Monday, February 22, 2021

BARTON FINK (1991) (Umbrella Blu-ray Review)


Label: Umbrella Entertainment
Region Code: A,B 
Rating: M
Duration: 117 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: John Goodman, John Turturro, Judy Davis, Steve Buscemi, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Jom Polito

Set in 1941 the Coen Bros. fourth film Barton Fink (1991) stars John Turturro (The Big Lebowski) as the titular playwright who has just written a successful Broadway play. In the aftermath he is offered a contract with Capitol Pictures in Hollywood to write a wrestling picture. Arriving in Los Angeles he is set up with a room at the Hotel Earle, checked in by the unsettlingly helpful concierge Chet (Steve Buscemi, Tales From The Darkside: The Movie). As he settles into his gloomy room he sets about writing the wrestling picture, only to be beset by a stinging case of writer's block, which is exacerbated by a lone mosquito with a peculiar taste for his blood, and the strange noises emanating from the room next door, a room inhabited by insurance salesman from Hell named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman, Kong: Skull Island), who invites himself over to make the acquaintance of the writer. 

Fink was hired by studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner, Strange Invaders) under the umbrella of fast-talking producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub, Thir13en Ghosts), the latter of whom Barton confides in that he has no idea how to write a wrestling picture. Geisler takes Barton out to lunch and suggests the writer should partner up with a more experienced studio writer, when Barton ask where to find one Shalhoub nails the best line in the whole film, "Jesus, throw a rock in here, you'll hit one... and do me a favor, Fink, throw it hard!". Later that day Fink encounters famed Southern novelist W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, Say Anything...) in the bathroom, and asks him to mentor him, which results in a picnic at the park with the writer and his intimate secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis, The Ref). The picnic ends unceremoniously with Mayhew wandering off drunk and belligerent, after having struck his secretary. 

Back at his hotel and still unable to write a damn thing Barton obsesses over the peeling wallpaper in his room, the extreme L.A. heat seemingly liquifying the adhesive which trickles down the wall looking quite a bit like seminal fluid. Desperate for help Barton reaches out to Mayhew's secretary Audrey, she reluctantly visits Barton at his hotel room and the pair end up having sex and do not do much writing. Waking the next morning Barton sees the mosquito has landed on a sleeping Audrey's back, and he slaps at it with a fair amount of force. Surprisingly the slap doesn't disturb her in the least, with Fink realizing that she is laying in a pool of her own blood, having been violently murdered while he slept. 

Fearing a murderer charge from the cops he seeks the help of Charlie the salesman next door, who a little too readily agrees to dispose of the body for Barton. Seemingly off the hook for the murder Barton psychologically begins unravel, even more than he already has, his skin discolored with insomnia and still unable to write, with his screenplay deadline fast approaching things begin to spin wildly out of control.

When I first saw Barton Fink as a teenager I was ill-prepared to properly absorb the movie, but I was still enthralled by it just the same, the tone and imagery was unsettling, and I loved that. This is the most David Lunch-ian of the Coen's films to me, it has a serious head-trip vibe as the somewhat self-absorbed screenwriter struggles with the angst of life in Tinsel Town. The hotel he is staying at has a weird The Shining vibe by way of Repulsion (1965), and Turturo's Barton Fink has a unusual hair-do that brought to mind Jack Nance in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). Much the way that Eraserhead is seemingly a meditation about the fears of fatherhood, this flick is a dark and surreal meditation on writer's block and the tribulations of navigating the nine circles of Hollywood Hell.  

I am not certain but the story seems to me to be taking place in the cracked brain pan of the writer, there are weird little touches that give it the feel of non-reality, which starts when Barton first enters the hotel and rings the desk bell, the ringing of the bell sustains for an abnormally long time, it's just a weird little touch. The peeling of the wall paper seems to be harkening back to the cracked wall / fractured psyche of Polanski's Repulsion, and the way the camera floats down the drain of a sink definitely brought to mind the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead. I wouldn't say there was a body-horror element but the visual aesthetic of the film smacked of Cronenberg's take on Naked Lunch (1991), which also happened to feature Judy Davis. 

Turturro is fantastic and the writer who purports to want to write about the life of common man, but when Goodman's insurance salesman offers to tell him stories about his everyman life the writer continually cuts him off with empty platitudes about how he understands his plight. At one point Goodman's character disappears for a bit but returns with a vengeance during the intense climax of the film, armed with a shotgun Charlie storms the flaming hallway of the hotel in an apocalyptic scenario that to me cemented the theater of the mind elements, but this is a film I could watch ten more times and probably interpret ten different ways, which is what I love about. 

Audio/Video: Barton Fink (1991) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment in 1080p HD framed in 1.85:1 widescreen. This appears to be a dated HD master and a problematic one at that. There is rampant artifacting, black crush, and mosquito noise, all of which are most noticeable during the darker sequences, but are persistent throughout. 
This is further complicated by clumpy looking grain structure of an older HD master. Fine details improbably come through the digitized mire by way of the hotel interiors, facial close-ups, and clothing textures, but the digitization is unsightly. I am thinking this is some sort of authoring issue with the disc, even the Umbrella Entertainment and Universal Pictures logos that preceded the main feature were affected banding, digitization and other artifacting.

Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles. Dialogue sound great, as do the score from Carter Burwell (Blood Simple) and the sound design, which is integral to the mood and atmosphere of the claustrophobic film. 

There are no extras whatsoever on the disc, not even a start-up menu, it goes right into the film from the get-go. The single-disc release arrives in an oversized Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork featuring the original movie poster on both sides, with one option omitting the unsightly rating logo. The disc itself features an image of Barton Fink with a mosquito on his head. 

Special Features:
- None 

Barton Fink (1991) is still one of my favorite films from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, and one of my favorite film about Hollywood period. It has been somewhat overlooked or forgotten for whatever reason, but it is worth re-discovering. I do wish the Umbrella Blu-ray was technically stronger, better authored, and featured any extras whatsoever, but it's not, so I love the film this particular release of it is disappointing. 

Screenshots from the Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray: