I was riding up the elevator at the Jane Hotel in New York and remarked to the elevator bellhop guy that I was looking forward to the hallways breaking into flames. He looked concerned and expressed his wish that such an event wouldn’t happen. I realized that he hadn’t seen the movie and that it might be a good idea to come back (to the hotel) and screen the Coen Brother’s Barton Fink and brief the staff more thoroughly on the cinematic antecedents of their current abode. The hallways and rooms all exude that Barton Fink feeling. I laughed when I saw the inscription on the hotel’s business cards, “Check in for a day, stay for a lifetime.” The same inscription as appears on the stationary in Barton’s room. Everyone is dressed in the red caps and uniforms, and I swear I saw someone disappear down a trap door behind the vintage reception desk. My lecture would be based on Joseph Campbell’s ideas on the mythological journey, and a paradigm I’ve applied to hundreds of films. So, this is for The Jane, and happy to discuss further at your new Café Gitane, next time I come to stay. (Shoes lining the hallways might be a nice touch.)
Barton Fink starts in the Ordinary World where the character and the situation are defined. Problems and conflicts are already waiting to be activated. What is at stake that commands our attention? We first meet Barton Fink backstage at the premiere of his play. He acts superior and cynical of his own success. We hear the electric winch as the curtain descends and we move to a tony New York restaurant where sycophants toast the “triumph of the common man.”
The next stage is the Call to Adventure. The hero must set out on a quest to save the tribe. The call may be conscious or unconscious but is significant and demands a response. A pager summons Fink to the bar where his agent tells him of an offer to write scripts in Hollywood. He is reluctant but his agent reminds him: The common man will still be here when you get back.
This leads to a Refusal of the Call, which is predicated by our fear of change. It’s difficult to exchange the known for the unknown. There is a danger involved that forces the hero to overcome their fear and violate the limits of their knowledge. The first stage of transcendence that may lead to cosmic wisdom. In Fink’s case he arrives at the Earle Hotel in Hollywood. He externally accepts the call but his internal struggles will soon rise to the surface. In the classic myth a Mentor usually appears at this point of departure to guide the hero in their search. This muse may be in the form of a person or it can be an inner voice. Ludnick, the Capitol Pictures executive, initiates Fink into the world of writing wrestling pictures and thanks him “for his heart.” Other mentors, mostly of the ‘fallen’ variety, in the form of Charlie Meadows and W.P. Mayhew, are soon to arrive.
Stage Five is the Crossing of the First Threshold. What Campbell refers to as, “The entrance to the zone of magnified Power.” The die has been cast. There is no turning back as the hero enters the terra incognito. This descent into the depths of the psyche is played out as Fink sits in his hotel room and wrestles with ‘the life of the mind.’ Meadows tells him three times he is the common man and has stories to tell. Fink doesn’t listen. He is indoctrinated into the madness of Hollywood, and his own psyche as represented by the people he meets.
This period of initiation is described by Campbell as “the perilous journey into the darkness by descending either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, the hero soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures.” The endless corridors, peeling wallpaper, oppressive heat, shoes in the hallway, strange noises and visitations make up the “dream landscape of curiously ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials”, that Campbell describes. This is the sixth stage and the midpoint of the death and rebirth transformation Fink has embarked upon. Will he survive or has he already sold his soul?
The Approach to the Inmost Cave is the next step. This is a stage of preparation wherein the hero gets ready to confront the demons and the darkness. Fink will turn to the Goddess in the form of Audrey, Mayhew’s secretary. She agrees to help him write the simple morality play the studio is paying him for. It’s with her he loses his innocence as he finds out she has written Mayhew’s books. She seduces him, and he discovers her murdered body next to him in his hotel bed the following morning.
Stage Eight, The Supreme Ordeal. The death of the ego. The hero confronts their greatest fears and is literally or metaphorically reborn. Fink has crossed the border and can never return to his former self. At this point we know Fink’s journey is unlikely to result in redemption. There is a negative and positive side to every archetype, and Fink now turns to his neighbour, Charlie Meadows, aka serial killer, Mad Man Munt, to help him destroy the evidence. The next stage is Reward-Seizing the Sword, wherein the hero experiences a wider consciousness, a sharpened perception of the essence of things. In the positive journey it is distinguished by a gift that symbolizes a realization of divinity, an elixir that provides knowledge, enlightenment, insight, and self-realization. In Fink’s case, he receives a packaged box from Charlie who tells him it contains his life possessions.
Stage Ten, The Road Back. The need to escape from the lower depths of the psyche, which is purely a symbolic world, and re-establish themselves in the known world with their newfound wisdom. Often the hero has to relinquish the vestiges of their former self before the journey is successfully completed. Fink suddenly begins to write and the mysterious box that sits on his hotel desk appears to be the source of inspiration. He also has to deal with the detectives who are investigating Audrey’s disappearance and who reveal Charlie’s true identity.
The road back inevitably leads to the eleventh stage, Resurrection. The final confrontation with the dark forces that threaten the stability of the newly formed self: the shadow. If the hero loses the battle, traditional to the tragic plot, then the resurrection happens through the catharsis experienced by the audience who recognize themselves in the hero’s failure.
“I’ll show you the life of the mind”, Charlie hollers as he marches down the Earle Hotel’s hallway that has erupted into flames. He has emerged from Fink’s psyche to show him the true mind of the common man and the hell contained within. Whether it is the fascism in Hollywood, or Europe, as people get ready for war. Fink’s illusions are now shattered and his pact with the devil is finally realized.
The journey is completed with The Return with the Elixir. The immediate circle of death and rebirth is closed and a new journey will begin. At the end, Fink has sold his soul, Capitol Pictures owns the contents of his head, and will pay for his silence. He is left on the beach with the box containing the muse’s head. A lost soul condemned to exile in the palace of dreams. Fink bound himself to his own ego and the world destroyed him.
So if you’re in New York, check out the Jane. An original hotel inspired by an original film. And in my experience, I checked in for a lifetime but only stayed a day. Or two. Might have been three.