By Tony Schwabb
There are a better than directors than the Coen brothers, but there may be none working who are as consistent. The duo has directed 16 films, and not one is bad. Even the most criticized (“Burn After Reading” and “Intolerable Cruelty,” respectively) are hardly failures, especially when compared to the misfires of most major directors. The reason that the Coens can maintain such consistency is that beneath their many layers of invention, they are committed to tight storytelling. Each of their films has a clear well thought out plot that holds things together even when the details are less inspired. As well as this approach has served them, it does make you wonder what would happen if they attempted something as out there as “Inland Empire” or “The Master.”
The best hint lies with Barton Fink, the Coens most experimental work. This may have to do with it being their most autobiographical. Barton is a writer stuck between being a serious artist and an entertainer. He spends much of the movie hauled up in a hotel room, trying to write and generally agonizing. He ignores the simple, friendly man next store and meets a writer modeled on William Faulkner. It seems very likely that the neighbor represents the common man who Barton wants to represent in his art and that Faulkner is the type of artist who Barton strives to be.
The movie robs Barton of his illusions about both. The Falukner stand in is shown to be a miserable alcoholic. The common man is a murderer.
The broad idea suggested here is that Barton is taking himself too seriously and that he is pretentious to think that he can relate to the common man as an artist. This places it in line with Sullivan’s Travels, an obvious influence, as well as the more recent Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.
The details of the film’s meaning and symbolism are what make it so puzzling. The film focuses on the hotels wallpaper, flies, water and fire in a way that seems to imply that these things are all very important. You feel that there may be many layers of work underneath what you can perceive.
This same feeling of unexplained depths is present, in a lighter form, in several other Coen films that have similar odd flourishes. Think of The Big Lebowski’s final half hour after the main plot is resolved, the cyclical ending of Llewyn Davis and the incredibly bleak end of A Serious Man. Most of all, think of the aliens in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe these are all jokes that the Coens are making, but I don’t think so. Beneath all of their craftsmanship the Coens have a very abstract side that I hope is one day explored in full.
Tony Schwab is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org