Bright Lights Film Journal

Blood, Sweat, and Canvas: How Barton Fink Can Set You Free

“All the world’s a hell ten feet square”

This is a wrestling picture; the audience wants to see action, drama, wrestling, and plenty of it. They don’t wanna see a guy wrestling with his soul — well, all right, a little bit, for the critics — but you make it the carrot that wags the dog. Too much of it and they head for exits and I don’t blame ’em. There’s plenty of poetry right inside that ring, Fink. Look at “Hell Ten Feet Square.”

Blood, Sweat, and Canvas.

Look at “Blood, Sweat, and Canvas.” These are big movies, Fink. About big men, in tights — both physically and mentally. But especially physically.

Right there, I think, is where the Coens hit the nail on the head of the dividing line in film criticism. Are you the critic who is able to see “soul wrestling” inside the “physical wrestling”? If so, you don’t need it spelled out for you with big swooping orchestral cues and echo-drenched flashbacks to stickball games in the Brooklyn slums. But there are critics who do need those cues; if they don’t get them, they get mad. When Lipnik says, “All right, a little bit … for the critics,” he’s referring to this type.

The Coens in their weird symbiotic connected-twin telepathic genius inscribe the celluloid of Fink with the very key to unlocking all their cinema and all of art cinema for those who would be free of the shackles of this sort of pretentious “nodding when you don’t really get it”-ism.

The true intellectual New York playwright will holler and scratch his head or ask questions if he doesn’t “get” what you are trying to do with your play, never mind if a monkey could “get” your subtextual message, a true artist has a gut response and asks questions. But at the same time he sees the poetry and the moment in all things, so the physical beauty of a big muscle-headed wrestler charging into the ring will not be for him what it is for Fink, a signifier of mutton-headed hostility and nothing more.

Barton Fink is the story of writer’s block: Fink is the squirmy but well-meaning ego, easily bedrunken by his own voice, unable to see the answers to his problems right in front of him. The ego by itself cannot grasp the real beyond signification and symbolization into language. For Fink, in other words, a man in tights is a wrestler and that’s all he can ever be; a worker in the proletariat can be only just that, and must look and act the part: a steel lunchbox in his hand, a thick peasant scarf pulled around his burly shoulders, standing in front of a locked fence with his comrades, shouting for bread.

The titles of the wrestling pictures cited by Lou and Lipnik are keys in themselves: “Hell Ten Feet Square” and “Blood, Sweat & Canvas.” In each title may be excavated great wealth of meaning vis-à-vis the common man so tirelessly championed by Barton. Barton condemns as blasphemy all roads less traveled to his socialist utopian ideals; he is a fundamentalist of art. The celestial guru Mr. Lipnik, on the other hand, knows that genres may start from different places, but all arrive at the same destination … that universal truth that all of us recognize … with a little sex in it.

This is something the French and British understand better; their culture is older. They can see the same mythic struggles repeated through time, like the revolution of the earth around the sun. Each new malformed image only gets a 24-hour grace period until the brush swings back across the horizon and wipes a new image into place. Be aware of this and you are able to step out of the endless dance of time and space and go get a drink at the elevated bar of unfiltered consciousness, get away from the nagging or ineffectual spouse of ego, the old ball and chain of illusion and hullabaloo. Refuse to be aware of the dance’s impermanence and you never get to go to the bar and take a breather long enough to get the old original self back, the million-dollar baby who says and does real things instead of hackneyed tripe. If you don’t get that self back, your art is flat as yesterday’s soda can. This is known in some circles as “the sophomore slump.”

The artist has climbed partway up the steep mountain with their first work, it’s a success, and thus they are ensconced comfortably in a niche and now fear to leave it, lest they fall. They are burdened with something to lose, namely, their wealth. Isn’t the reason we hide from the idea of inescapable death partly the terrible idea of losing all our private property, our glorious stuff?

This is why artists who have no fame smartly eschew it. They see how it turns their brethren into party line-towers, sticking up for the power elite, which has extended their illusory hand as a boost “farther” up the ladder. Now on a perch, the artist focuses on” giving back” to the little people, using his or her newfound power for pedagogy. Godard starts spouting communist manifestos; Sullivan wants to make O Brother Where Art Thou?, etc. The artist should never become the voice of the people; that way lies mundanity. This the Coens understand and have, miraculously, made no such false moves. Fans of Raising Arizona, for example, were put off by Barton and Miller’s Crossing, the follow-ups to that substantial hit. Fans wanted more of Arizona’s adrenalized white trash cinema satire, but the Coens understood it wouldn’t work a second time. (For an example of trying to strike oil twice in the same place, look at Scorsese’s Casino, which basically runs on the same adrenalin shot as Goodfellas and isn’t nearly as vibrant.)

For another illustration of the deadening effect of egoic power, let’s look to the aborigines in New Zealand who back in the day “sold” their land cheaply to the whites because they could not understand the idea of “owning” land. The aborigine way of thinking doesn’t encompass the abstract and insane notion of “private” property. This is the natural state of enlightenment, of the “true” artist. For another example, imagine if someone could just “own” steak. All steak. If you have a steak in your freezer, it’s now their property. This is absurd — yet so is the idea of owning land by the same token. Under whose authority are land grants given? There is only one authority in this case: power. If I walk on your land, are you able to tax me? Where does it begin and end? All divisions of land are imaginary. Daniel Plainview understands this and so is able to manipulate the time and space of those around him by using the symbolic order as his own little home hypnotist kit. Investment bankers rob their own grandchildren; the idea of “borrowing” and “investment” is also a trick of the reality-obscurers like Plainview.

There’s another great bit about this in The Simpsons. Homer wins an elephant and sells rides on it. After a few successful weeks he still can’t afford the upkeep of this animal and so realizes he will have to charge more for each ride. Not only that, but he actually intends to charge the balance of the new price to those who have already ridden the animal in the past! Millhouse now owes him another dollar for having ridden the elephant in the past, according to Homer’s law. We can imagine how disastrous it would be to implement this practice in modern economic structures. And yet, is it any weirder than the practice of owning land, which gets even more absurd when you think that you are borrowing money from a bank to own it?

This is how we lose our friends to the lure of prosperity and “completeness.” And yet for artists this is as sure a progression as the circle of life itself. Once we strike oil, we want to own the land too. Fink scores a hit with his play back east, but he can’t translate the “Barton Fink feeling” into wrestling, though essentially it shouldn’t matter, not if he was “an auteur.” Howard Hawks or John Ford could easily crank out a wrestling picture that would deliver all the thrills and action that Lipnik requires to secure the southern markets. Plainview immediately sets out in search of other wells, plans bigger and moves forward; Barton would just keep drilling in that same general area, not realizing everywhere he struck was just different holes in the same, small, ever-dwindling pocket.

This is why the Coens or Howard Hawks can cover many different genres while always being true to their “auteurist” rubric of obsessions and codes. They are relentless explorers, they make peace with the idea that they have to bring “themselves” along on the explorations; their personality comes in for better or worse, and when it does, it is authentic. This is the thing our man Fink doesn’t get, and alas, what most modern critics don’t get. And nothing is more easily pissed off than a cornered pseudo-intellectual, and I should know? Fuck you!

This is all based on cinematic theory based on Lacan’s mirror stage. An infant sees himself in the mirror and from that forms an “ego image” of himself. Now he is an image in a world of images. The actual physical self that is his body being impossible to control, he controls his ego image in the world of the imaginary. This is fine for an infant, but we need to grow out of it — at least to a point where we can realize it’s imaginary — otherwise there’s all this conflict, men fighting and dying over imaginary borders and political concepts.

Barton Fink’s final scene has Fink walking along the beach and seeing the actual woman from a picture on the wall in his weird hotel room. This is his flash moment of enlightenment, the Finkian equivalent of being out of the cave at last. The hopeful thought is that he will be able to let go of his outmoded signifier collection and begin to understand the artist’s true calling, which is not to perpetuate the system of signifiers, codes, and symbols, which grow staler by the minute once they are put in practice, but to smash them, to create symbols and signifiers that point beyond symbols and signifiers, where — to paraphrase Shakespeare — all the world’s a hell ten feet square, and all the big men wearing tights in it merely wrestlers.