Lately I’ve been on a writer’s kick on Netflix, so to speak, watching documentaries about famous writers like Hunter S. Thompson or about the trials, tribulations, and small joys of screenwriting – Gonzo and Tales from the Script if you want to know. For those who know me, I’m a bit obsessed with writing, both the craft and the writers themselves, and will go on spiels about poetry to anyone who has the stomach to listen to me ramble on. I’ve been hunting down documentaries on writing because I’ve been in kind of a literary ferment: coming up with new ideas all the time, working on several writing projects at once, dreaming of winning the Pulitzer Prize for the modern epic, etc. It’s a good time to be a writer right now, because I have a creative momentum going, but it isn’t always like that. Sometimes I get the blank page horrors, that mental stasis when trying to start a poem, story, or movie review. Actually, I get it almost every time, but usually it doesn’t last very long, not long enough to stifle the writing process. When it is bad though, I can’t get started for days. That’s why Barton Fink resonated for me. It’s the story of a man with terrible writer’s block, trying desperately to get over it so he can write the screenplay for a movie about wrestling. I can understand the feeling.
Barton Fink starts with the titular writer nervously watching his play being performed. There’s resounding applause but Barton still thinks it falls short of his dream of creating a kind of play that accurately reflects the lives of the common man, which will usher in a movement that completely transforms theater to focus on and champion the working class. However, he reluctantly goes to Hollywood on the advice of his agent to work for Capitol Pictures, a company that will pay him a handsome sum to write movies for them. He checks into the eerily deserted Hotel Earle, where the only other resident he meets is his neighbor Charlie Meadows, an insurance salesman. Barton gets assigned to write the screenplay for a wrestling film by his boss at Capitol Pictures, Lipnick, but he can’t seem to get past the first few lines. When he asks for help from the wrestling film’s producer, he’s told to find a writer to help him with his screenplay. It seems to be his good fortune when he meets a famous novelist by chance in the restroom, but the novelist in question, W. P. Mayhew, is an alcoholic lout who has trouble writing and getting his act together. The only good to come out of seeing Mayhew is that Barton meets his secretary and lover Audrey. Barton commiserates with his neighbor Charlie about the working man, though almost never listening to what Charlie, an actual working man, has to say. A whole week passes as he tries to write in his room, where it’s hot enough that the wallpaper comes unglued on a regular basis and mosquitoes bite him when he sleeps.
With only a day left to present the story to his boss, Barton invites Audrey over to his hotel room to help him figure out what to do. She gives him a few pointers about starting with broad strokes and general plot ideas to build his story. In the process, Audrey inadvertently reveals she had written and edited Mayhew’s screenplays and most recent novels. The two end up having sex. The next morning Barton wakes up to find Audrey horrifically murdered beside him, but he has no memory of murdering her or how she had died. He calls on Charlie for help, who disposes of the body while Barton passes out from shock. Barton wakes up and goes to Lipnick to present his story, but manages to dodge admitting he has no story by telling Lipnick that he can’t reveal anything about a work in progress because it interferes with his writing process. Barton returns to the hotel where Charlie says goodbye – he has to leave on insurance business – and gives Barton a box. Not much later, Barton comes across a pair of detectives who tell him his neighbor is a serial-killer named Madman Mundt. They found out Mundt was at the hotel after finding the body of a woman – which incidentally fits Audrey’s description – decapitated in a lake; they’re clearly suspicious that Barton’s somehow involved in the murders too; he lies and tells them he doesn’t know much of anything about Mundt and neglects to say anything about the box, which may or may not contain Audrey’s decapitated head.
In a sudden fit of creativity, Barton writes the screenplay for the wrestling movie all at once. He even celebrates by going to an USO dance after he’s finished, because he’s so excited about what he’s done. However, he finds the two detectives in his room when he returns, asking about Audrey, whose blood still stains the mattress, and where Mundt is. Before they have a chance to take him in, they hear the elevator and reason that it’s probably the killer. They cuff Barton to the bed and try to arrest Mundt, who pulls a shotgun from his briefcase and shoots them both while fire engulfs the hallway. Mundt helps Barton get free and tells him he’ll always be next door if he needs help. Barton shows his script to Lipnick, who tells him it’s garbage, because it’s more focused on the main character wrestling with his emotions than wrestling in the ring; this is incredibly devastating, because Barton considers the script the best he’s every written. Since Barton is still under contract, Lipnick says he can’t leave Los Angeles, and he has to keep writing screenplays for Capitol. Lipnick promises to throw out every one of his screenplays until he learns to write like they want him to write; since Capitol Pictures technically owns all of his creative output, they can do that. At the end of the film, Barton sits on a beach in a daze with the mysterious box Charlie/Mundt gave him and looks out on the ocean.
Allow me to set you straight. I said Barton Fink resonated for me because I understand what it feels like to have writer’s block, but I’ve never gone through anything as surreal and existential as Barton goes through. Barton is stuck in a much bigger rut than I’ve had to face, and the stakes are much higher. For instance, I’ve never had to write screenplays on a deadline for a living…or woken up next to a corpse. However, I think Barton is empathetic whether you’re a writer or not. The film isn’t just about struggling with writer’s block and starting a screenplay. It’s about Barton being transported to a strange, absurd, eerie world, where he doesn’t know the rules and never quite fits in. The only friends he makes in Hollywood are Audrey, who’s violently murdered, and Charlie, his insurance salesman neighbor who eventually turns out to be a serial killer. He’s caught between bright, sunny Hollywood, which is largely indifferent to his struggles, and the humid, empty purgatory of Hotel Earle, where he sits in front of a typewriter for over a week producing nothing. Barton tries to stay true to artistic aspirations of championing the common man but ultimately fails because it’s too heartfelt for Hollywood; by the end of the film, he’s stuck in a situation where he has to keep writing screenplays that may never get produced. I’d argue that Barton Fink is an existential tragedy – with a few elements of comedy and horror thrown in. We may not know what it’s like to be a writer or to work in a Hollywood, and we may not identify with the surreal situations, but we still feel for Barton as he struggles in a world that’s against him. It’s a great film, and I’d recommend it to writers and nonwriters alike.