Jewish Racialism and Jewish Capitalism: An Analysis of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink

Andy Nowicki


The recent high-profile firings of Rick Sanchez, Helen Thomas, and Octavia Nasr leave the eager-to-please among us with an uneasy feeling in their collective gut. What is the “proper,” socially-sanctioned way to react to such shocking displays of high-handed, sanctimonious, censorious overreach on the part of one’s party bosses, as it were?

Crystal clear as it seems that Sanchez, Thomas, and Nasr, all entrenched liberals with impeccable establishment credentials, were sacked for making critical remarks about Jews (or in Nasr’s case, mildly positive remarks about a deceased member of Hezbollah), such a assertion cannot be allowed to stand, because it would seem to reinforce “anti-Semitic” notions about Jewish control of the media, which are assuredly un-kosher to imply, much less state aloud. To criticize the principalities and powers for sacking critics of Jews thus means condoning anti-Semitism, which in today’s Zeitgeist quickly makes you little better than a genocidal and deranged Nazi. The gutless careerists, to be sure, want no part of that order!

Yet there really isn’t any other way to “spin” the matter of what happened to Sanchez, Thomas, and many others before them, so the only allowable response is one of sheepish silence. Change the subject, please. Move on. What’s done is done; you can’t bring back the past, etc., etc., etc…

This purging of dissidents, of course, has happened on the nominal “right,” as well, the saddest case being that of the brilliant columnist Joe Sobran, who got booted from National Review in the early 90s after raising the ire of prominent Jewish neoconservatives by opposing the first Iraq war and strongly criticizing many of Israel’s national policies. Sobran — for my money, one of the most insightful, witty, and profound writers of his generation — lived the last few years of his existence in relative obscurity, not to mention ill-health and (one gathers) with some bitterness at having been stabbed in the back by his former friends, who to a man refused to stick up for him — William Buckley being the chief culprit.

Nor have Sobran’s enemies ceased their smear campaign since his passing; in fact, his recent death provoked a number of unctuous online eulogies full of backhanded compliments, mourning the fact that his early success as a “movement” conservative gave way to the troubled, eccentric, bigoted person they believed he’d become late in life. (See, e.g., here and here.)

With Sanchez, Thomas, Sobran, and many others, the message is clear: mess with the horned bull, and you’ll get gored. But we shouldn’t think that there don’t exist many honest Jews, who are well-aware of how things stand and are unafraid to say so, at the risk of being ostracized as traitors to their own ethnic group. Much attention, for example, has been brought to Norman Finklestein, a Jewish scholar whose parents were concentration camp inmates during World War II; today, he is one of the most vocal critics of what he views as Israel’s unjust and inhumane treatment of Palestinians.

Finklestein has fearlessly taken his stand, and has unquestionably taken some lumps in the process. Not everyone is made of such stern stuff. Some tell the truth, but do so in a manner less confrontational. A case-in-point can be seen in some of the oeuvre of Joel and Ethan Coen, particularly in their spectacularly subversive and much-underrated 1989 offering, “Barton Fink.”

*    *    *

The Coen brothers, a directing/producing brotherly duo, are perhaps the boldest and most creative auteurs of modern-day American cinema. Their work varies wildly; it is “all over the map,” thematically-speaking, yet always distinctively itself. Some Coen brothers’ films are bizarre and phantasmagorical; others are zanily comedic, and still others can best be described as brutally horrifying. Barton Fink is a unique combination of all three of these types, and something else besides: it is a savage satire of a Jewish-run film industry, as well as being an unflinching examination of brazen hypocrisies often seen in Jewish-led political radicalism. Joel and Ethan Coen are, of course, Jews themselves, which is perhaps why they were able to get away with such a jarringly “Semitically-incorrect” depiction in the first place. (See also Kevin MacDonald’s review of their A Serious Man.)

Barton Fink follows an ambitious New York playwright, the titular hero, on a terrifying descent into psychological darkness and mental chaos. Yet despite its undeniably grim subject matter, it is also at times an uproariously funny movie. Such an unlikely intersection of the comic and the horrific is, of course, a frequent feature of the Coens’ cinematic fare.

The character of Barton Fink is clearly modeled after Clifford Odets and other left-wing Jewish writers of the 1930s and 40s. Like Odets, the real-life author of the radical ensemble piece Waiting for Lefty, Fink seeks to create a theater “of and about the common man,” which could enable a social transformation, one of presumably Communistic orientation (though his precise ideology is never mentioned). Barton has recently written a critically-acclaimed off-Broadway play filled with working-class characters looking ahead to a hopeful future of joyous revolution, but he is unable to enjoy his success; he tells his agent that he doesn’t wish to become “complacent” and soft. Barton’s agent informs him that he’s been able to secure him a gig as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a major studio which will pay him handsomely for his efforts. Barton demurs at first, but allows himself to be talked into taking the job.

The next thing he knows, the young, up-and-coming writer finds himself checked into the Earle, a creaky old L.A. hotel that seems to be coming apart at the seams. It is here that he comes face to face with what appears to be a quintessential specimen of the “common man,” in the person of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a corpulent, garrulous, somewhat annoying but seemingly good-hearted insurance salesman whose room adjoins Barton’s on the sixth floor.

During Barton’s interactions with Charlie, we see this aspiring artist’s soul laid bare, and it’s not a pretty sight. Though not a bad man, Fink is without question an insufferable prig, a hypocrite, and a bore; in truth, he evinces little compassion for the plight of the “common man,” but would rather talk endlessly about himself. He lectures Charlie, whom he takes to be “an average, working stiff” about the pain and enormous effort that it takes to dedicate oneself to “the life of the mind.” Charlie tries to interject a few times, offering to “tell some stories,” but Barton always cuts him off to rant anew about how shameful it is that playwrights aren’t properly interested in common folk, how they would rather insulate themselves from reality than deal with it. The painful irony of this circumstance is obvious to everyone except poor, oblivious, self-deluded Barton himself.

Barton’s condescension towards Charlie is portrayed as symptomatic of the urban, educated lefty’s thinly-disguised contempt for the middle-American worker. The cultural divide is indeed so sharp as to be insurmountable between the two men; obviously, the shrill, hectoring Fink and the wry, soft-spoken cornball rube Meadows have little, if anything, in common. Yet their failure to connect is due almost entirely to the East-coast born, avant-garde writer’s narcissism, high-mindedness and lack of empathy for the very sort of man he claims to support. And it shouldn’t escape our notice that the paradigmatic insufferable intellectual in this film is a Jew with almost-exaggerated Ashkenazi features and attributes, from his tightly kinked hair to his thick glasses and propensity to pontificate aggressively in a brisk Brooklyn accent. (The most inspired aspect here might just be in the casting; gentile Italian-American Turturro transforms into uber-Jew Fink, while Jewish John Goodman is utterly convincing as the ultra-goy, tubby American heartlander Meadows.)

John Turturro plays Barton Fink

Barton, of course, gravely underestimates Charlie, who, as he finds out later, is not nearly so “common” as Barton had at first assumed. And it is Charlie who soon pointedly informs Barton as to his fatal flaw: his unwillingness to step outside of his preening self-important regard for himself as an artist, living a highfalutin “life of the mind,” to take an actual interest in his fellow man. “You… don’t… LISTEN!” Charlie exclaims at a key moment, and the audience finds it hard to disagree.

Later, after a severe bout with writer’s block, and a spate of surreal and nightmarish tribulations, Barton finally finishes a screenplay that, in his fevered state, he takes to be a masterpiece. He rushes out on the town and we see him jitterbugging manically with a woman at a dance club, to the strains of big band music. When a group of sailors asks to “have a turn” dancing with the girl, Barton haughtily refuses. “Get away from me, you monsters!” he yells. “I’m a writer– I CREATE for a living!” The sailors respond by regaling Barton with insults like “four-eyes,” clearly regarding him as a laughably out-of-touch egghead. Eventually, one of them throws a punch, and an all-out brawl breaks out in the club, with Barton managing to sneak away, nursing a busted lip. This confrontation reinforces the conflict between the Jewish intellectual (who by this point has dropped all pretense of empathy and openly regards the square-jawed goyish white-bread sailor-types as “monsters”) and the predominantly gentile, so-called “common man.”

But while Barton Fink has many flaws, he is also a pitiable victim; by the end of the movie, he has essentially become the property of studio honcho Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), a brash, loud, frightening and hysterically tyrannical man, who proudly declares himself to be “bigger and meaner than any other kike in this town.” Lipnik flaunts his Jewish identity, and openly recognizes that Jews (or “kikes,” as he unashamedly calls his own kind) run Hollywood. He feigns reverence for Fink’s writing prowess at first, but eventually shows his true colors; in the final scene, he appears in an ostentatious American general’s uniform, grumbling about the perfidious “yellow bastards” who attacked Pearl Harbor, and berating Fink’s “fruity” script. “It won’t wash!” he hollers. “We won’t put (wrestling star) Walter Beery into a fruity movie about suffering!”

When Fink feebly protests that he tried to create “something beautiful” with the screenplay, Lipnik lays him out with a hard truth. “You think the whole world revolves around whatever rattles inside that little kike head of yours?” he demands. “You think you’re the only writer that can give me that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling? I’ve got a HUNDRED writers that can give me that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling!”

The ruthless studio “Fuhrer” then contemptuously tells Barton to get out of his sight, with an ominous warning: “There’s a war on.”

*   *   *

By the time the movie ends, the formerly proud Jewish playwright is laid low, having become a mere cog in the machine of the Jewish-run studio system, which is now only propagandizing for war (one imagines, to further Jewish interests in opposing Nazi Germany, although the film only very gingerly makes this extremely sensitive point). Fink, the Jewish radical is now under the thumb of Lipnick, the fearsome Jewish capitalist, and “goys” like the hapless sailors Barton encountered in the dance club will soon begin to die in droves on foreign shores, victims of a massive world war in which they are but pawns.

It would be reductionist, of course, to claim that the devastatingly satirical portrayal of Jewish radicalism and Jewish power is the essential thrust of Barton Fink. To be sure, the central theme of the movie transcends ethnic particularities. Self-indulgent artistic pretension and hypocrisy afflicts all types of people, Jew and non-Jew; Black, White, Red, Yellow, and Brown.

Still, the broader cinematic canvas of Barton Fink includes a daring, provocative, and honest examination of Jewish power and its wide-ranging manifestations and cultural ramifications. And as the latest spate of purges of thought criminals like Sanchez, Thomas, and Nasr attests, this is still a very live subject today, unlikely to fade into irrelevance anytime soon.

Andy Nowicki (email him) is the author of Considering Suicide, published by Nine-Banded Books. He is a regular contributor to The Last Ditch, and has also published articles for New Oxford Review, American Renaissance, and Alternative Right. He lives in Savannah, Georgia with his wife and children, and teaches college English.

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