Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

I've been thinking a lot about A Serious Man lately. So, I decided to write a little about it and the Coens' other great exploration of indefinable mysteries, Barton Fink.

Barton Fink is trapped in a film that bears his name, but no trace of his philosophies: Eliminating bourgeois fantasy from theater and cinema; Championing the thoughts and plights of the common man. “The poetry of the streets”. Yet the Coen brothers have sadistically placed him squarely in a film whose thesis makes a fool of him. What could be more insulting to a tenet of realism than to find himself the lead role in a story of caricatures; of people who couldn’t possibly exist outside a movie?

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Determining what is real and what is only inside Barton Fink’s mind is impossible, and rightly so: The world of the physical and the world of the imagined have no dividing line here. Barton is dedicated to dramatizing the life of the mind; the Coens show the life and the mind. Any interpretation of Barton Fink is bound to be a personal one, but to me, the picture convincingly portrays the journey into madness from the character’s personal perspective. We aren’t sure what is real and what is imagined, but we are sure that it’s not all real, even if we’re pretty sure things started out real… or did they?

Because Barton Fink plays so fluidly with actuality, interpretations are always subject to questioning and any reaction is inevitably cyclical. I’m convinced that this is because finding personal identification with the Coens’ films is usually a mobius strip. The duo are not content simply to pose questions, but to link one moral mystery to another, and another, and another. By trying to answer question x, you must answer question y, which can only be answered by knowing answer z, which is dependent on the solution to question x. One might say the answers only lead to more questions, but the Coens phrase their themes and mental meandering so tightly that in their films the questions are the answers.

This makes Barton Fink an exquisite companion film to A Serious Man, which is solely concerned with Physics Professor Larry Gopnik's search for rational answers to life's dilemmas and challenges. All those around him seem to find comfort and success in life without ever making concerted efforts to rationally understand. Larry's tragic flaw is not that he is spineless, but that he thirsts to know what is right, and in not knowing he feels paralyzed to act. He is confronted by a man whose son has failed his class and attempted to bribe him for a passing grade, and threatened with a defamation lawsuit. What follows is one of the great circular dialogues of cinema, as Larry is denied a consistent lie.

“If it were defamation, there would have to be someone I was defaming him to ... All right, let's keep it simple. I could pretend the money never appeared. That's not defaming anyone.”
“Yes, and passing grade.”
“Passing grade?”
“Or you'll sue me?”
“Yes, for taking money.”
“So he did leave the money?”
“This is defamation!”
“It doesn't make sense! Either he left the money or he didn't.”
“Please, accept the mystery.”

Earlier, he is approached by the failing student after a lesson on the Uncertainty Principle, which includes the Schrรถdinger's cat demonstration, the student argues that he deserves to pass because though he cannot do the math, he understands the underlying concepts of what they are learning. "I understand the cat, he says." "Even I don't understand the cat," Larry replies, "It's the math that makes it work." Barton's love of the concrete, the real, is not far removed from this attitude. But their worlds seem to conspire to surround them with chaos.

I'll talk more about why I stopped blogging for three months, why I'm back, and where I want to go with it in the future in a later post.


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