Transient or Resident?
As he is guided by Virgil through the first several circles of the Inferno, Dante suffers from occasional fainting spells. The grisly, unwholesome sights of various torments, and the frightful denizens of the place, stress him so much that he is wont to swoon and stumble. He eventually becomes more accustomed to it, but his reactions always seem over-the-top, as it is clear that he is never really in danger of becoming a permanent resident in Hell. His trip was ordained by Heaven. He is on a fact-finding mission. We know that everything will work out for him in the end: the third and final act of the Divine Comedy is the Paradiso, after all.
In contrast, we don’t know what ever really becomes of another Dante-like character at the heart of a similar tale – a cinematic odyssey through a different kind of Hell, Barton Fink (1991). This terribly underappreciated film from the peerless Coen brothers, more than any other in their wide-ranging canon, is one that rewards multiple viewings, leaves nagging, tantalizing questions for the viewer to contemplate long after, and is rich with interpretation possibilities. It is also a hilarious dark comedy with fine performances from John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis, among others. That there are subtle parallels to David Lynch’s Eraserhead is just the first of many clues that there are multiple levels of meaning to the story.
Like Dante, Barton Fink is a writer. In the early 1940s, having won overnight acclaim for one of his plays on Broadway, his agent persuades him to take a screen-writing assignment and journey to the antipodal point furthest from his high-brow New York world: the Hollywood of B-movies. At face value, it seems to be the perfect assignment, for Barton, growing up on the Lower East Side, considers himself a champion of the Common Man: an artist that will paint on the largest possible canvas the hopes and dreams of the everyday, average American. And where better to do so but the burgeoning new home to a new industry that can bring Art to Everyone, not just the few that frequent the theater districts?
But Barton has a lot to learn about the Common Man, and about himself, and it becomes clear early on that these lessons will come as he embarks on a descending trek into a virtual Hell. He is going through Hell because he is too self-absorbed to realize that the understands as little about the Common Man as do the Lady Higgenbottoms and Nigel Grinch-Gibbonses of the world, and as a result develops the worst possible case of writer’s block. His attempts patronize the rabble fall flat, and his desire to “elevate” their concerns elicits resentment and confusion. The unwashed masses want to be entertained by men in tights wrestling with each other, it turns out – not a man wrestling with his soul.
Dante had Virgil, his literary hero and inspiration, to guide him on his famous trek. The equivalent role in Barton Fink is shared by two different characters: The everyman, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, who represents the ostensible kind of role-model that Fink celebrates, and the washed-up alcoholic novelist-turned screenwriter William Mayhew (who is an avatar of William Faulkner) that he considers to be the finest writer of his generation. Mayhew has preceded Fink in the attempt to use his formidable literary skills to cash in at the cinema box office. But his predilection for “idiot man-child” characters, among others, has made him as poor a fit in Hollywood as Barton is, and he responds to his failure with drinking. Meadows, the non-intellectual doppelganger to Fink and Mayhew, not only uses liquor as an escape, but has another hobby which I will not give away here.
If Meadows and Mayhew function as a composite Virgil, then most the remaining cast can all be seen to have allegorical connections to the various denizens of Dante’s Hell. There’s The Lovers, Paulo and Francesca, in the room next to him at the Hotel Earle, the lustful couple never seen but often heard moaning. There’s a number of sinners that Dante would categorize as The Violent, from the wrestler (“I will destroy him!”) to fist-fighting servicemen at a dance. There’s the Incontinent in the form of Mayhew (“sorry about the odor”) and his secretary, the strange, heavenly painting of his dream woman (Beatrice) that ever haunts Fink, and the imps and devils that appear as bellhops and cops. He is prodded and poked by a demonic mosquito that inexplicably inhabits his bizarre room. There’s Satan himself, the movie mogul behind the huge desk. There are tantalizing biblical references and dramatic visual clues that suggest the structure of the Inferno, such as when the camera takes us plunging down into filthy sink drain, or down into the dark depths of the funnel-shaped bell of a trumpet.
Is it real or just a fantasy? One memorable image is the wallpaper that adorns Barton’s prison-like hotel room. It often comes peeling off the walls with a slick, clammy sound. On a repeat viewing I realized that the film’s opening credits appear against a backdrop of this wallpaper, including the text that indicates the scene is set in New York City. The wallpaper is in New York, not the Hollywood hotel. It is a subtle pointer that the entire experience is probably all in Barton’s head, a head that is utterly inward looking and wrapped up with The Life of The Mind. And once he’s reached the depths of Hell, and the walls of his hotel literally erupt into flames, Charlie Meadows, aka Common Man, tells him, “You think your life is Hell? You’re just a tourist. I live here.”
And that is all Dante was. A tourist. And like Barton, he was probably too self-absorbed and privileged, to realize that Hell existed all around him on earth, in the lives of the average person mired in a world of superstition and ignorance.