Writing in the Hell of Exile

Or, some thoughts on Barton Fink (streamable it on Netflix or via Amazon).

You might be asking yourself, “Self, why is jrdk posting thoughts about a film that came out 22 years ago?”

To this the answer would be twofold: (1) The Coen Brothers are the greatest storytellers of our generation, so it is always appropriate to write about their films; and (2) jrdk is going to be writing an essay on the reception of the Bible in Coen Brothers movies, so he’s doing his homework.

I don’t want to get too fancy about the whole “reception of the Bible thing,” so let me put it like this: the Coens regularly use allusions to scripture as anchor points for interpreting the palettes of imagery that suffuse their films.

Barton Fink is a quintessential example of this.

Fink is a playwright. He feigns modesty, and is genuinely self-deceived about his commitment to the common man–toward whom he is endlessly condescending and to whom he cannot, will not, listen. But about whom and for whom he desires to write.

Barton Fink envisions himself as a creator, though he seems capable only of recycling the same lines again and again.

And, Barton’s move from New York to Hollywood is an exile. More specifically, it is a Jewish man’s Babylonian exile. The recipient of a novel entitled, “Nebuchadnezzar,” written by an author who is currently working on a screenplay entitled, “Slave ship,” Barton stays at a hotel that is a hanging garden evocative of the ancient Babylonian wonder. The film invites being read in concert with the book of Daniel, specifically, the recounting of faithful aristocratic Jews navigating their life in Babylonian exile.

The hotel seems to double as a sort of hell. The desk man, Chet!, comes up from a trap door in the floor–a typically devilish short of entrance. Fink signs himself into the guest book and we see it from the God’s eye view above. ["You can check out any time you like but you can never leave"?]

The Biblical resonances are more than faint allusions.

There is one scene where Barton is at his wits’ end, and picks up the Bible the Gideons had left in the desk drawer. He reads:

And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, “I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”

This is a modification to the biblical text, which does not name Nebuchadnezzar. It’s a change that helps us draw the lines between the text Barton reads, the book he receives earlier, and the whole idea of Babylonian exile.

It seems to me that this text points in two directions at once. First, there has been a chopping to pieces. It is the Coens, after all! Goodman Aflame in Barton Fink

But it also becomes a picture of what Barton is trying, and ultimately fails, to do: he is supposed to conjure up exactly what the studio mogul wants of him, but he’s not told what to do. The mogul has a dream, and Barton is supposed to tell it in his script. The studio owner says he wants that “Barton Fink” feeling, but… well… not so much.

The modified Daniel reference is immediately followed by another biblical reference.

Barton thumbs from Daniel to Genesis. And there, at Gen 1:1, rather than “In the beginning God created…” we see the first lines of Barton’s own film script, lines he has typed and stared at repeatedly:

Chapter One 1. Fade in on a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Faint traffic noise is audible; 2. As is the cry of fishmongers.

The juxtaposition is significant. Later Barton will proclaim himself to be a creator. But what he creates is not in keeping with his “king’s” dream. His own words, replacing the words of Gen 1, show how Barton sees himself–playing God, creating a new world for the common man in theater, in film.

The biblical Daniel realizes that reading the king’s mind and interpreting his vision is not the work of any man on earth. Barton thinks himself a god-like being, and so possesses no such realization, making himself into a sort of anti-Daniel.

Barton ends up passing through a fiery furnace before all is said and done, another juxtaposition of his hotel with hellish imagery that signals to us that Barton’s project and his very self are not as noble as he seems to think.

One other biblical layer comes to mind.

Barton is supposed to be writing a wrestling picture. But he knows nothing about wrestling movies. And he knows nothing about wrestling.

I wondered if this failure to apprehend wrestling was one of the indications of Barton’s failure to grasp his own identity. Throughout the film Barton’s Jewishness is a recurring theme. But is he “Israel”? Is he one who knows what it is to wrestle with God?

If you’ve not seen Barton Fink, go watch it. We’ll wait.

If you have watched it, what do you think? Are there things I’m missing? Things you disagree with? Points you think are helpful for holding this film together?

A couple of my own ideas in closing: (1) the fact that someone is using biblical imagery doesn’t mean that they are retelling a Bible story, and we shouldn’t expect them too; but (2) the fact that someone isn’t retelling a Bible story doesn’t mean they’re not telling a biblical story. (In fact, I’d say that the Coens end up telling some of the most biblical stories in Hollywood precisely because they are free enough from the idea of retelling the particular stories to create new stories that capture things in fresh ways.)

Also, if anyone can explain that girl in the picture to me, I’d be eternally grateful. Hopefully, I listen better than Barton…

9 thoughts on “Writing in the Hell of Exile”

  1. This is one of my all-time favourite films, Daniel. I hope you’re also going to comment on 2 of my other favourites: ‘Fargo’ and ‘A Serious Man’

      1. What about using Marge and Mattie (from True Grit) as a sort of dialectic on justice, its cost, and the ability of humans to execute it?

  2. Love it! I honestly hadn’t though about the Daniel references in the film, but that seems quite reasonable, especially since Barton READS from Daniel in the film. It’s been a few years now since I’ve seen Barton Fink, so maybe I’m due to watch it again.

    Would enjoy seeing you comment on The Music of Chance sometime. Don’t know if you’ve seen that one, but to me it has something of a Coen Brothers type of feel to it.

  3. I’m five weeks into a preaching series on Daniel. Fascinating book. It’s been years since I watched Barton Fink, but, having recently preached the text on Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, I certainly see the parallels. One of the things that strikes me about Daniel is how, because of his trust in the Most High God, he remains a non-anxious presence throughout the book– apart from when he has his alarming visions. The king and his empire doesn’t phase him. This is a striking contrast between Barton and Daniel. Barton illustrates the precarious and anxious position we put ourselves in when we assume the role of a god.

  4. I just discovered and watched Barton Fink for the first time a few weeks ago during, appropriately enough, a heat wave.

    I wonder if the woman in the picture above his desk is Jerusalem or the Temple, but that would be confusing, considering Fink comes from Manhattan.

    Personally, I was fascinated by Charlie’s godlike character, with whom Fink does actually wrestle. At the same time, though, Charlie IS the common man.

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