Once he’s ensconced in that ominous room at the Hotel Earle and charged by an inexplicably fawning studio exec with the task of churning out a script that will deliver “that Barton Fink feeling,” Barton embarks on a process so many writers experience, in miniature, every time we’re on deadline. The obdurate, set-in-stone first paragraph that will yield no further wisdom no matter how long we stare at it (and that, if we had the perspective our readers do, we would realize sounds suspiciously like the last opening we wrote). The importuning neighbor (John Goodman as the jolly yet obscurely menacing Charlie Meadows) who drops by for a friendly nip of hooch and winds up making off with our time, our inspiration and possibly — or so it’s suggested in “Barton Fink’s” violent third-act conflagration — our soul. The bitter acceptance of our own fraudulence, flowing in a continuously alternating current with the grandiloquent conviction that this time, by gum, we’ve broken the whole thing wide open.
There are films about writers — Jane Campion’s luminous Keats biopic “Bright Star” comes to mind — that capture the potential of literature to distill the essence of a human life (it helps when the writer’s words really are sublime, and as well used and understood by the filmmaker as Keats’s are by Campion). But “Barton Fink” is remarkable for just the opposite: its wicked, earthbound honesty about both the sinkhole of authorial self-obsession and the often sub-sublime results of those triumphant typing montages. The movie’s first, more realistic section is separated from its oneiric second half by a spectacular tracking shot that dives down the drain of a hotel sink, symbolizing the hero’s descent into damnation, madness or both. But my first thought every time I see that camera go down the drain is: Well, so much for that deadline.
Lebowski in 60 seconds.
I watched Intolerable Cruelty again recently and really enjoyed it. It’s not considered one of the Coens’ better movies but the acting is sharp and the Coens’ get the screwball down here in a crisp, biting way that was missing from The Hudsucker Proxy (though that movie has its pleasures, too).
Maybe it’s because I think Catherine Zeta-Jones is a fox and because I like George Clooney when he does comedy. Their chemistry works in a way we rarely see in war of sexes movies these days.
Billy Bob Thorton really cracks me up in his small role.
STRONG MEN ALSO CRY, SIR
When I first went to work for the Coen brothers in the fall of 1996, they had already cast Jeff Bridges as “The Dude” for their next movie, “The Big Lebowski.” For the first couple of weeks I was with them, they agonized over who would play “Lebowski.” The trouble was, most of the actors on their wish list were dead: Fredy Gywnne, Raymond Burr, Orson Welles. Ultimately, it came down to two actors, one of whom was British. I thought the Brit was the better choice, but for Joel and Ethan it was important that the actor was American, preferably of the midwest variety.
Thinking back on it, George Steinbrenner would have been an ideal choice. I was reminded of this after reading that Boss George got all choked up in front of a group of stunned reporters after yesterday’s exciting win over the Red Sox. As Lebowski would say, “Strong men also cry.” Veteran New York reporters Bill Madden and Joel Sherman were genuinely surprised at Steinbrenner’s reaction. That is saying something. Jack Curry reports in the Times:
The tears were visible beneath his sunglasses soon after Pride delivered for the second straight game. Steinbrenner depicts himself as a tough guy and a tough owner, a man who has avoided tears after winning some World Series titles. But on this emotional day in an emotional rivalry, when two of his best players wound up at a hospital for X-rays, Steinbrenner turned softer than pudding.
“I’m just proud of the way Mussina pitched,” Steinbrenner said. “You know, I’m getting older. As you get older, you do this more.”
According to Madden:
With a security guard behind him looking on in astonishment, Steinbrenner briefly excused himself from the group of reporters that had surrounded him in the press box as the Yankees were loading the bases against the new Red Sox closer, Byung Hyun Kim, with none out in the ninth. Moments later, as jubilation reigned from the 55,000 fans exiting the Stadium and Sinatra was kicking into “New York, New York,” Steinbrenner came back, still teary-eyed, only this time with a tone of defiance to his voice.
“Did you think Martinez was deliberately throwing at your guys?” he was asked.
“I have no idea what’s going on in his head,” Steinbrenner said, “except that it didn’t look too good to me. Two hitters? One of whom, Soriano, is on his way to the All-Star Game. … If he did deliver a message, he delivered the wrong — message!”
…Of course the Yankees found a way to win by a 2-1 score, and when it was over Niagara Falls took up residence on Steinbrenner’s face. The Boss bawled some serious tears of joy. Seriously. He was really crying. When it comes to this rivalry, there is never any need to make things up. Fact has been kicking Fiction’s butt now for nigh onto nine decades.
Ryan points out how the Red Sox wasted a great opportunity to take the series with Martinez pitching and the Yankees fielding their B (or C?) team.
The journalistic temptation is to get melodramatic when discussing the ceaseless Red Sox fan frustration against the Yankees, but how can you not when you see games like this? Losing this game, and falling back to the same situation the team was in when it arrived here in the wee smalls Friday (i.e. four games behind), on a day when they were playing the junior varsity and your team was suiting up the full varsity is, what? Galling? Humiliating? Exasperating? Oh, God forbid, and worst of all, predictable? Was there a seasoned Red Sox fan out there who didn’t know with 1 trillion percent certainty in his or her heart of hearts that as soon as Giambi’s single tied the game off Martinez that this game was a lost cause and more than likely would end in some messy fashion?
What did we have in the ninth? We had two singles on two-strike pitches, a hit batsman to load the bases with none out, and a botched grounder that had inning-ending 4-2-3 written all over it.
And then we had George opening up the facial faucet.
When the subject matter is the Red Sox and their ongoing battle to slay the big, bad dragon from the Bronx, no mere sportswriter is equal to the task. But Homer is dead, and we are all you’ve got.
Weep on, George. History remains on your side.
The Fan Who Wasn’t There
I worked for Joel and Ethan Coen from the late summer of 1996 through the fall of 1997. I had been working as an apprentice film editor in New York when I went to work for them, first as their personal assistant and later as an editing room assistant on their movie, The Big Lebowski. We were in Manhattan, at their office for the first six weeks; in November we went out to Los Angeles, where Lebowski was shot on location. After the film was in the can, Joel and Ethan returned to New York to cut the film.
In October of 1996, when the Yankees won their first title since 1978, we were still in New York, so the Coen brothers are tied up in my baseball memories. Joel had no interest in the game at all, but Ethan seemed vaguely aware of what was happening. His wife Tricia, who was the co-editor of Lebowski, as well as the script supervisor, was the sports nut. We stood on line outside of the Yankee clubhouse on 5th avenue to try and get World Serious tickets to no avail.
Ethan Coen’s favorite player on the Yankees was Kenny Rogers. “The Gambler” was like some half-wit out of one of their movies: well meaning, but hapless. The worse Rogers performed for the Yankees, the more shit he got from the fans and the media, the more Ethan liked him. We used to call him “Kenny Everyman” cause Kenny kinda looked like he could be just about anybody. A schmuck.
Nowadays, Tricia is in a fantasy league and Ethan likes to play the guitar. (He yodels too; in fact, one of the best parts of hanging out with Eth and Trish was that they turned me onto Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce and George Jones.) I’ve spoken with Trish several times recently about her league, and she’s taken to it like a bee to honey. Ethan and Joel were been busy mixing the sound to their latest movie this spring, a big-budget studio comedy—a romantic comedy—fittingly titled Intolerable Cruelty. (George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones star, and the film will be released in October.)
I finally caught up with Ethan on the phone last week. But first, Tricia and talked some baseball. She was indignant that Torre had been starting Jason Giambi at the DH when he hits better when he plays in the field. Ethan was picking a guitar in the background, noodling around.
“It’s bullshit, man. He’s messing up my fantasy league team,” Tricia told me.
I tried to reason with her but she wasn’t having it, so she passed the phone to her husband, who momentarily stopped playing his axe. Ethan can be a man of few words. It’s not that he doesn’t like talking; it’s just that sometimes he’d rather not be bothered (especially when he’s dicking around on the guitar). Although both Joel and Ethan are definitely Jewish, and definitely New Yorkers, they are definitely not Jewish New Yorkers. There are a lot of meaningful silences; a lot of pregnant pauses that I assume has something to do with growing up in the middle of the country.
Here is an excerpt of our conversation:
Eth: How are ya?
BB: I’m good. Nu?
Eth: I’m good. You know, I don’t have any thoughts on baseball, though. I quit following it.
(Starts playing the guitar again.)
BB: You quit?
(Guitar playing stops.)
BB: Wow. That’s no good. Where did it all go wrong? I mean didn’t you play as a kid?
BB: Did you want to play as a kid?
Eth: I went to games as a kid.
BB: Zolio Versalles.
Eth: Yeah, Zolio. You know. Harmon Killebrew. Rod Carew was with the Twins then. Tony Oliva.
BB: Oliva was good.
BB: Did you like baseball movies as a kid?
BB: Do you like them now?
BB: Has there ever been a good baseball movie?
Eth: Is there? I don’t think so.
BB: Bad News Bears?
Eth: Bad News Bears: Excellent picture! Yeah, yeah. You’re right. But just that one.
BB: Most of them bite. Field of Dreams was painful. The Natural was wack.
BB: You guys would make a good baseball movie.
Eth: I don’t think so. No, you know, Bad News Bears: you’re right. It’s a really good movie.
BB: Well, that was a great interview man.
Eth: You know what you can put down? You can say that I quit being a baseball fan when the Yankees traded Mickey Rivers.
BB: What the hell kind of thing is that to say? What about your boy, Kenny Rogers?
Eth: Is he still playing?
BB: Yeah, he’s still playing. He plays on your hometown godamn team for crying out loud. He’s on the Twins.
Eth: Shit. (Laughs) “Kenny Everyman.”
BB: Mr. Square Jaw himself. Kenny Everyman is as good as he ever was, and he’s even funnier now cause he’s older, and more mulish than ever.
Eth: Yeah, I should see the Twins the days that he pitches.
BB: The best thing that guy ever did on the Yankees was when they had the World Series parade, and after stinking up the joint all year long, he was up on top of the float hooping and hollering louder than anyone.
Eth: Yeah, he was waving a flag. Pleased as punch. with pride. (Laughs) That’s really funny. That’s good.
BB: Mick the Quick, huh?
Eth: Yeah, I quit being a fan when the Yankees traded him.
Well, there you have it: Ethan Coen is not a baseball fan. But that doesn’t prevent him from making good movies, or giving one hell of an interview.
Hope everyone has a great Memorial Day Holiday.
P.S. Joel and Ethan left for Los Angeles last week to begin their next show–a remake of the old Alec Guiness comedy The Lady Killers. It’ll star Tom Hanks, and according to Joel, “you know, well, a whole lot of other people.”