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American Cinematographer Magazine

Barton Fink (1991)
1.66:1 16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Fox Home Entertainment, $19.98

A wry take on writer's block and the inevitable clash between art and commerce, Barton Fink is a quirky triumph that manages to address both topics with an abundance of comic invention. As the tale begins, the titular character (played with prickly angst by John Turturro, sporting Clifford Odets-style spectacles and a Brillo-pad hairdo) is the toast of 1941 Broadway after wowing audiences with his latest play about the bathetic travails of "the common man." Principled and pretentious in equal measure, Fink sees himself as a pillar of literary purity. Soon enough, however, he is serenaded by the siren call of a Hollywood studio that hires him to script a Wallace Beery wrestling picture for the princely sum of $1,000 per week.

After renting a room in a seedy but suitably "un-Hollywood" hotel - an eerie mausoleum that makes Stephen King's Overlook seem cozy by comparison - Fink finds himself so blocked up that he must seek help from a rogue's gallery of oddball characters. These include his next-door neighbor, a meat-and-potatoes insurance salesman with a hale-and-hearty mien (John Goodman, in top form); a dapper Southern novelist, driven to drink by his soul-extinguishing hackwork for the studio (a droll John Mahoney, doing his best Faulkner impression) and the novelist's inexplicably loyal muse (Judy Davis, the thinking man's sex symbol). Pressing Fink to perform are the Hollywood "suits," played with gusto by Michael Lerner (as the studio's bombastic boss, who wants to lend his wrestling flick "that Barton Fink feeling"), Jon Polito (as the head honcho's obsequious toady) and the peerless Tony Shalhoub (the embodiment of a paranoid producer, who warns Fink that the big man has "taken a interest" in him).

These memorable performances are supported by the exceptional cinematography of Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, whose tasteful lighting and muted color palette augment the show's stylish period costumes and Art Deco production design. Moody illumination turns Fink's hotel room, with its glue-oozing wallpaper and noisy plumbing, into a torture chamber of creative desperation, but the cinematographer lends other scenes the painterly beauty of a still life. If botched, period photography can expose the filmmaking illusion and shatter the narrative spell, but Deakins renders a completely authentic atmosphere that immerses viewers in the story's Forties milieu. The pitch-perfect visual tone compliments the lunacy of the witty, occasionally surreal script by Joel and Ethan Coen, and Joel directed with his usual deadpan panache. It's no wonder that Deakins' contributions to Fink, his first teaming with the Coens, led to collaborations on all of the brothers' subsequent films.

The transfer on this DVD is a bit soft but admirably clean, with rich blacks and decent contrast. Some of the subtler pictorial details are a tad fuzzy, but overall the look seems faithful to the filmmakers' intent. The package is short on extras (the only offerings are eight deleted scenes, a stills gallery and a theatrical trailer), but the disc is still worth its price tag.

Fans of the Coens should also seek out Fox's new DVD of Miller's Crossing (also $19.98), an elegant and operatic gangster opus from 1990. Extras include an illuminating interview with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who explains his general proclivity for wide lenses (which he abandoned on this particular film for the more "handsome" look of telephotos) and an active camera ("I'm the only child of Jewish parents, so I need a lot of attention").

- Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.