Barton Fink,
and a few more films

#227  [archive]
NOV. 30, 2023
The Balcony (1963)
Streaming free

This is based on a play by Jean Genet, and never lets you forget it's a play. That might be a good thing, though. Can't afford to go to a play, so tonight the play came to me.

In an unnamed nation, there's revolution in the streets, but the play is set mostly in an enormous bordello run by Shelley Winters. Her lover, perhaps ex, is Chief of Police Peter Falk, who's maneuvering to rule the nation, while in a smaller role, Leonard Nimoy is a revolutionary who wants Falk's job, and the respect that comes with it.

The play's characters are pretending at authority derived mainly from their uniforms — the military officer, the judge, the gasman pretending to be a bishop, and of course all the hookers. Stripped of the outfits they're mere actors on a stage, and the stage is actually a whorehouse. It's all an illusion, which is the point.

This is one of those intentionally overwritten and overacted plays (Barton Fink could've written it) that makes its points satirically and surreally. It's good at it, though, sometimes quite entertaining and thoughtful, other times just nutty. 

My favorite bits are the courtroom scene where the judge ends up groveling before Ruby Dee; the granting of full amnesties to a morgue full of revolutionary corpses; and Falk's ridiculous speech to the nation, delivered from the rafters above the brothel.

The movie of the play starts slowly, gets better, and builds to a terrific ending. It's worth an hour and a half of your life. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Barton Fink (1991)

This is one of my favorites from the Coen Brothers, though it's so peculiar that I'd understand if you hate it. It's built around John Turturro's best performance yet, as the Important playwright Barton Fink.

He knows he's an important writer, tells himself he's creating great art, and when his first Broadway play — about fishmongers, naturally — is a critical success, he's offered steady writing work in Hollywood.

Ah, but Hollywood is a strange place, full of unscrupulous people who might not mean every (or any) word they say. Everyone Barton meets in the movie factories is fake, but charmingly so. Perhaps the only person who truly befriends him is the one person he shouldn't trust at all. 

Ensconced at one of L.A.'s most run-down hotels, Fink is given his first writing assignment — a wrestling picture, with Wallace Beery — but he knows nothing of wrestling, and promptly develops writer's block.

From that, the story takes its sweet time moving forward, and you might wonder if the whole exercise isn't a magnificent McGuffin of a movie that's really about nothing.

If so, it's a glorious nothing, presented as a 1940s tongue-in-cheek paranoid noir thriller crime horror love-and-despair story, that's also of course a comedy, but not the kind with punchlines.

I laughed all the way through it, even at the ambiguous ending I've seen a dozen times already. Yeah, this is one of those movies I'm always re-watching, over and over. 

Steve Buscemi, Judy Davis, John Goodman, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shaloub, and — what's in the box?

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Battle of the Worlds (1961)
Streaming free

There's an asteroid approaching Earth, but at the last minute it slows up and establishes an ordinary orbit around our world.

Then a cast of bad actors yell at each other and a few threaten to fall in love. Still, the mathematician in charge has calculations that inarguably prove the asteroid must be destroyed.

This is quite a bad movie on many levels — the visual and sound effects, the staging, the scripted dialogue, the beep-beep-bop music, and the story are all sorta sucky. It's an Italian-Japanese-American co-production, and sometimes unintentionally silly.

But it has Claude Rains. He's the only big-name actor in the cast, playing the super-mathematician who's never been wrong and knows it, so he's cocky as hell, and dismissive of everyone else. He wears a wretched toupee, thick glasses, and smokes a cigar. He's obnoxious, but I was smiling every moment he was on screen, and Mr Rains single-handedly lifts this mess from NO to YES.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Salesman (1969)
Streaming free

From documentarians Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), this follows a team of four salesmen, selling ornate illustrated and footnoted Bibles from door-to-door-to-door all along the Atlantic coast.

Wearing nice suits and using religious lingo, their living room visits with housewives are what you'd expect, but we're also present for sales meetings — which sound no different from a sales meeting for watch or vacuum cleaner salesmen.

"There are many people who know the Bible. There are many people who can quote from the Bible. But you're somewhat different — you know the business."

None of this is sordid or hypocritical, but when it's after hours and the salesmen are back at their hotel, they're certainly not reading the Bibles they sell, nor are they discussing religion. It's just a job for them, and commerce for their employer.

For 1969, I suspect this was a tad subversive.

A man similar to these was on the sofa once, when I came home from school one afternoon. He was earnestly talking to my mom about buying a fancy Bible, and Mom was listening politely, but I knew the answer would be no. She wouldn't let me turn on the TV until he was gone, and he talked for so long that I missed Dark Shadows entirely, but he left real quick when she finally said, "I just can't see paying good money for a fancy Bible, when we're making do fine with the plain Bibles we have."

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Between the Lines (1977)
Cellular (2004)
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Gods of Times Square (1999)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Greystoke (1984)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Lawyer (1970)
Not of This Earth (1957)
The Saint in New York (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
The Shooting (1966)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Winter Soldier (1972)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. The Balcony was outstanding. Thank you and thank you for the link. Where the h-e-double-toothpicks do you find these movies?

    1. Glad you dug The Balcony.

      Where do I find movies? I'm open to suggestions, which is how I find some. The rest, I simply see a mention somewhere and if it sounds interesting I'll seek it out.

      I'd also recommend exploring the big bunch of links at the bottom of the movie pages.

  2. You only need two toothpicks if you're baking two cakes. And, I suppose in a pinch you could get by with one, but only if it has two ends. I have never run across that construction before. I'm not sure what the fuck to make of it.


    1. You've never before seen h-e-double toothpicks? You must've been the smart kid who skipped second grade...

    2. No skipping: I'm old but not that old. I read the newspaper daily until they went out of business. I've read a book every two or three weeks since before puberty kicked in. I'm your average middle class American, and I've never seen double toothpicks.

      I did, for a brief time, study one-ended toothpicks in college, but both the toothpick and college remain to me a mystery.


    3. ? Double toothpicks aren't a thing. They're single toothpicks, just two of them...

  3. In my head there's a spiritual connection between Barton Fink and Day of the Locust, the subject matter is akin but just something how the movie is paced and the camera moves makes me imagine they exist in the same universe. (Day of the Locust being one of those movies I watched to the end, turned off and then sat quietly for awhile thinking about what the fuck just happened.)

    1. And there, in answer to someone else's question, is how I find movies — by paying attention to what bright people say.

      From the title I'd always thought Day of the Locust was some schlocky sci-fi monster movie about giant grasshoppers, but you made me google it and apparently, it's got brains. We'll see if I have brains enough to keep up, as it goes onto the watchlist. Grazi.

    2. Whoops, yes, me! What I meant to say was I would hold off on thanking me! Day of the Locust is an incredible film, I found out about it from reading a column that Bruce La Bruce used to do (maybe still does) about his favorite films and I'm glad to have seen it. There's no horrible gore or torture or whatever, but throughout the whole film there's this tension of imminent catastrophe. It's really well done like that and psychologically gets under your skin better than any horror film or disaster film I can think of. It's like walking into a building and just thinking "Something horrible is going to happen in this place." The fact that it's Hollywood makes it delicious, but still, every time something bad happens (a lot bad happens), you wonder if it's the first swarm of tremors or if it's The Big One.

      Here's Bruce La Bruce's column, a whole lot I've never heard of and still haven't seen:


    3. I didn't know he had a column, but I've heard of BLB, saw at least one of his early movies. Definitely remember No Skin Off My Ass, and I'm not sure but might've seen Super 8½.

      You dig his movies, or only his writing?

      The column looks cool — he's talking about underrated movies and pretty much all the ones that I've seen, I've liked. I'll probably get some downloads from his recommendations. Looks like he's stopped writing, though. Nothing since 2019, though Wiki tells me he's still alive.


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