Cinematic Soulmates: Naked Lunch and Barton Fink
Writing about a pair of films that examine the terror of writing on the eve of the death of one of your writing heroes is a surreal experience, but that is what I am experiencing right now. I hope this doesn’t sound crass, but this one is for Roger Ebert (1943-2013). While I didn’t always agree with him, I nearly always found his reviews to be consistently insightful and engaging. Ebert taught me and countless other film geeks to look at and think about film in a deeper and much more thoughtful way, and for that, I will always be grateful. As my friend Steve Buja said on Facebook, “Roger Ebert was the man who brought film criticism down from its ivory towers and taught me that thinking about movies does not diminish the experience. It enhances it.” That sentiment pretty much sums up my feelings about man who deserves his reputation as one of the best, most outspoken film lovers of all time, and I, for one, am going to miss reading his thoughts every time a new movie comes out.
For some people, the act of writing is one of the most terrifying things imaginable. The thought of sitting there in front of a computer or typewriter, trying to figure out just where to begin as a blank page or word document stares back accusingly is a profoundly horrifying thing. Unfortunately, it’s also not very cinematic. Many films have tried to capture the existential dread of writing, and they have failed because the director didn’t understand how to make the image of a person sitting in front of a typewriter or computer compelling in any way. However, every now and then, a film comes along that really understands how to convey the sense of fear that is attached to writing. In 1991, two films captured the terror of writing, and while David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and the Coen Bros. Barton Fink may appear to be radically different on the surface, but a closer examination reveals that they are actually linked by a number of thematic and stylistic strands that run through both films.
Directed by David Cronenberg, the master of body horror, Naked Lunch is a loose adaptation of the classic novel by William S. Burroughs. It’s a difficult film to summarize, but I’ll give it my best shot. Weaving incidents from Burroughs’s life with routines taken directly from the book, the film tells the story of Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a gaunt, existential exterminator who spends his days battling hordes of cockroaches, and his nights discussing the act of writing with Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell), a couple of beats who serve as stand-ins for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac respectively. Bill is married to Joan (Judy Davis), a sexually adventurous woman who enjoys nothing more than experimenting with new drugs. Her latest obsession is Bill’s bug powder, which she shoots up like heroin. She convinces Bill to give it a try, and in a drug-fueled haze, the pair decide that it’s time for their “William Tell routine,” in which Bill will shoot an apple off of Joan’s head. The scene that recalls the real life death of Burroughs’s own wife, as Bill shoots Joan in the head, and then goes on the run. In the film, Bill flees to a strange land called Interzone, where he is convinced that he is an agent of a mysterious organization tasked with defending Earth from giant caterpillars that have taken the form of women. Bill is tasked with keeping tabs on an organization run by the enigmatic Dr. Benway, and submitting reports which are in actuality segments from the novel Naked Lunch. Bill embraces his role as a gumshoe, and it is during his investigation into the illegal Black Meat trade that he runs into the effete writer Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his sickly wife, Joan (Judy Davis), who is a dead ringer for Lee’s deceased wife. As Bill becomes increasingly fixated on his wife’s doppelganger, the fantasy he has constructed begins to overwhelm his reality, and it soon threatens to destroy Bill’s psyche once and for all.
On the other side of the coin is Barton Fink, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and written while they were taking a break from working on the script to Miller’s Crossing. In the film, John Turturro plays the titular character, an earnest but totally naïve playwright with a hairdo straight out of Eraserhead (1977). As the film opens, Barton Fink is celebrating the opening of his first Broadway show, a solemn meditation on issues that concern “the common man.” Fink’s agent informs him that Hollywood has finally taken notice of him, and that Barton has been hired by Capitol Pictures to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Barton is reluctant to go to Hollywood, afraid that his writing will suffer if he is removed from “the common man,” but the exorbitant paycheck proves to be an effective motivator. When Barton arrives in L.A., he meets the boisterous and often oblivious Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), head of Capitol Pictures and a snide jab at the real life powers-that-be in Hollywood. After his first meeting at Capitol, Barton heads to his hotel, only to discover that his room is a run-down hell hole with peeling wallpaper and infestation of mosquitoes. Furthermore, the walls are paper thin, and Barton can hear everything going on in the rooms on either side of his, all of which serves as just another distraction from writing. After an initial misunderstanding, Barton makes the acquaintance of his neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a common man not unlike those Barton writes about. However, Barton ignores Charlie for the most part, and instead chooses to associate with a fellow writer named William Preston Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his secretary/lover, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). However, Barton is unable to make a connection with any of the characters he has surrounded himself with. Now, plagued by crippling loneliness and a devastating bout of writer’s block, Barton is unable to even start writing, and as his deadline looms, his life begins to spiral out of control.
On the surface, the films seem quite different. One is a drug-fueled nightmare, while the other is a quirky, self-referential comedy about that crazy land known as Hollywood. However, both films explore the fear that grips writers the world over. While Barton Fink finds that he will use any excuse to keep from writing, Bill Lee retreats into a haze of drugs in order to simply get some words on the page. This is because both men are gripped by a crippling loneliness, and they want nothing more than to connect with another person. This is highly indicative of the act of writing, a solitary pursuit that often isolates the author from friends and family. At the same time, though, most writers simply want to reach out to others and make a connection, which is why they are writing in the first place. They want to use their words as a way to breach the gulf between themselves and other people. Bill Lee and Barton Fink exemplify both sides of this strange dichotomy, and represent the profound terror that is unique to being a writer; they fear the loneliness that comes with being a writer, but are unable to connect with the people around them. Whether it is due addiction or their own pretensions, both men find themselves trapped within their own loneliness, and it is a loneliness that is so powerful that not even the act of writing will free them. Instead, they turn to drugs and a futile attempt to surround themselves with like-minded people as a way of dealing with the loneliness and the fear of the blank page. Unfortunately, this only leaves them feeling even more outcast, and they continue to spiral deeper and deeper into depression.
Another thing that unites the two movies is Judy Davis, who plays the doomed muse to a tortured artist in each film. In both films, Davis plays a woman who sort of inspires the protagonist, but she is also a powerfully damaged figure that contributes to the ultimate downfall of both Bill Lee and Barton Fink. In Naked Lunch, Davis plays a woman who is destined to die over and over, first in real life, and then repeatedly in the tortured psyche of the man who accidentally killed her. She sets Bill Lee on his journey to writing his most famous book, but at the same time, she is responsible for trapping him in Interzone, which represents his own personal hell. Similarly, in Barton Fink, she plays the woman responsible for revitalizing the main character’s creativity. At the same time, however, she is also responsible for sending him retreating into madness, and inadvertently causes his Hollywood career to be flushed down the toilet. Thus, in both films, Davis serves as a pale, wounded, tragically beautiful figure that has a both a positive and negative effect on the lives of the lead characters. In many ways, she is a manifestation of the fears that plague writers, representing both their wildest dreams and their darkest nightmares.
Finally, the protagonists in both films find themselves trapped in their own personal hells. In Barton Fink, the eponymous character spends most of the film confined to his run-down hotel room, which is eventually engulfed in flames during the film’s apocalyptic climax. In some ways, he is trapped by his own avarice, sacrificing his ideals in the name of a quick buck. This is why he is tortured by the myriad distractions brought on by the room, and why he is unable to write even the first word of his first screenplay. Similarly, in Naked Lunch, Bill Lee finds himself trapped in Interzone, a drug-induced hallucination that allows him to retreat from reality, but also keeps him from forging any sort of meaningful connection with other people. For Bill, it is loneliness that torments him, and why the nightmarish land of Interzone doubles as purgatory for him.
Writing is a lonely pursuit, but for many people it is a rewarding one. However, even for those who find great success at it, writing can often be a torturous pursuit, especially when they are sitting in front of a blank screen or page with a deadline hanging over their head. Many films have tried to capture this sort of existential horror, but few have done it better than Barton Fink and Naked Lunch. Along with some thematic similarities and the presence of Judy Davis as the damned muse in both films, this understanding of the horror of writing is what places both films firmly within the realm of cinematic soulmates.