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Finding the Common Man in the Films of Joel & Ethan Coen (P. I)

by Jimmy Gilmore. Gilmore is a Film and Media Studies major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Spring 2008 class "Folklore and Film."

“Well, Charlie, I guess I write about people like you…the common man,” says Barton Fink to insurance salesman Charlie Meadows in the Coen brothers’ 1991 comedy Barton Fink. Barton, an intellectual who hides out in a stuffy hotel room while trying to write an important film about common people, seems almost emblematic of writer, director, producer team Joel and Ethan Coen. As filmmakers, they have built a distinct career off the film noir, screwball comedy, crime, and thriller genres of classic Hollywood. Despite their diversity, all their films have been informed by a singular underlying thread: their treatment and exploration of the common man and small American culture. Often setting their films in specific times in the past and in distinct regions of America, the Coens embed their screenplays with a distinct brand of language designed to reflect the culture of each film’s setting.

Though their astute observations provide much of the subtle humor of their films, the brothers have systematically constructed a history of twentieth century America ruled by mindless commoners; instead of treating their subjects with respect and veneration, the characters of their films are satirized, exaggerated, and lacking sense. Ultimately, as their career progresses, the Coens seek to define the common man, to explicitly find who he is and what constitutes his ideology. However, this leads to a drastic denial of culture and a belief that it is better to escape the trappings of ethnicity than be succumbed to identification within a singular group.

As mentioned before, Joel and Ethan share more than a little in common with the titular protagonist of their 1991 film, and that character and film serve as a sufficient jumping point to examine the cultural ideas behind each of their films. Like the brothers, Barton Fink is Jewish, and he comes out of a very intellectual New England circle – Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton, while Joel studied film at New York University. Barton reaches critical acclaim with his play about working-class fishmongers, a culture he seemingly knows nothing about but manages to infiltrate and analyze in an artistic manner. This situation grows similarly out of the Coens’ first film, Blood Simple (1984), which deconstructs the film noir genre while incorporating the culture and language of common, working-class Texans and their human failings. Their subsequent film, Raising Arizona (1987), similarly set among the trailer park-dwelling, often-criminal working class of the Southwest, prominently displays individuals outside the realms of common sense and proper English syntax, exaggerating their language and mannerisms to lampoon the seemingly dumb culture. Only when they attempt to write about something else, the Irish mafia in the midst of Prohibition for their film Miller’s Crossing (1990), do the Coens become stuck. In reality, they suffered immense writers’ block while writing their crime drama, and from that struggle emerged Barton Fink, a film as self-referential as it is unflattering in its portrayal of screenwriting ineptitude.

Barton, assigned to write a simple B-movie wrestling picture for a Hollywood movie studio, feels the need to make something important. He gets one paragraph into his film, which sounds suspiciously like his previous artistic triumph, before becoming distracted by his neighbor, Charlie Meadows. Barton meets him while dressed in a full suit, a tie, and glasses, while Charlie’s overalls, undone shirt, and lack of tie complements his distinct physical difference from Barton. The artist refuses to shake his neighbor’s hand, apparently disgusted by this rude interruption; Barton rejects association with the very people he props up in his work. As the two converse, Barton attempts to make his work sound important; he is trying to “forge something real out of everyday experience…a theater for the masses.” Charlie, exuberant about the notion, tries to tell Barton some stories about his “everyday experiences,” but Barton promptly cuts him off, spouting more of his empty ideology and eventually condescending Charlie until he leaves Barton in peace.

Charlie constantly seems more in tune with basic human emotions than Barton, providing an interesting foil for the protagonist. Charlie’s life is of the real world; his job revolves around making connections with people. To him, “they’re more than customers;” he seeks an actual emotional connection and feels his job satisfies “a basic human need.” Barton, conversely, occupies the self-proclaimed “life of the mind,” and in his scenes with Charlie he constantly turns away from him or makes disgusted faces at him. The people he writes about are less than people: they are tools he uses for his grand artistic work. Life is not about emotional connection for Barton; it is about establishing himself as a great creator, but his “life of the mind” seems to be a life rooted securely in his own mind.

In a later scene, Charlie helps teach Barton about wrestling for his picture, and he promptly pins him to the ground. Seconds later he pleasantly chuckles, “I wouldn’t be much a match for you at mental gymnastics,” again highlighting the distinct relationship between the real and intellectual the two embody. Despite Charlie’s pervasive offers, Barton refuses to look to him for help in constructing his portrait of the common man. In one scene, Barton tries to slide his shoes on while writing, only to discover he accidentally received Charlie’s from the hotel’s shoe shining service. The shoes are much too big, and in a metaphorical parallel, Barton is unable to fill Charlie’s shoes; he cannot figure out how to step into the shoes of the common man and adequately portray his vision on the page. Ironic, since Barton refuses to stop talking about his artistic schemes when Charlie visits him, while Charlie can never quite summon the elevated vocabulary to keep up with Barton – this in turn comments on how important language is within the Coens’ cinema and how each social group seems to have its own distinct way of communicating; Barton at one point even tries to “put things in [Charlie’s language” so he can understand what he is trying to say.

Only when Charlie is revealed to be serial killer Karl Mundt does Barton finds inspiration to finish his screenplay. The stereotyped common man becomes a deranged German, and in this hidden dark side of the simple common man Barton has found his inspiration. He phones his agent to tell him, upon completion, it is “the most important thing I’ve ever written.” Not by coincidence though, the final line of his screenplay matches the final line of the play that made him famous: Barton Fink has merely regurgitated his one great idea in a vain attempt to continue his supposed legacy of dissecting the common man. Even as he celebrates among a party of young women and Navy soldiers, Barton denies the young soldier a dance with a girl, for he is “celebrating the completion of something good!” Barton rejects the common man by again propping himself on a level of artistic supremacy.

Charlie returns at the film’s climax to set afire the hotel that has long served as he and Barton’s imprisonment. He sets Barton free from the room, informing him he fails because he does not listen. Barton believes he is an artist, but encloses himself within the walls of his hotel room, never letting himself interact with and try to understand that which is right in front of him. He never listens to Charlie’s stories or advice, merely lamenting about how difficult his profession is. As Charlie says, “You think you know pain? You think I made your life hell? Take a look around this dump. You’re just a tourist with a typewriter, and