The fourth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
John Torturro, one of the Coens most frequent players, gets his most front-and-center role with Barton Fink, the tale of a New York playwright who, upon gaining some notoriety for his work, is whisked to Hollywood to “write for the pictures.” As he wrestles with his own understanding of his writing and its purpose, and a severe case of writer’s block, the world around him begins to devolve into madness, and drags him down with it. Fink can’t help but center himself in the midst of every situation, even while he purports to be creating a form of theatre that celebrates ordinary humans.
Fink’s self-importance in his quest to “elevate the common man” is reminiscent of the way so many white liberals (myself among them) perform social justice, activism, and woke-ness for our own sake – whether it is self-congratulations or self-flogging, our own selves at the center betray the ways we often need to confess doing the right things for the wrong reasons. If Lent is a time of introspection and confession, we may start to look past the surface level “wrong” we do and start questioning the way we go about doing right, or how we posture ourselves within right-ness.
It reminds me of when evangelical youth groups first heard about lent and it quickly became a phenomenon of white evangelical youth culture. Who would give up the most audacious thing? Who would actually make it the full 40 days? Even if we’re allowed to break lent on Sundays, wouldn’t it be MORE of a sacrifice if you didn’t? The idea of lent as self-examination and confession was immediately lost in the youth group subculture that ultimately saw “holiness” as a vehicle for shame, and encouraged competition to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Barton Fink devolves into the fever dream of an unraveling man who has elevated his own aspirations, disguised as a noble quest, beyond his own capacity to manage. It is a vision of the dark side of creativity, the blindness of ambition, and the curse of talent without self-awareness. It might be too much to call this a “cautionary tale,” but it is at least an exploration of the same lost-ness that Lent can help us acknowledge and maybe, just maybe, overcome.