Newspaper article International New York Times

Why Is It So Hard to Capture the Writer's Life on Film?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Why Is It So Hard to Capture the Writer's Life on Film?

Article excerpt

"Barton Fink" shows a wicked, earthbound honesty about the sinkhole of authorial self-obsession.

Dana Stevens

There's a story I love about the production history of the Coen brothers' 1991 comedy "Barton Fink": Its screenplay was written over a three-week period while the brothers took a break from their struggles with the script for "Miller's Crossing." Although the Coens themselves have resisted journalistic efforts to frame this project-within-a-project as a case of "writer's block" -- and indeed, we should all be so lucky as to have dry spells that so quickly result in a Palme d'Or-winning movie -- there remains something hilariously apt about the origin story of this cruelest of films about being a writer.

Movies about authorship run the nearly unavoidable risk of flattering both their own authors and the subjects they depict. After all, someone had to create the script ex nihilo, sitting in front of a blank screen -- or, in the case of the luckless Barton, a blank piece of paper rolled into an Underwood typewriter in a dingy, oozy-wallpapered Los Angeles hotel room that is seemingly alive.

Anyone who's making a movie about writing in the first place presumably values the written word enough to be invested in the significance of the improbable act of transforming the chaos of existence into orderly lines of words. Hence the by-now-familiar heroic writing montage: the furrowed squint, the crumpled pages piling up in and around the wastebasket, the close-up of letters accumulating on the page as the keyboard finally begins its triumphant clickety-clack.

"Barton Fink" references all these cliches while falling victim to none of them. Its hero, played by John Turturro, is a Jewish New York intellectual brimful of condescending lefty ideas about "the common man." (Fink is based on the playwright Clifford Odets about as loosely as the protagonist of the Coens' recent "Inside Llewyn Davis" was modeled after the folk singer Dave Van Ronk.)

Buoyed by the critical raves for his first Broadway play, a dreadful-sounding proletarian drama with the portentous Shakespearean title "Bare Ruined Choirs," Fink accepts an offer that turns out to be, perhaps literally, a devil's bargain: a thousand dollars a week (in 1941 dollars! …

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