(1991) [second viewing]
(Spoilers and mucho incoherence herein; abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
The "life of the mind" has rarely been as bizarre, compelling or terrifying as it is in this time bomb of a film from the Coen Brothers. Thematic material is in abundance here, but I think a proper look at this film must be predicated by realizing what kind of film it is -- boiled down to its essence, this is an off-kilter and deeply disturbing horror film, with self-involvement as the monster. This may be why this film, more than any other, gets the Coens accused of substanceless, misanthropic navel-gazing -- that's one of the many things that the film is about. The title character is a self-important hack who claims to speak for the common man and longs for a theater that can connect with everyone. But what is his great sin? As John Goodman tells him, "You don't listen." Don't confuse the message with the messenger... one of the film's great, subtle jokes is that in a film obsessed with writing and creation, the only person in the film who actually can and does write good work is Audrey, who's also the only character who realizes that, as she says, "understanding requires empathy". And when Barton finally starts writing, spurred by the object in the box, the final product not only comes out as a rehash of Bare Ruined Choirs
(note the last line of Barton's screenplay) but is dismissed as worthless and unusable. So are the Coens telling us that in order to create art one must care and that they, by extension, are really swell and caring guys? Possibly. And what's in that box, anyway? I have my idea, of course, and it ties in with the film's allusions towards the truth about Charlie Meadows and the Hotel Earle. Damn... there's so much in the film that could be fodder for discussion. I haven't even noted the brilliant technical aspects on display like the awesome overhead shot of Barton thinking in his chair or the unsettling sound mix (this is possibly the most aurally disquieting film I've seen since Polanski's The Tenant
)... or the genius-level acting on display in virtually every role, with special note going to John Goodman who's totally fucking perfect... or the pitch-perfect dialogue, especially the great timing used with the two cops' lines... or the insinuations that large portions of the story may be just a dream. Hell, I haven't even really gotten into the idea of the life of the mind and how it relates to this film and where it's going and what it's trying to say. I still haven't seen all of the Coen Brothers' films, but I can't imagine that they've made a better film than this. In fact, I find it hard to imagine that most people have made a film better than this. It's one of the closest things to a perfect film I've yet seen. I need to buy this movie.