Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Barton Fink

US movie (1991). Circle/20th Century-Fox. Pr Ethan Coen. Exec pr Ben Barenholtz, Bill Durkin, Ted and Jim Pedas. Dir Joel Coen. Spfx Stetson Visual Services. Screenplay Ethan and Joel Coen. Starring Judy Davis (Audrey Taylor), John Goodman (Charlie Meadows), Michael Lerner (Jack Lipnick), John Mahoney (Bill Mayhew), John Turturro (Barton Fink). 116 mins. Colour.

Firebrand playwright Fink is drawn in 1941 to Hollywood's Capitol Pictures, where his dreams of socialist movies for the common man are soon shattered. Lodged in the seedy Hotel Earle – where his sole Muse is a peeling calendar bathing-belle picture on the damp wall – his writer's block is cemented by the intrusions of his neighbour, Meadows, a real common man rather than the ideal of Fink's earlier writing. Seeking inspiration from once-great writer Mayhew, now a drunk, Fink inadvertently beds Mayhew's mistress and ghost-screenwriter Taylor, waking next morning to find her murdered. From here the plunge into madness is irrevocable: the remainder of BF is, or is not, a fantasy of Perception. Fink's madness interacts synergistically with that of Meadows, who proves a Serial Killer; only with Taylor's severed head as an Amulet in a box by his typewriter can Fink write – she is indeed a ghostwriter. But the Surrealism extends beyond the plot that leads inevitably to Meadows's, and in a way Fink's, nemesis, for Hollywood itself is depicted as an Absurdist Fantasy, almost as an Alternate Reality. The triumph of BF is that its false realities become realer than our own.

Drawing in part on such sources as cinema clichés and Urban Legends, BF is also more specifically Recursive: Capitol boss Lipnick is identifiable with Louis B Mayer (1885-1957), Fink himself with Clifford Odets (1906-1963) and Mayhew with William Faulkner (1897-1962). [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.