Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061




Barton Fink and the Vicissitudes of Writing for Film


The Coen brothers' 1991 film Barton Fink thematizes the problematic relationship between writing literature and envisioning film. The film first presents three different relationships to writing via three main characters. Up and coming Barton Fink must write from the conflicted position of inner pain regarding one's place in the class stratified world; for him, writing is an existential and socialist necessity. By contrast, Fink's idol, W. P. Mayhew, author of the great dream interpretation tome Nebuchadnezzer but now an alcoholic and falling star who can no longer write a word, wants to write in order to achieve inner peace; for him, writing is a matter of psychological nullification. And finally, Fink's boss, Jack Lipnick, president of Capital Pictures, does not write himself but organizes a stable of writers to produce mass-market spectacle and showmanship; for him, writing generates neither pain nor peace, not prophet but profit. When the film industry, as represented by the figure of Lipnick, first collides with the individual's dream, as represented by Mayhew, the psychological damage is catastrophic: Mayhew develops writer's block, alcoholism, and a penchant for violence, abusing his lover into ghost-writing. The violence is magnified upon the second collision: Fink's resultant writer's block upon wrestling with a wrestling script amplifies his inner pain until it splits off from him and becomes a "film" unto itself with the hallucinatory image of Charlie Meadows, aka Madman Mundt, who, is the split-personality embodiment of Fink's psychotic anxieties that fuel his inner pain. Just as Fink's anxieties reappear in the real as a violent hallucination that makes love to and kills his new muse (who, ironically, is Mayhew's ghost-writer), the film itself becomes a surreal descent through the looking glass until it climaxes in the Fink's/Meadows' ultra-violent rampage: "I'll show you the life of the mind." Film writes our psychotic anxieties large on the screen. Film—as primary conflicts and primal images—opens up an hallucinatory and imaginary, if unconsciously psychotic, space that the literature of conscious reflection, of secondary process thought and of words, traverses but ultimately represses with dream interpretation for Mayhew and socialist ideology for Fink. Filmic vision supersedes literary vision. Barton Fink may have writer's block, but the Coen's filmic imagery in Barton Fink is revelatory and apocalyptic.


This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Barton Fink and the Vicissitudes of Writing for Film," 20th Century Literature & Culture Conference, Louisville, KY, February 25, 2005.