestler, is an embodiment of the same forces that manifested themselves in the Nazi slaughters of World War II. Charlie thus reminds us of a darkness and insanity that runs much deeper and extends much further than the pathology of a single deranged mind.
"Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule," Nietzsche suggests in one of his epigrams.(6) There are few periods in world history that could be more appropriately described in terms of collective insanity than that of the World Wars of the 20th century—together with the industrialized exterminations that were perpetrated in their shadows. The six years of World War II alone resulted in more than 50 million deaths—mostly of civilians. And the amount of casualties, pain, and destruction visited on dozens of countries is beyond all adequate description. The fact that a gangster-like group of political adventurers could enroll a seemingly civilized nation like Germany in such an enterprise is difficult to understand; in a sense it is beyond comprehension.

It did not take the events of World War II, however, to provoke gloomy generalizations concerning human history among philosophers and writers. The seemingly endless chain of bloody events and their dubious justifications in the minds of their perpetrators has often struck observers as utterly insane. "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," James Joyce once wrote, and Matthew Arnold summarized his feelings in his famous lines from "Dover Beach": "For the world/ Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;/ And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night." Pensive writers, in other words, have often found reason to describe the entirety of human history as one of murderous psychosis, and it is in part to invoke this dark vision of human existence that Charlie is made to utter his "Heil Hitler" when murdering Deutsch.

As mentioned earlier, it is the darkness of Dionysian experience that provokes the emergence of its opposite, the Apollinian dream of beauty and light. The bliss and harmony for which the sun god stands is the necessary illusion that makes life bearable in the presence of life’s horrors. The Apollinian comes to Barton by way of the bathing beauty of the print in his room. After he has gone through the terrors of the sixth floor, he walks into the light of California’s beaches as an engulfing reality: art as a soothing illusion. He still hangs on to his package; the darkness of life will be with him in one way or another. But in the light of the beach and the presence of the bathing beauty he can live with this darkness. He is, indeed, destined to stay in Hollywood.

Jorn Bramann

Nietzsche