John Torturro as Barton Fink
Director: Joel Coen
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; among connoisseurs
of contemporary drama Barton Fink has become a rising star, "the toast
Later that night Barton Fink sees his agent, Garland Stanford (David Warrilow), who informs him that Capitol Pictures, a major studio in Hollywood, 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 knows that writing for Hollywood would almost certainly mean writing “pap,” and Barton would much rather continue his present collaboration with the theatre group that is dedicated to creating a serious and socially progressive theatre. Improving the lot of “the common man” is high on Barton’s agenda; he is "trying to make a difference" as a socially committed writer. Going to Hollywood would be nothing short of selling out to commercial entertainment for easy 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,” Garland replies. “Hell, they might even have one or two of ‘em out in Hollywood.” “That’s a rationalization, Garland,” Barton replies, being the high-minded moralist that he wants to be. His agent smiles indulgently: “Barton, it was a joke.”
There is a shot of the sunny California coast; surf is crashing against a big rock. Then we see Barton as he arrives at the somewhat 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. “A Day or a Lifetime” is the slogan of the establishment. Barton moves his few things into a room on the sixth floor. (The number six and hell will be emphasized several times.) It is uncomfortably hot in the hotel. Mosquitoes give the writer a hard time, and the wallpaper tends to peel off because the glue is melting in the stifling heat.
There is no view from the double window; all one can see is the brick wall of an airshaft. The whole place has a stuffy and sinister atmosphere. The only cheerful note is provided by a small print that hangs above Barton's 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 at the crashing surf. Barton will frequently gaze at the picture. It presents a vision of space and light that contrasts sharply with the claustrophobic narrowness and darkness of Barton's 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 dumbfounded writer.
Back at his dingy hotel 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 little 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 genuinely 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 is an alternative to the upper-class comedy of manners and the formalistic aestheticism that has dominated the theatre of the past. The two men do not communicate, but they enjoy their little chat and part on cordial 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 movie that he is supposed to work on. 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 at the studio. 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 wrestling pictures. He is not happy with his mercenary work, and that is one of the reasons why he drinks very 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" to talk to him just now. 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 a little, and Charlie leaves, apologizing for showing off in such a way. Barton, deeply 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 drunk. Audrey remarks that imbibing is not doing him any good, and Barton somewhat 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 is contemptuous of that sort of talk, and he staggers away, drinking and singing cacophonously “Old Black Joe” at the top of his voice. When Audrey tries to calm him down, he does not listen and drunkenly knocks her in the head. Barton gets very angry at "that sonofabitch," and he tries to comfort the crying woman. Audrey appreciates that, 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. Okey, so I have a weight problem..." Eventually Charlie announces that he will soon be leaving for New York City. “Things are all balled up at the head office,” he explains. Barton is genuinely unhappy about the news, as he feels utterly alone and adrift in Hollywood. 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 morning. The producer is worried, and he threateningly tells 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 anything, Geisler arranges for Barton to see footage of other wrestling films. The ludicrously histrionic and violent scenes fail to inspire the clueless writer, however. 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 scripts.
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 what he is going to tell the studio boss. When, after some pleasantries, the mighty mogul finally asks him to describe the plot of the movie, all Barton can do is mutter 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 (John Polito) 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 timidly 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 City. 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 the sobbing 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. His eyes fall on a Gideon Bible. He opens it and looks at a passage from the Book of Daniel: “And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream, if ye will not make known onto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dung heap.” Barton flips to Genesis. Instead of finding the usual biblical text, however, he sees the beginning of his own script—printed in the type of the Bible: “Fade in on a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside. Faint traffic noise is audible.”
The telephone rings, and Barton is called downstairs to the lobby to be interviewed by two homicide detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department. The two rude cops, Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney), 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 hear from the package. In a short time Barton completes the whole wrestling scenario, and he entitles it “The Burlyman.”
After typing the last words and straightening the pile of completed pages, 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 invited 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." The writer is in a crazed mood, and he ends up yelling at the crowd: "I am a creator, you monsters! I am a creator..." A sailor takes a swing at him and knocks him to the ground. Some nearby Army men see the opportunity to beat up guys from the Navy, and a brawl ensues. Barton lies on the floor, trying 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 manuscript. They tell him that they have found Mayhew’s body—without a head. They have also seen the stain on Barton’s mattress. “Sixth floor too high for you, Fink?” Mastrionotti sneers. “Give you nose bleeds?” Deutsch adds. The cops want to know where Barton has hidden Mayhew’s head, and whether Mundt is "the idea man” who taught Barton how to do 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’s back,” Barton murmurs as if in a trance. “It’s hot…He’s back.” The two detectives tense up; they know that Barton is right. Deutsch handcuffs the writer to the bed, and the two policemen 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 a roaring blast. “Look upon me!” he bellows. “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 pulls the trigger. More and more flames are shooting up in the hallway: the entire sixth floor is on fire.
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.” Barton wants to know “Why me?" “Because you don’t listen,” Charlie roars. "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 says: “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 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 mogul 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, but told to stay in town.
As earlier in the film, we see the surf crashing against the rock on the beach. Barton slowly walks through the sand, Charlie’s package still dangling from his hand. He sits down to watch the ocean and the sunshine. A bathing beauty (Isabelle Townsend), who looks like the woman 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 adds. "Are you in pictures?" “Don’t be silly,” she replies laughing. She then turns away and looks at the ocean, shielding her eyes from the sun in the way the woman did in the print.
Apollo and Dionysus
The story is about a writer at a crucial point of his development as an artist. We find Barton Fink in a situation where he encounters most of the problems that define a writer's existence: The pressure to achieve success, the conflicting demands of making money and preserving his artistic integrity, the question of the political responsibility of a writer, and, most of all, the need to find the true source of his artistic creativity.
Joel and Ethan Coen can use the Writer-in-Hollywood theme as the setting of their story because in this situation all these questions come up as a matter of course. Their description of the Hollywood of 1941 is based on a plethora of documented facts: The portrait of Jack Lipnik includes prominent features of such studio chieftains as Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayers, and Harry Cohn. The writer William P. Mayhew shares obvious similarities with William Faulkner, who spent lengthy periods of time in Hollywood to shore up his precarious finances. Barton Fink is physically modeled after the playwright and screenwriter George S. Kaufman, and his play at the beginning of the film is a pastiche of the sort of social drama that Clifford Odets wrote for the Group Theatre in New York--before moving to Los Angeles to work for the movies. Barton's "Bare Ruined Choirs" is reminiscent of Odets' 1935 play "Awake and Sing.”
In spite of such connecting points with the real Hollywood, however, “Barton Fink" does not dwell much on historical details. The film presents an inner struggle, a story that for the most part needs no more space than Barton's lonesome room in the marginal Hotel Earle. As far as its central theme is concerned, "Barton Fink" is not about Hollywood, but about the soul of an artist.
The film is a comedy of sorts, although it is built from dark material, and its point is of serious philosophical import. The plot of the story revolves around Barton's writer's block. The more general theme of the story, however, is the question of what makes a writer an artist, or what makes art in any form a significant matter at all. "Barton Fink," in fact, embodies a whole theory of art, and it will become clear that this theory is essentially identical with the theory of art that Friedrich Nietzsche presented in his early philosophical work, The Birth of Tragedy. This is not to say that Joel and Ethan Coen intended to use or illustrate Nietzsche's theory in their film. Although Ethan Coen had been a philosophy student at Princeton, Nietzsche's thoughts may not ever have crossed the minds of the film makers when they were working on "Barton Fink." What the following discussion tries to show is that the power of the mysterious parcel in the film, together with the magic of the bathing beauty in the print, can best be made sense of by remembering what Nietzsche wrote about artistic inspiration in his book about tragedy.
The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872. At first sight it is just an analysis of classical Greek drama, combined with a somewhat provocative re-interpretation of Hellenic culture. Nietzsche was a professor of classical philology, and the civilization of ancient Greece was his area of expertise. The very first sentence of his book makes it clear, however, that Nietzsche meant to say something about the nature of art in general, about the essential conditions of creativity in the arts at all times and in any culture. The addition of a lengthy discussion of the music drama of Richard Wagner, furthermore, emphasizes that Nietzsche's definition of art was meant to cover the modern age as well as classical Antiquity. Thus the book opens with the generalizing contention: “We will have achieved much for the study of aesthetics when we come, not merely to a logical understanding, but also to the immediately certain apprehension of the fact that the further development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian ...” (This and the following quotations are taken from the translation of Nietzsche's book by Ian C. Johnston, available at www.mala.bc.ca.)
The presence of what Nietzsche calls "the Apollinian" and "the Dionysian," in other words, is the necessary condition for the flourishing of all art, and the understanding of these two "drives" is a presupposition for grasping the inner nature of every artistic creations. What, then, are the Apollinian and the Dionysian?
The two "drives" are obviously named after the Greek deities Apollo and Dionysus, the sun god and the god of wine respectively. The drives are essentially identical with what these two deities stand for--dreaming and intoxication: “In order to get closer to these two instinctual drives let us think of them next as the separate artistic worlds of dreams and of intoxication, physiological phenomena between which we can observe an opposition corresponding to the one between the Apollonian and the Dionysian” (Section 1).
What Nietzsche maintains is that artists find their inspiration by either experiencing powerful dream visions, or by falling into a state of intoxicated frenzy in which they have intuitions and feelings that emerge from the darkest and remotest depths of nature and the human soul.
This identification of the sources of artistic inspiration as dream and intoxication implies a rejection of reason and the conscious mind as significant contributors to artistic production. Great art, according to Nietzsche, is never the product of self-conscious calculation, logical reasoning, or intellectual endeavors. The significant works of art in all cultures have always been the result of non-rational impulses and unplanned intuitions, not of ratiocination or premeditated construction. In artistic production reason can at best have a secondary function, a function that amounts to the modification and re-arrangement of the primary artistic material. The greater the non-rational powers are in an artist's soul, the more substantial and deeper will be the works of art that he or she creates. The more an artist relies on conscious reasoning and rational calculation, the more shallow the resulting works are bound to be.
In Sections 13 and 14 of The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche argues that it was the emerging rationalism of the 5th century BCE (represented primarily by the analytic reasoning of Socrates and his followers) that resulted in the decay and eventual demise of classical Greek tragedy. While the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles were still based on the non-rational drives of dream and intoxication, Euripides began to rely on the clever dialectic of protagonists who try to make their points by way of logical argument. Nietzsche debunks theatre that is based on reason as intellectually weak and emotionally superficial, and he considers the sort of rational enlightenment pursued by Socrates and his friends as a manifestation of an inner decadence rather than healthy progress. Nietzsche was, in fact, to continue his attacks on Socrates and Plato throughout his later writings; in his eyes these two philosophical teachers of Europe represent not a high point of culture, but the beginning of what he considered the general decline of the West. The Birth of Tragedy, in other words, is one of the prominent works of modern philosophy in which the author’s reason is used to debunk reason. It is a primary document of the philosophical anti-intellectualism for which Nietzsche was to become notorious.
To return to Nietzsche's theory of art: The most obvious embodiments of the Apollinian are the classical statues of the Olympian gods. The idea of these illustrious beings came to the Greeks, according to the Roman poet Lucretius, by way of visionary dreams, dreams in which the gods appeared in the form of highly idealized humans. The images of these gods excel by their measured proportions, physical beauty, graceful movements, noble restraint, and an inner calm and serenity that put them far beyond the bodily imperfections, grinding worries, and violent entanglements that shape the lives of most ordinary mortals. Although the Olympian gods are by no means spiritual beings, but rather glorified representations of human and natural powers, they embody a superior form of existence that the Greeks before Socrates generally considered and praised as divine.
The most poignant manifestation of the Dionysian are the exuberant festivals in honor of the god of wine, festivals during which the devotees of the god roamed the countryside or stirred up the cities as bands of wildly drinking and dancing revelers. (The celebration of Mardi Gras is a faint memory and modern version of these ancient festivals.) During the time of these bacchanals established social distinctions were generally ignored, conventions and ordinary rules of behavior suspended, and all personal restraints forgotten in an orgiastic expression of wild desires and raw vitality. Women, customarily kept down by male rules and supervision, were allowed to take extraordinary liberties. It was, in fact, the maenads, the female devotees of Dionysus, who perpetrated the most notorious excesses that made these tumultuous festivals so noteworthy to their historians. As Nietzsche remarks (The Birth of Tragedy, Section 2):
Almost everywhere, the central point of these celebrations consisted of an exuberant sexual promiscuity, whose waves flooded over all established family practices and traditional laws. The wildest bestiality of nature was here unleashed, creating an abominable mixture of lust and cruelty, which has always seemed to me the real witches' potion.
In very ancient times maenads seem to have caught fawns during their sojourns in the woods. They ripped them to pieces and devoured their raw flesh--a practice inspired by the mythical dismemberment of Dionysus by the Titans. Clearly, the intoxicated frenzy that is at the heart of the Dionysian reveals aspects of reality and the human psyche that are alien and deeply opposed to the Apollinian vision of the serene Olympian gods.
The Apollinian and the Dionysian do not only inform certain art forms, but also convey two different sorts of wisdom. They stand for two different interpretations of the world, and for sharply contrasting ways of living life. The Apollinian worldview emphasizes order, hierarchy, restraint, and the careful balancing of forces. It aims at a harmony that keeps everything dark and disturbing at bay or out of sight. The Dionysian, by contrast, acknowledges and even embraces the wild, the chaotic, and all those aspects of reality that may be unsavory, disturbing, or painful. It rejects the harmony of the Apollinian as illusory or as unduly restrictive. According to the Dionysian vision of reality, life is irremediably antagonistic, chaotic, dangerous, and wildly destructive--as well as creative. Pain cannot be separated from pleasure, and life not from death. Existence is basically unending struggle--and on balance far more characterized by deep agony than blissful ecstasy. In spite of its life-embracing exuberance, the Dionysian assessment of the world is profoundly pessimistic. It fully subscribes to the despairing view that Nietzsche's contemporary Joseph Conrad expressed in The Heart of Darkness--in the famous parting words of the murderous Kurtz, for example: "The horror, the horror..."
Nietzsche locates the dark Dionysian worldview in the folk wisdom of the ancient Greeks:
There is an old saying to the effect that King Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king's hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what is the most unpleasant thing for you to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this: to die soon" (The Birth of Tragedy, Section 2).
By drawing full attention to this dark side of Hellenic culture, Nietzsche laid the basis for his reinterpretation of classical Greek art. Until Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy it was customary to emphasize the bright side of classical culture. The magnificence of Greek architecture and sculpture was almost exclusively associated with harmony, serenity, and perfect beauty. The art historian Winckelmann had set the tone for this discourse by coining the famous phrase "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" for the summarizing characterization of classical Greek art.
The provocative re-interpretation offered by Nietzsche consisted in his contention that the famous beauty and serenity of Greek art cannot be properly understood unless one sees it as a reaction to the profound horror of existence of which Silenus speaks, and of which most ancient Greeks must have been keenly aware. The serenity and beauty of the Olympian world was not the product of some sort of simplicity or naivete, but, on the contrary, the result of an overwhelming insight into the irremediably dark and tragic nature of life, an insight that is reflected in the famous horror tales that the tragedies of the 5th century present. Juxtaposing the pessimistic wisdom expressed by Silenus with the bright vision of the Olympian gods, Nietzsche writes:
Now, as it were, the Olympic magic mountain reveals itself to us and shows us its roots. The Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. In order to live at all, he must have placed in front of him the gleaming Olympians, born in his dreams. That immense distrust of the titanic forces of nature, that Moira [Fate] enthroned mercilessly above all knowledge, that vulture that devoured Prometheus, friend of man, that fatal lot drawn by wise Oedipus, that family curse on the House of Atreus, that Orestes compelled to kill his mother, in short, that entire philosophy of the woodland god, together with its mythical illustrations, from which the melancholy Etruscans died off, all that was overcome time after time by the Greeks (or at least hidden and removed from view) through the artistic middle world of the Olympians (Section 3).
The truth of the serene world of the Olympian gods is that it is a sort of lie, a lie that the Greeks produced in order to be able to live. The bright Olympian world is mere appearance, a willingly accepted illusion. True reality is an existence that is dominated by struggle, agony, and the inevitability of death. To not see this dark underside of classical Greek art is to misunderstand its beauty, is to forget why it exists. The seemingly naive serenity of the Olympian world depicted by Homer and the classical statues cannot be grasped but as a hard-won victory over an oppressively dark reality.
As an awareness of the horrific and dark nature of reality is a necessary condition for the vitality of the bright Olympic vision, it is also the basis for other significant works of art. There is, indeed, no artistic creation of substance without the artist's experience of the pain and dark horror that is at the heart of life. An artist who intended to produce just "beautiful things" would be hopelessly shallow, and writers who try to be successful by avoiding disquieting subjects are notoriously forgettable. A comedy like Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" is as good as it is because it deals with deep pain, and a seemingly plain cornfield painted by van Gogh has its haunting power because it depicts an ultimate darkness of life. An encounter with the dark and irrational underside of life is at the heart of any significant artistic creation--that is the meaning of Nietzsche's theory of art. And it is also the point that "Barton Fink" as a story of a writer's block gets across. Barton, at the beginning of the movie, is a writer who has run out of things to say; he finds himself cut off from any source of artistic inspiration. The ensuing story tells us how he descends into a terrifying depth, a depth that transforms him profoundly. It is this depth that makes Barton an artist-- the terrifying experience of Dionysian frenzy.
Barton in Hell
Before moving to Los Angeles, Barton was what people sometimes call "a typical New York intellectual." He embraced the rationalism of the Enlightenment, had left-wing political leanings, and cultivated an understanding of the arts that favored social engagement on the part of the artist. Barton voiced his progressive and class-conscious sentiments when he reminded his agent of his idealistic ambition, the "creation of a new, living theatre of, about, and for the common man." And when Barton has his first conversation with Charlie at the Hotel Earle, he still hopes to inspire “the masses” by writing socially conscious and emancipative plays:
There's a few people in New York--hopefully our numbers are growing--who feel we have an opportunity now to forge something real out of everyday experience, create a theatre for the masses that's based on a few simple truths--not on some shopworn abstractions about drama that don't hold true today, if they ever did. … We all have stories. The hopes and dreams of the common man are as noble as those of any king. It's the stuff of life--why shouldn't it be the stuff of theatre? Goddamnit, why should that be so hard a pill to swallow? Don't call it new theatre; call it real theatre, Charlie! Call it our theatre!
The way Barton advocates his ideas is always sincere, but also pretentious. In the case of Charlie it becomes downright condescending. Throughout the film Barton tends to make an ass of himself whenever he "spouts off" his ideas about progressive drama, and because of this there is a danger of forgetting how important and persuasive these ideas actually were at the time. One only has to listen to Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," composed in the midst of the Great Depression, to understand that it was by no means silly or platitudinous to speak up for ordinary people and their hitherto neglected hopes and dreams. In 1941 the country was still in the grip of the depression; large numbers of people were asking pointed questions about the enormous wealth of the few and the evident misery of millions who were suffering without any fault of their own. Left-wing political parties openly demanded that the country be run by ordinary people, instead of by a rich and small upper classes, and progressive intellectuals everywhere were dreaming about a culture in which the mass of people would be keenly aware of their situation, and ready to take their collective fate into their own hands. At the time of the ascendance of Barton Fink as a writer, in other words, there was a seemingly real and urgent point in trying to produce theatre "of, about, and for the common man."
In spite of the inherent importance of his ideas, however, Barton's social idealism is systematically, albeit gently, debunked throughout the film. The debunking starts with the very first shots of "Barton Fink," 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 here is exposed as theatrical in a derogatory way. While Barton, watching from the wings, is enthralled by the performance of the actors and his own upbeat words, the stagehands are visibly unenthusiastic or outright bored. The actor who shouts "Fresh fish! Fresh fish!" is far more interested in reading his newspaper 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 feelings for what is happening on stage; he would be pulling his ropes whatever the writers write and the producers produce. There is a ludicrous discrepancy between the common-man pathos displayed on the stage, and the sullen indifference of ordinary workers backstage. By means of this discrepancy the whole medium of stage drama is exposed as something that is rather out of touch: an anachronistic, bourgeois institution that is inherently alien to the actual interests of the common man.
The anachronistic nature of stage drama--particularly with respect to addressing "the masses"--is further emphasized by one of Garland's remarks. After Barton has reminded him that he wants "to make a difference," his agent points out: "Here [at the traditional theatre] 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 almost silly to worry about a "new kind of 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 theatre is as irrelevant as the formalistic experiments or the traditional comedy of manners that Barton condemns. 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 how profoundly the world and the role of the media had changed. These intellectuals, just as Barton, were in a serious way the prisoners of their own elite-culture presumptions.
Barton's move to California rudely confronts him with the irrelevance of his intellectual pretensions. 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 Barton 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." With regard to the quality of the product that Barton is supposed to create as part of the entertainment industry, the producer adds: "Don't worry about it. It's just a B picture. I bring it in on budget; they'll book it without even screening it. Life is too short."
If such a thing as literary soundness or artistic integrity is irrelevant in the business of entertaining the masses, the pathos of the "common man" fares even worse--particularly among ordinary people. "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 ambiguity of the phrase. And when Barton assures the two homicide detectives "I've got respect for working guys like you," Mastrionotti sneers: "Jesus! Ain't that a load off!" It is because of Barton's naïve pretentiousness and his pervasive lack of awareness of real social and emotional conditions that Mayhew dismisses his idealistic talk as that of a "schoolboy" and a "buffoon."
What makes Barton's pronouncements sound so stilted and hollow is not just his insufficient grasp of the facts of the world. For much of what he tells people is not necessarily wrong. The trouble with his pronouncements is that they are acquired theory, not something that grew out of his experience and a significant life. When he tells Charlie that some writers insulate themselves from the common man, for example, his statement is not false, but he is himself is in the middle of doing just what he denounces: he is "not listening," as Charlie points out to him later on. And when Barton talks about the importance of 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 a most threatening way. Caught in the political rhetoric of the "common man," Barton has no real 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 despair that will make him a different person.
Barton's going down into hell begins with Audrey’s visit and their making love. That having sex with Audrey is tantamount to his descent 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 strange and threatening environment.
Next comes the horror of waking up beside Audrey's bloody corpse. Involved in this horror are feelings of guilt, and the terrifying 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 "real" theatre. Barton has arrived at a point where he will not live out of acquired discourse and idealistic notions anymore, but out of the anxieties, fears, and terrors that are thrust on him by his unsettling experience and harrowing situation. In this oppressive darkness he suddenly finds himself ready to do some serious writing.
Before Barton gets to writing his scenario, however, he is called downstairs to talk to the homicide detectives. What they tell him about Charlie connects the writer yet more thoroughly to the uncanny depth that he has entered. The alleged salesman is a killer, and the madman's modus operandi leaves little doubt that his mysterious package contains a human head--Audrey's head. Technically Barton makes himself an accomplice of the killer by withholding crucial information and evidence from the cops of the LAPD; the writer becomes 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 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 bathing beauty print. Their mysterious energy seems to sustain him until the script is completed. Clearly, his inspiration comes out of a depth that is beyond the pale of all moral order and rational deliberation.
The title "The Burlyman" indicates that Barton took Charlie's advice by making his troubled neighbor the protagonist of his screenplay. Charlie had predicted that Barton would succeed with his story if he made him the main wrestler in the picture. Since Barton started writing only after learning that Charlie was identical with Karl "Madman" Mundt, we can assume that it was the murderous darkness of Charlie's personality that gave 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 extraordinary burst of creativity. Both the subject matter and the mental condition of the author testify to a close connection between dangerous insanity and artistic 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 over the phone and Lipnik in person that "The Burlyman" is the best work he has ever written.
The Darkness of Life
Completing the script was not the end of Barton's descent into hell; a further leg of his journey had yet to be traveled. When the detectives found the blood on his mattress and accused the writer of murdering and decapitating Audrey and Mayhew, it looked as if some sort of payment to the devil had come due. For the two cops there was no question that Barton would 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 last encounter that a further dimension of Charlie's hell comes into view.
Sex and death had brought the writer into contact with his own deeper self--away from the sphere of his cultured intellect, and close to the chaotic turmoil of his desires, uncertainties, and fears. And by making Karl "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 the ordinary and civilized world of "Bare Ruined Choirs." "The playwright finds nobility in the most squalid corners and poetry in the most calloused speech," the reviewer of "Bare Ruined Choirs" 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 slumming. Such a culinary approach to things is not part of Barton's new writing anymore. His "Burlyman" is superior to his previous work because it includes a horror that has to be acknowledged as unredeemable and incommensurable. Its impact transcends an evening's cultured entertainment at the theatre in the same way in which serious painting transcends 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 universal presence. The names of the two detectives, "Mastrionotti" and "Deutsch," are an obvious allusion to Italy and Germany, the two leading fascist powers that were about to declare war on the United States. Mastrionotti's anti-Semitic insult, furthermore, brings the historical context of the story into sharp focus: "Fink. That's a Jewish name, isn't it?" Mastrionotti asks the writer. And when Barton confirms that, the detective remarks: "Yeah, I didn't think this dump was restricted." In 1941 the authorities in Germany had began to organize and implement the genocide of European Jews, and 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 that of Mastrionotti were vivid reminders that for many people the world was not a home, but a dark and threatening place that could turn into hell at any moment.
When Charlie says "Heil Hitler" before putting a bullet in Deutsch's head, the global and historical dimension of the killer's insanity is made 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 represents 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, and the industrialized massacres that were perpetrated in their shadows. The six years of World War II alone resulted in more than 50 million deaths, and the amount of casualties, pain, and destruction visited on dozens of countries is beyond all adequate description and calculation. 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.
Charlie’s last rampage and its connection to history completes Barton’s descend into hell--his encounter with the horrors that are part of the Dionysian vision of the world. He now is aware of the tragic nature of life as described by Silenus—life’s unfathomable darkness and inescapable connection with death. He has experienced the disorienting tangle of irrational forces that give the lie to facile dreams of rational, peaceful societies and Enlightenment civilization. It was Charlie’s last killing spree on the sixth floor that completed Barton’s transformation from a naive optimistic progressive into a writer who is keenly aware of the dark underside of human existence, and whose artistic inspiration will be the voices of the dead.
As mentioned earlier, it is the darkness of the Dionysian experience that provokes the emergence of its opposite, the Apollinian vision of light. The serene harmony and order of the sun god is the necessary illusion that makes life bearable in the presence of life’s inescapable horrors. The Apollinian comes to Barton by way of the bathing beauty of the print in his room. After he has experienced the terrors of the sixth floor, he walks into that peace and light of the Pacific beach as an engulfing reality. He still hangs on to his horrible package; the darkness of life will be with him from now on. But in the light of the beach he can live with this darkness: he has become a denizen of Hollywood and California. His life and writing, we can assume, will be a dynamic and precarious balance between the darkness of Dionysus and the light of Apollo.
(From Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies)
Nietzsche: The Darkness of Life