4 October 2013
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.
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.
Chet, 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.
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.