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Barton Fink a Kafkian Tale

The Coen brothers crowned their esteemed production and aesthetically independent opus at the 1991 Cannes film Festival with the film Barton Fink, Palm d’Or winner for best director and best actor (John Turturro). Costume design and set design, actors’ performances, photography and direction, created a film of sensational quality, dominated by the visual, so natural to the authorial creation and recipient experience of the cinematic medium, with additional quality of ingenious usage of the sound. Namely, on the basic level of immanent qualities of film medium and the possibility of use of various forms of film recording, Barton Fink overpowers with its (sensational) quality. Even the semantic level of Barton Fink offers a variety of interpretations. It is a film about loneliness and an attempt to overcome it, but in view of the central relationship of Barton and Charlie, it is also a film about the making and breaking of a friendship.
Barton Fink can also be discussed in the context of the relationship of American (Hollywood) and European film. Reviewing the treatment of crime segment of Barton Fink, we can draw parallels with several representative European films like Roman Polanski’ The Tenant and Blow-up by Michelangelo Antonioni. Both films have elements of a criminal plot, but at the same time abstract and relativize criminal actions, lowering or perhaps subliming the standard part of typically American (Hollywood) formulaic generic structuring. On the other hand, when Brian de Palma was working on something we could call a sequel to Blow-up, mixed with Coppola’s ’European-style-abstract’ Conversations, he transformed abstract to concrete, ’European’ to ’American’. In his film Blow Out there were no clear details of the criminal plot, however, the crime itself was never put to question, nor were its motives. Barton Fink could also easily be labelled as art film, just like the above-mentioned European films, but it is still no match to The Tenant and Blow-up because in this respect it is tends to be halfway between concrete and abstract. Strange emanations in Barton’s hotel room are quite explainable, but still create a dreamy-nightmarish atmosphere. We know who is murdered, and soon we find out who the murderer is and why he kills. Yet, the criminal act (Audrey’s murder) is nevertheless conducted with a significant measure of strangeness, while the showdown between Charlie and the detectives takes place in the Armageddon-like setting of the hotel on fire. In reviews of Barton Fink there was much emphasis on its Kafkian quality. Indeed, Barton is very much a Kafkian hero, while the universe of the film greatly corresponds to Kafkian world, most bluntly to that described in The Castle. Just like the protagonists of the novel, Barton Fink arrives in a town he has never visited before; he comes for business and meets all kinds of personalities. The initial amazement is soon replaced by general acceptance of the state of affairs, forcing him to accept the unusual as normal. Contrary to Kafkian prose, the Coen brothers are using real geographical names, while some characters are superficially based on real people. However, this does not make much difference in the global structure of the world in their film. Nevertheless, there are serious differences between Barton Fink’s world and that from Kafka’s novels. In Barton Fink we read a strong dose of satire — against the snobbish New York art scene, ambitious artists, and primitive Hollywood utilitarianism, while satire of the people and their worlds, and particularly literary conventions, never seemed to be Kafka’s intention. The key difference lies in the intensity of the absurd, so that in Barton Fink’s world there is no strong emanation of the absurd. In Barton Fink, real experience seems to have a much bigger role than in Kafka’s writing, so that it could be said that the Coen brothers’ world succumbs to oniric-nightmarish logic that never looses contact with reality.

Damir Radiæ

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