Visual Portrait of Barton Fink’s Deteriorating Psyche in the Hotel Earle

4 October 2013

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In Ethan and Joel Coen’s 1991 comedic noir film Barton Fink, a symbolic prologue to the decade’s later films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and David Fincher’s Seven, the titular character undergoes a manic, mental deterioration. This visual depiction of an inner descent exemplifies itself in many outward aspects of the filmmaker’s cinematic approaches that include setting, characters, and cinematography. One specific sequence with such parallels involves Barton’s arrival into the world of a ramshackle hotel. In this particular sequence, The Coen brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins, through methods that include disorderly production design, fluid camera movements, and elements of German Expressionism depict unsettling characters and represent Barton Fink’s entrance into the Hotel Earle as his hellish descent into psychological instability.

The transitioning shot of waves striking a rock on a beach overlaps with Barton’s entrance into the eerily uninhabited Hotel Earle. Similar to German Expressionism films, this wave-crashing imagery shows submergence, like a sense of drowning, into a world of madness that quickly overcomes Barton’s mind. This brief overlap into Barton’s unsettling new dwellings starkly contrasts with the high culture, elegant atmosphere of the scene before. In that earlier scene, where Barton expresses his concern for the “common man,” the colors gleam and the lights shine brightly. This provides a sense of warmth in a room full of inhabitants, unlike the bleak and lifeless lodgings of the Earle, but this vibrant coloration soon washes away, turning into the insipid, muted hues of the Hotel Earle where the world of commercial Hollywood ceases.

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The mise-en-scène of the Hotel Earle, the everyman’s abode, creates visual frustration and discomfort along with an intolerable air of mugginess. Fans scattered throughout the entrance imply an incessant heat that places anxiety on the audience’s perception of this foreign environment. This heat, along with slow and fluid camera movements, creates tensions. The characters in the hotel dress inappropriately for such atmospheric conditions as well, wearing multiple layers and faded uniforms. These elements create the impression of unbearable uneasiness within the menacing realm that welcomes Barton Fink.

The composition of shots within this sequence also shows many objects placed slightly off center, such as wilting plants not aligned with the staircases in the background. Deakins’ cinematography frames Barton Fink between these spiraling staircases that split in two as well as merge together, highlighting the division in Barton’s mind that both dissociates and blends his sense of reality and imagination. This method stresses a subtle implication over Barton’s psychological condition in a way that echoes German Expressionism. The framing and surroundings thus intensify Barton’s mental state.

This unpleasant aesthetic also appears in forms of clutter. Innumerable unmatched lamps, plants, and furniture clash like in a Sartrean idea of hell where torture comes from a disordered setting. The camera, in a wide, high-angle shot, moves upward as Barton enters as if watching him descending into damnation. These wide shots, suggesting more disarray beyond their sizeable frames, enhance the overwhelming anxiety that Barton Fink feels, by taking up the role of the common man, in a way similar to Italian Neorealist films. This overwhelming notion creates a world indifferent to his character. It is a world that consumes him. He has no control, especially after establishing himself as a resident in this place by contracting a living arrangement with the character of Chet.

The Coen brothers introduce Steve Buscemi’s character of Chet, the jovial bellhop, with a similarly hellish implication. Chet, seen through a high angle, emerges from below in an entryway unusual to a conventional check-in greeting. This surreal entrance exemplifies Chet as a specimen, reminiscent to Jean Paul Sartre’s Valet in No Exit, of the underworld the hotel represents. In this Sartrean fashion, Chet ushers Barton to his personal hell with an automated quality that enhances the darkly comedic aspect of Barton Fink.

BartonFink2Chet, in his overly friendly, painfully accommodating, and robotic manner, proclaims himself with an exclamation yet raises more questions about the phantasmagorical atmosphere of the Hotel Earle. For instance, when Chet asks for Barton’s signature, he spins the intimidatingly large book toward Barton before the overhead shot spins the camera in the opposite direction, expressing Barton’s spiral into madness as he signs away his soul. After, the camera moves in a jarring, quick unison with Barton, as if realizing the implications of this contract. The rapidity of this camera maneuver, and one following it where Chet bids Barton farewell, stands out from the unhurried movement of the preceding shots. Here, there is more of a shock in the concrete, ink-to-paper selling of Barton’s soul to the oddly animate hotel.

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In the next moments, the elevator operator represents a ferryman, like Charon from Greek mythology, who guides Barton into his Hadean accommodations six floors up. The presence of this elevator operator guiding souls to the sixth floor echoes the notion that the hotel is hell, entrapping Barton within its barriers. The elevator partitions imprison Barton while keeping the viewers outside the compartment, looking in on Barton. Deakins’ slow, dolly move into the elevator before Barton tells the operator his destination inches toward the figurative portal before shutting viewers out at the last minute, implying a forbidden world behind those cage-elevator gates of hell.

With Chet and the elevator operator as devilish agents, transitioning cinematography, and the Hotel Earle as an earthly depiction of hell, the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins carefully construct camerawork and visually suggestive set designs for illustrating these concepts as Barton Fink tries bringing himself near the “common man” by checking into the ominous, low-culture hotel. From this moment onward, interpretations to the questions regarding where Barton’s world shifts from real to surreal and what truly happens in his mind grow increasingly blurred. Deakins varies the pacing of his camerawork in relation to Barton’s psychology while the Coen brothers paint a surreal picture around their main character so that Barton’s inner struggles run parallel to the external factors affecting him. The rest of the film’s sequences show how the confined setting punctures Barton’s fragile psyche and ultimately escalates into a literal inferno by the climax.

Fight Club Analysis: The Liberating Tyler Durden and the Calamity of Project Mayhem

April 25th, 2012

On April 20th, 1999, two teenagers killed a teacher and twelve other students before taking their own lives in the infamous Columbine High School massacre. August 6th of that same year marked the release of David Fincher’s Fight Club.

Claudia Eller takes note of this in her Los Angeles Times article, “Controversy Could KO or Punch Up Fight Club”:

Despite some critics praising the film as a groundbreaking masterpiece, Fight Club is being released at a sensitive time… In the wake of the Columbine massacre and other violent outbreaks around the country… Fox executives are hoping audiences will look below the surface and connect with the film’s satirical, existential themes and overarching comment on the modern world and the dehumanizing influences of such things as consumerism. (Eller, pars. 2-4)

fight-club-1-182670Pink soap then became the film’s iconic marketing image as opposed to a more violent, bloodied picture. Still, with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction paving the way earlier in the decade, Fight Club itself stays true to a postmodern, remorseless, and highly masculine take on movie violence. In James Craine and Stuart C. Aitken’s article, “Street Fighting: Placing the Crisis of Masculinity in David Fincher’s Fight Club,” they write that, “…the crisis of masculinity is in large part about the marginalization of men” (Craine and Aitken 289). Craine and Aitken acknowledge that Fight Club’s narrator echoes frustration over this emasculation through his vicarious life as Tyler Durden, who tears down the constructs of his feminine, corporate society. For Craine and Aitken, Tyler’s destructive desires and “transcendental“ projects come from the need for revenge on society.

I agree that revenge is prominent in Fight Club and Project Mayhem, but I disagree when in their article, Craine and Aitken say that this is what the “lust” of Fincher’s film is about (290). Revenge is evidently at the violent surface, but the deeper catharsis for these working-class men with their rebellious fighting and mayhem is the search for redemption, justice, and freedom in a society that ironically consumes them by turning them into consumers. Complete freedom is this “lust” while revenge—such as the “I felt like destroying something beautiful” mentality from Fight Club—is simply the manifestation of seeking this freedom. Fight Club is not a film about just power-hungry, vengeance-seeking “marginalized” men. In addition, Craine and Aitken claim that Fight Club evolves into a destructive movement with a greater purpose. This movement is Project Mayhem, and it enables transcendence for the unnamed narrator. However, the narrator makes valiant efforts in the film’s third act–such as hiding Marla and deactivating bombs—for the undoing of Tyler’s destructive plan and leading to the narrator’s ultimate separation from Tyler and the imagined persona’s Marx-like endeavors. This suggests that Project Mayhem’s greater purpose is a misguided one. Taking the Fight Club revolution too far into becoming Project Mayhem leads the narrator into a confrontation between his own personalities, ending with the acceptance of a middle ground that completes his character arch for the better.

At the start of this character arch, the narrator from Jim Uhls’ screenplay reluctantly sifts through his life, which consists of product recall and “single-serving friends.” Edward Norton’s narrator with the humdrum voice-overs is nobody special, yet at the same time he is the everyman.

Craine and Aitken’s article acknowledges these innumerable, underdog males of society:

The crisis of masculinity within Fight Club suggests that men seek reassurance that other men think misanthropic thoughts. The film gratifies repressed rage and resentment simmering underneath men’s civilized chassis—it is a fantasy for the bookish males of the world that, if tested physically, they might surprisingly triumph. The film is about the lust for revenge and the worst kind of masculinity. (290)

Movie-Screencaps-tyler-durden-26311831-1024-576These downtrodden men, as suggested, want victory through enacting revenge. They indulge in this vengeance-seeking attitude through the realization that other men feel the same; Craine and Aitken claim it is a common bond suggesting that revenge is okay if one is not alone in thinking so.

Here lies the cinematic echo of Friedrich Nietzsche’s herd ideas from The Gay Science:

Morality is herd instinct in the individual…throughout the longest era of humanity, there was nothing more frightful than feeling single. Being alone, perceiving as a single person, neither obeying nor ruling, constituting an individual…To be oneself…The inclination to do so would be perceive as madness, for being alone was bound up with every misery and every fear…the more unfreely one acted, the more that herd instinct rather than personal sense expressed itself in one’s action, the more moral one took oneself to be. (Nietzsche 138-9)

Nietzsche argues that following the community relinquishes individuality by enforcing the notion that morality comes from groupthink. Acting as a freethinking individual finds its equivalence in acting as an ignominious dissenter. Human evolution is a constant reminder that groups stick together and protect each other because they share common values. Even so, those in positions of power ultimately control thought. So for the powerless, white-collar workers in Uhls’ script, Tyler Durden says, “Advertisements have us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place.” These men reach a boiling point, but the irony is that the members of Fight Club eventually create a new, proletarian-like herd after breaking from the herd mentality of their emasculating, consumer society.

This herd is still not seeking the mere revenge that Craine and Aitken argue for because it does not wreak vengeful havoc at random by bringing Fight Club to fruition. No guidance or secret, males-only homework assignments are needed if throwing adult tantrums is the sole purpose of the members. The men need Tyler Durden before Fight Club can even exist. This cues the hero-worshiping of Tyler Durden after he rounds up his sheepish crew. In his Chicago Sun-Times review of Fight Club, Roger Ebert acknowledges Pitt’s character as, “…a shadowy, charismatic figure, able to inspire a legion of men …” (Ebert 305). Durden becomes the messiah for the culturally emasculated. The male character most literally reduced to femininity, Robert “Bob” Paulson, refers to Tyler as “…a great man,” and later in the film, Tyler vehemently states his claim on Project Mayhem; “We’re not killing anyone, man, we’re setting them free.” Pitt’s character wears his philosophies on the sleeves of his flashy, red-leather jacket, making him undoubtedly direct in nature, yet Tyler never says, “We are getting our revenge.”  In fact, only once in Uhls’ script does the word “revenge” appear. Freedom is Tyler’s ultimate goal, but first the men—specifically the narrator—must find a certain kind of redemption.

fightclub000-714494Instead of Craine and Aitken’s argument for revenge is a need for this redemption, which manifests at the start of many brutal and voluntary beatings. From what could Edward Norton’s narrator, a white-collar employee with a strong case of insomnia, want redemption? The answer is his life—which he experiences dreary eyed at Xerox machines or with subliminal flashes of Tyler. This indicates that Norton’s character loses his mind to the dullness of his reality; sparks of a new reality, along with a surrogate personality, flicker in his dissociating mind. Until the spark of the narrator’s Tyler personality sets fire to his ostentatious apartment, his very existence is polluted with materialism over necessity. In a surreal and creative mise-en-scène walk-through of his apartment five minutes after the film’s start, the narrator exhibits his dwellings like a virtual furniture catalog, calling himself a, “slave to the Ikea-nesting syndrome.” This scene suggests that material objects define him. When this very apartment becomes the site of a seemingly random explosion, the ruinous setting symbolizes what happens in the narrator’s mind; his overindulgent, consumer subconscious throws itself away into the scattered rubble.fight-club

He then calls Tyler and begins a downgraded life, frequenting the basements of seedy bars and, as Craine and Aitken mention, living in a desolate, “…dilapidated house on a toxic waste site at the edge of town…” on Paper Street where the lights eerily flicker and the running water is as nauseating as the film’s yellowish-green color scheme (290). This setting also reflects the narrator’s newfound state of mind, which Craine and Aitken do not analyze. The house is always dark and in disarray, much like the narrator’s mind and hazy, double life. The setting is isolated and toxic, just as the narrator’s relationship with Tyler becomes. There is figurative meaning to this setting, just as Tyler is more than just a host to the newly homeless narrator. In his review, Ebert writes, “[The narrator] turns to Tyler for shelter…he gets more than that,” (305). As Tyler, the narrator destroys

his own apartment for redemption because material destruction is the instigating act of a man saving himself from the error of his corporately enslaved ways.

This idea of servitude to consumerist culture is why men join Fight Club, escaping from their regular routines. The men are all the same with, as Tyler says while the members encircle him and the camera follows his pacing, “all this potential…squandered…an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars…” The focus is on Tyler because his words embody the psyche of the generation of men around him: men who fight each other in an unattractive basement until blood spews and they bruise internally like the violence is a support group activity that brings catharsis. Tyler the Messiah lays out his Fight Club commandments and illuminates the injustices of society. The camera zooms in on only Tyler’s close-up while he plays directly with the emotions of the crowd saying, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” This cinematography suggests that all attention is on Tyler, without showing other’s reactions, because he speaks for the group. He is not only speaking from the narrator’s subconscious, but for everyone else’s as well. Members then beat each other, fighting what they each represent: the slavery. This is justice. The next step is freedom, where Tyler Durden is Nietzsche’s ideal man from The Gay Science.

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In section 283 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche elaborates on his concept of the “Overman,” discussing how an “Overman” should live:

…This requires many preparatory, brave human beings, who certainly cannot arise from nothing…who have an inner penchant for seeking in all things what is to be overcome in them…more endangered human beings…happier human beings! For, believe me, the secret to reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from existence is to live dangerously! …Send your ships into unexplored seas! …Be robbers and conquerors so long as you cannot be rulers or possessors, you knowing ones! (143)

Taking chances, being a leader, and lacking a fear of death, loss, or self-analysis are essential for an “Overman.” Society should not predetermine the life of the individual. Life is a waste without experiences of merit, so “living dangerously” is the subtext to Uhls’ script whenever Tyler says, “How much can you know about yourself if youve never been in a fight? I don’t want to die without any scars,” or, “God Damn! We just had a near-life experience, fellas.” This “Overman” is Tyler, free in every way and ambitious without being driven by any Christian morals or notions.  Ebert’s attacks the violence of Fight Club in his review, but summarizes Nietzsche’s philosophical influence in saying Fight Club is, “…a secret society of men who meet in order to find freedom and self-realization…” (305). In this way, freedom lies in finally becoming what one always hoped for. This is especially exemplified in the scene where the narrator realizes that him and Tyler Durden are one person.tumblr_mm1g7jLFY71r3gb6ao1_500

In this Fight Club scene, Pitt’s Tyler tells Norton’s narrator, “You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” They face each other in this twisted encounter where the narrator is actually confronting himself while the Dust Brother’s score plays subtly beneath the dialogue, mocking at the narrator’s state of mind and oncoming, head-spinning blackout. In discussing this scene, Craine and Aitken refer to Tyler as, “…the insane ideal ego of the liberal existential subject…” (292). Tyler is this “ideal ego,” but all of his actions come with logic and stem from the narrator’s own subconscious, which rationalizes Tyler as the fulfiller of all that lacks in the narrator’s life. Tyler merely has a strong sense of freedom and complete lack of restraint. When accused of insanity in Fight Club, Tyler wittingly retorts, “No, you’re insane.”

Tyler states these claims on being freer than the narrator, yet Craine and Aitken still refer to Tyler’s efforts as revenge-driven. Specifically, the two turn attention toward Project Mayhem, calling it a revenge mission of sorts by saying, “Project Mayhem is [the narrator’s] revenge, an avenue for anger at a system that contrives, and is contrived by, patriarchally-based hegemonic masculinity,” (293). Craine and Aitken argue that Project Mayhem is, “…more purposeful…escalating mischief…a finale of spectacular urban violence that…fosters a return of the sense of individual power lost to men through their marginalization in society,” (289). I disagree. Project Mayhem does not serve a higher purpose. What does it accomplish? The narrator, in fact, tries to undo the tangled mess of potential damage of Project Mayhem. Project Mayhem is now the Fight Club evolution taken too far.

fightclubCraine and Aitken suggest that this use of extravagant, “…spectacularization of violence” allows the narrator “to transcend…limitations” (291). I agree that Project Mayhem is extreme, since it vanquishes credit scores and gets members killed, but it is not a positive undertaking for the narrator. The only positive outcome of Project Mayhem is that the narrator realizes the absurdity of it and ultimately rejects Tyler. Norton’s character does dissolve habit and break away from his mundane, daily routine, which Craine and Atiken acknowledge, but this does not mean that he transcends because the narrator does not fully become Tyler. By the end of the film, when the financial towers crumble and in the unconventional romance of Fight Club, Edward Norton’s narrator ends up with Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla, the narrator finds an area of compromise in himself. The narrator is not the same man from the start of the film, nor is he at the extreme of being Tyler Durden.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Freedom and Responsibility section of Being and Nothingness, explains this:

…Man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being…Anyway you look at it, it is a matter of choice…to live this…is to choose myself through it and to choose it through my choice of myself…if it is going to be four empty years, then it is I who bear the responsibility of this. (Sartre 252-4)

If Tyler Durden embodies the ideas of Nietzsche, then here, the narrator exemplifies Sartre.

Tyler SplicedThis Sartre passage suggests that responsibility for freedom is a demanding choice and one is equally as responsible for that choice itself. Applied to the narrator, this means that he cannot continue living a vicarious life through Tyler Durden because he must acknowledge that he is responsible for his own actions. If one considers Tyler’s assignments as levels of a 12-step, support-group program, Project Mayhem should not be the narrator’s the final step toward an ultimate goal. In actuality, he tries separating himself from Tyler’s unconventional therapy as much as he can by the film’s end, leading to a climactic pseudo-suicide as a last resort. The narrator returns to reality without Tyler Durden: a reality that is not filled with a hyper-surreal world of violence and a foggy sense of insomnia.

Fight Club is not a revenge film, nor is it a film that says, “Be someone else and do anything at all.” Fight Club is about fully being oneself, unconsumed by other external factors, and living freely in each of life’s moments, with full consciousness of that choice. There are consequences to actions and avoiding responsibilities, and Fight Club ends with that reminder. Uhls ends Fight Club with a punch line when the narrator, with his bleeding cheek, raspy voice, and hand reaching out for Marla, says to her, “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” while Fincher has the pair stare off into an evening of destruction, signifying Tyler’s last word for society. Likewise, when the film reel, like one of Tyler’s part-time-job tricks, shows signs of needing a projector change preceding an unexpected, obscene flash, the audience is left wondering whether or not the influence of Tyler Durden ever really dies. Then, in the perfectly appropriate Pixies song, “Where is my mind?” Black Francis sings, “Your head will collapse/but there’s nothing in it/and you’ll ask yourself/where is my mind?” The narrator rids the presence of Tyler from his subconscious, but these lyrics in Fight Club’s finale suggest questioning where Tyler disappears to, if he is still lurking in the crevices of the narrator’s mind, and if he will ever make an unconscious return.

Thank you for reading! If you have a few extra minutes, please check out the link for a film I’m working on.

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Sources

Craine, James, and Stuart C. Aitken. “Street Fighting: Placing the Crisis of Masculinity in David “Fincher’s Fight Club.” GeoJournal 59.4 (2004): 289-96. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41147853?origin=JSTOR-pdf&gt;.

Ebert, Roger. Fight Club. 1999. Writing in the Works. 3rd ed. Boston: Wadsworth Pub, 2012. 304-06. Print.

Eller, Claudia. “Controversy Could KO or Punch Up ‘Fight Club'” Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times, 15 Oct. 1999. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/1999/oct/15/business/fi-22483&gt;.

Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Screenplay by Jim Uhls. By Chuck Palahniuk. Prod. Ross G. Bell, Ceán Chaffin, and Art Linson. Perf. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. 20th Century Fox, 1999. DVD.

Francis, Black. “Where Is My Mind?” By Black Francis. Perf. Kim Deal, David Lovering, Joey Santiago, and Black Francis. Rec. 1987. Surfer Rosa. Pixies. Steve Albini, 1988. MP3.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. 1882. Existentialism: Basic Writings. By Charles B. Guignon and Derk Pereboom. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995. 123-71. Print.

Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Prod. Danny DeVito and Lawrence Bender. Perf. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Miramax Films, 1994. DVD.

Reservoir Dogs. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Prod. Lawrence Bender. Perf. Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel. Miramax Films, 1992. DVD.

Sartre, Jean. “Being and Nothingness.” 1943. Existentialism: Basic Writings. By Charles B. Guignon and Derk Pereboom. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. 352-53. Print.