That Barton Fink Feeling
June 3, 2016 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Can someone help me thematically tie together a bunch of elements in Barton Fink relating to Jewishness?

Just to start off: you can assume I've read a lot of pieces about this movie and also I'm relatively familiar with the era of Hollywood it takes place in. But I'm just having trouble tying the, for the lack of a better term, Jewish elements in this film together in a way that makes sense. I am totally open to the idea that maybe that's not possible (I mean it is a Coen Bros. movie about writer's block.) But anyway, there's a bunch of times that Jewishness pops up in the movie in a way that isn't often obivous interrelated.

-Bare Ruined Choirs is a pastiche of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing, about a working-class Jewish family
-Lipnick repeatedly refers to numerous people (inc. himself and Barton) as "kikes"
-The rows of unattended shoes in the hotel calling back to the Holocaust
-The Italian- and German-named detectives hunting Mundt & explicitly using the word "integrated" to refer to the hotel Barton was staying in
-Mundt's "Heil Hitler" (this is the one that I really have a hard time figuring out and initially my question was just "please explain this one line")
-Lipnick "going to war" in a movie prop costume when just previously, WW2 (and, inherently, the Holocaust) was a conspicuous absence and a bunch of Hollywood (inc. many Jews) were exporting films to Nazi Germany and e.g. removing Jewish names from the credits

I'm sure this isn't everything but what I'm looking for is a through-line if you will through all this stuff that ties it into the rest of the film's themes (artistry, pretension, selling out, etc.)
posted by griphus to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In addition to the historical reality of Jews going to Hollywood...Really its the emotional undercurrent -- the trope about the Jews of that era 's ambivalent anxiety about being an American success. Mid-century literature by male Jewish American authors like Philip Roth dwelled on this. Feeling like you could be kicked out of the assimilated world at any moment, the unspoken vigilance against sudden displacement -- all create a cultural imposter syndrome. And at the same time, the resentment that a feeling of required assimilation inevitably breeds... This ambivalent paralysis of this emotional/cultural/masculine 20th C. Jewish trope is perfectly expressed in the image of writer's block, and the bead of sweat dripping down the face in the fear of both failure and success.
posted by flourpot at 9:29 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I would say that the air of unrelenting unease bordering on dread also counts.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:20 AM on June 3, 2016

I love Barton Fink and the climactic scene with Mundt in the hallway is certainly epic, but I've always felt like the heil Hitler part is a bit egregious and pretty jarring with the rest of the film.

I mean, sure there are some instances and allusions to anti-Semitism throughout the film (as you illustrate), but there's nothing about Mundt that indicates particularly anti-Semitic sentiments until that point. I don't know if they just got to that point and decided that they needed something really dramatic for Mundt to say and that's what they came up with or if there is some deeper meaning behind it, but it certainly feels out of place.
posted by Fister Roboto at 10:59 AM on June 3, 2016

Response by poster: I mean Mundt's "Heil Hitler" has to be ironic (or in some way non-genuine) considering he is executing a man who is both explicitly ("integrated") and implicitly (German/Italian names) anti-Semtitic in order to rescue a Jew. I just don't really grasp what he's conveying with it.
posted by griphus at 11:22 AM on June 3, 2016

If anything, I think it's telling us that we shouldn't see Mundt's actions as "rescuing a Jew from an anti-Semite" (however problematically), but as the intrusion of an altogether different order of terrifying, absolute evil -- not the garden-variety antisemitism of the detectives, but a satanic, metaphysical evil.

Barton's relationship with Charlie Meadows always had uneasy foundations -- the initial unwelcome intrusiveness, the awkwardness of their attempts to relate to each other, the homoerotic overtones, the complicity in covering up murder -- but it also seemed to offer the possibility of real friendship and solidarity. To me, it's the "Heil Hitler" line that absolutely forecloses that possibility. Even the fact that the line is a non-sequitur marks Mundt as something alien, something impossible to relate to. Jewishness seems to function as a thing that separates Barton from "the common man" (Charlie/Mundt, the anti-Semitic detectives); in that sense, Mundt's "Heil Hitler" is the climax of the threat of rejection that's always lurking beneath Barton's relationships to other people.

It's also interesting that the two other obviously Jewish characters, Lipnick and Geisler, are the ones pushing Barton to sell out artistically. I'm not quite sure what to make of that. Maybe the idea there is that Barton can't even find solace or wholeness in his Jewish identity?
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:21 PM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

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