The arthouse essential:
Barton Fink – Rent or buy on Apple TV+
Winner of the best actor, best director and Palme D’Or at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, the Coen Brothers’ dark, nightmarish and distinctively creepy film is one of cinema’s truly remarkable achievements and certainly the best film ever made about writer’s block.
John Turturro plays the titular protagonist, a young, idealistic, left-leaning 1940s New York playwright who after some success in the world of social-issues-driven theatre finds himself, on the advice of his agent but against his better judgement, lured to Hollywood under contract to eccentric mogul Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). Lipnick is eager that his new employee apply some of his “Barton Fink magic,” to a by-the-numbers Wallace-Beery-starring wrestling B-movie.
Installed in a filthy rundown Hollywood hotel room, Barton begins to get down to adding some of his idealistic, leftwing sensibility to a predictable film that doesn’t quite promise much beyond the paycheck to the development of his career. As the cheap wallpaper peels and the sounds of his fellow residents intrude increasingly unbearably through the walls, Barton develops a mammoth case of writer’s block and his grasp on reality quickly begins to slip.
With only the good ol’ boy homely wisdom of his seemingly innocuous travelling salesman neighbour (John Goodman) and his unhealthy obsession for a legendary drunken writer’s secretary (Judy Davis) to help him navigate the nasty dark recesses of his steadily more wide-eyed and terrifying mental breakdown, there’s little hope that anything of the “Barton Fink magic,” or Barton Fink himself will be left if he makes it out of this sweltering hellhole alive.
A masterfully controlled Coenesque mix of psychological drama and screwball satire that holds you tight through all the twists and turns of its madcap gear changes, it’s a potent reminder of the genius of one of recent film history’s most visionary and singularly surreal partnerships. With the recent announcement that Joel Coen’s Macbeth will mark the first time that the brothers have not worked together on a project, igniting panicked rumours that the Coens symbiotic sibling partnership is at an end, this film provides all the evidence you need to hope that it’s just not true.
The stone-cold classic:
The Lost Weekend – Buy or Rent from Amazon.com
Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Charles R Jackson’s bestselling novel about a struggling wannabe writer whose life is decimated by alcoholism, won four Oscars in 1946 and was punted for its shocking examination of the realities of life lived in slavery to drink. It follows the four day “lost weekend” of the title for protagonist Don Birnam, whose well intentioned plans to go cold turkey, banish his demons and set about writing his novel are all quickly trashed by the unrelenting and seeming invincible demands of his addiction.
What follows is a still remarkable, refreshingly grim and unvarnished portrait of one man’s battle against the bottle in the face of an indifferent society that refuses to acknowledge that his addiction is a sickness, and a portrait of New York that’s pioneering for its time in its grit, grime and refusal to glamourise the legendary city.
Wilder made several innovative camerawork interventions to communicate Birnam’s inner turmoil, most famously in a still-powerfully hallucinatory sequence involving a mouse that has been attacked by bats. Milliband won a best actor Oscar for his empathetic portrayal of a man who has lost so much more than a few days to the evils of booze and is trying as best he can to genuinely fight them all alone.
It’s let down a little by a slightly too convenient sentimental conclusion but overall it’s still a powerful social drama whose themes are as relevant today as they ever were.