Belly (1998)

Dir. Hype Williams

Written by: Hype Williams

Starring: DMX, Nas, Taral Hicks, T-Boz


Belly is probably the worst movie, objectively speaking, that I have written about for this project to this point. The first and, to date, only feature film from acclaimed music video director Hype Williams is a bit of a mess, but it also serves as a showcase for Williams’s distinct visual aesthetic. Belly is a stylish crime drama that follows childhood friends Tommy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas) as they pursue fortune and street rep through drug deals and armed robbery until their lives ultimately diverge following Sincere’s decision to get away from his life of crime. The premise is simple to the point of being derivative, but the film’s kaleidoscopic visual style makes it memorable and gives the typical gangster narrative a new coat of high gloss paint. I find myself watching Belly more frequently than many other, better, movies in my collection because I enjoy its frenetic editing, moody color palette, and memorable visual style. It’s a fun movie in spite of its many glaring flaws, and for hip hop fans of a certain age, it’s a certified classic.

Starting with the good, Belly is full of visually interesting and memorable scenes. As I mentioned, Williams rose to prominence as a filmmaker by becoming one of the most prolific and acclaimed music video directors in hip hop in the 1990s. In many ways, Williams defined the visual aesthetic of hip hop during the mid- to late-1990s, a period in which the style fully crossed over into the mainstream. Over the course of his early music video career, Williams developed an eclectic but recognizable style while directing some of the most memorable videos in hip hop history. That style is fully developed and stretched out over the course of a feature film, and Belly is a natural extension of Williams’s music video work, portraying both the gritty street-level realities of its protagonists’ lives of crime and the opulence that that lifestyle has afforded them. Williams captures the drama with technical proficiency and visual flair, opting for dramatic, evocative lighting choices, and employing a restless, moving camera to reflect his characters’ mindsets.

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The film’s opening heist scene is a perfect example of this stylistic virtuosity. The scene, in which Tommy, Sincere, and Mark (Hassan Johnson) murder several people while robbing a strip club, sets the narrative and visual tone for the film. The men approach the club in slow motion, though the pace of the editing is quick, with the camera changing angles and distance from its subjects frequently. The quick cuts continue as the three step into the club, but the film’s color palette shifts to an eerie blue, with the black lights of the club causing a negative effect. The close up shots of Tommy and Sincere’s faces are striking and otherworldly, with their eyes glowing hot-white under the black lights. The camera’s constantly shifting perspective, the reversed color palette, and the frequent lens flare from the club’s strobe lights all combine to create a disorienting feeling and a fragmented sense of place. The action shifts upstairs to the club’s office, where the owners are counting cash. The shots lengthen and the camera moves in short, smooth pans and tilts, exploring the room and the cash within it slowly, in contrast to the choppy snapshots of the club floor. Williams continues the longer shot durations as Tommy and Sincere step into the club’s bathrooms where they’ve stashed their guns, a la The Godfather, but he also maintains the disorienting effect and creates visual tension by intensifying the strobe. As Sincere and Tommy approach and ascend the stairway to the office, the strobe is diminished, allowing for more visual clarity. Sincere nonchalantly shoots a bouncer in the chest and after he and Tommy throw him over the stairs, they and Mark charge up the stairs pulling white masks that glow in the black light over their faces. Panic breaks out in the club, and the strobes return, matched by the flashes of the robbers’ guns as they burst into the office and shoot everyone inside. One of the owners falls backwards through the wall-length window overlooking the club floor, descending in slow motion into the blue-lit depths as glittering shards of glass cascade after her like a diamond rain. As she smashes through a table, the beat to “However Do You Want Me” by Soul II Soul, the a cappella intro to which has been seething quietly under the scene up to this point, kicks in, and the film shifts back to a naturalistic color pattern as the men grab the cash and make their getaway. This scene establishes the visual and narrative themes that the film will explore in less than three minutes, and is one of my favorite credit sequences ever.

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Belly is a film of visual contrasts. Williams associates characters with different colors throughout the film, using blue lights to establish a cold, menacing aesthetic for Tommy, reflecting his ruthlessness and predatory nature. Sincere is visually linked with warmer reds and yellows. He will eventually break with Tommy, rejecting the life of crime for Afrocentrism and attempts at self-improvement. Williams also employs contrast within the same shot by pairing slow motion with quick edits, as he does in the opening robbery scene. These are recognizable music video techniques, and it is obvious at times that Williams’s background is in music video. Often the film seems to be constructed of vignettes, moving from set piece to set piece, and often these vignettes are tied to memorable use of music. These aren’t criticisms, necessarily, as Williams’s experience matching sound to image creates some perfect scenes that almost act as music videos within the film. “However Do You Want Me” is integral to the success of the film’s opening, with the edits syncing perfectly to the music, and the music helping to inform the images. Williams is playing to his strengths in Belly, and while they don’t necessarily lend themselves perfectly to coherent narrative filmmaking, they are enough to keep the film interesting and entertaining.

I think that most of Belly’s shortcomings are a result of Williams wanting to squeeze too much into his first feature. Williams brings a laundry list of influences to the project, many of which he borrows from liberally, resulting in a film that is jumbled and incoherent. There are too many narrative threads, all of which are underdeveloped. This kitchen sink mentality makes the film’s narrative difficult to navigate, as the action shifts from New York to Omaha to Jamaica, following Tommy as he continues to involve himself deeper and deeper in the criminal underworld. Williams too often relies on voice over narration from Sincere to provide context and exposition. For a filmmaker who is so prodigiously gifted visually, Williams often opts to tell rather than show in Belly. With more focus and character development, Belly could be a very good crime film, but as it stands the film only scrapes the surface of its potential, choosing to emulate other, better gangster films and trade in clichés and heavy-handed symbolism rather than developing complex characters and original narrative arcs.

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The film also suffers from the performances of its leads. Across the board, the acting in Belly is pretty bad. DMX and Nas aren’t asked to do dramatic heavy lifting in the film, still neither is up to the task. Belly marked the onscreen debut for both rappers, and they are essentially each extending their brands in the film, playing characters who closely resemble their on-record personae. DMX’s physicality lends Tommy’s air of menace credibility, but his line delivery is wooden and he is incapable of registering any facsimile of genuine emotion. Nas seems to be a somewhat more natural actor, but he has to contend with bad dialogue and with the film’s overreliance on his voice over. When he’s not asked to be the film’s narrator, his performance is decent. The lone bright spot in the film, performance wise, is Method Man’s turn as Shameek, a hitman who is sent to Omaha to dispatch of the local drug dealers who reported on Tommy’s drug trafficking operation. In this early role, Method Man displays the charisma and acting chops that helped him cross over into a successful film and television career. He plays Shameek as a joker whose easy charm belies his underlying penchant for violence. He has made a career playing these sorts of lovable, relatable criminals and he shines through in what is essentially an extended cameo. In fact, aside from Tommy and Sincere, the roles in the film all feel like cameos. None of the other characters are given enough screen time to develop any real motivations or character arcs. Sincere’s girlfriend Tionne (T-Boz) serves no actual narrative purpose in the film, while Keisha, Tommy’s girlfriend, is ostensibly a femme fatale, but Taral Hicks’s performance is more sultry than sinister.

Despite these legitimate criticisms of it, I will still continue to enjoy watching Belly. I’m sure it’s obvious by now but I am a big fan of the visuals of this film. Williams’s stylish direction helps to elevate what could otherwise have been a derivative and uninspired gangster film. Even when Williams is shamelessly ripping off his influences, as he does with de Palma’s Scarface for Jamaican kingpin Lennox’s (Louie Rankin) death scene, he makes the homage distinctive and memorable. The female assassin Chiquita who slits Lennox’s throat is memorable despite having less than 30 seconds of total screen time because of the way that Williams frames her visually. As I mentioned, Williams’s skillset doesn’t necessarily lend itself to crafting a complex narrative film, but they are perfect for creating intensely memorable images and translating simple bits of information through visual cues. The audience feels like they know Chiquita despite her limited screen time because her appearance, wearing a spiked collar-style necklace with dermal piercings adorning her face like war paint, conveys simple visual information so well. This is a skill that Williams has translated from music video where meaning must be conveyed simply and easily through the image, or through its relationship to the underlying song.

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I think Belly’s reliance on music video tropes actually enhances my enjoyment of the film, because it reminds me of a time in my life when I was beginning to really immerse myself in hip hop culture, around the time that the film came out. Belly was only a modest box office success in 1998, but hip hop in general was experiencing one of its biggest boom periods. I really discovered hip hop as an early teen through Puff Daddy, Ma$e, Master P, Nelly and other popular rappers of the day. Hip hop culture was the dominant culture when I was growing up, and I have fond memories of sitting in my friend Ryan’s bedroom and listening to rap CDs on his oversized stereo. His older brother would pack their multi disc stereo with all the newest rap albums and we would soak them all in. Although I gravitated more and more towards punk rock and heavy metal music as I got older, I never lost my love for hip hop, and in particular the rappers who were popular when I was aged 12-15. This nostalgic attachment to that time period certainly helps to overlook some of the flaws in Belly. It’s a movie that is inextricably tied to that time period, and I like to pull it out when I want to turn my brain off and enjoy a well shot action movie that reminds me of one of the passions of my youth.


I apologize for the quality of the stills in this post. I couldn’t find too many great quality screen caps from the film, and the few that I did choose to use were automatically compressed to a smaller size. I’ll try to find a way to fix this and avoid the problem in the future.


Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour (1967)

Dir. Luis Bunuel

Written by: Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (from the novel by Joseph Kessel)

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Pierre Clémenti


I was introduced to the cinema of Luis Bunuel towards the end of my academic study of film. I had seen Bunuel’s early films, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or, in high school and early college, respectively, but it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I began to familiarize myself with the rest of the prolific surrealist’s cinematic output. My final semester, I took a class on surrealism in the cinema of Bunuel and David Lynch. I was already very familiar with the work of Lynch as he was, and is, one of my favorite directors, but I knew far less about Bunuel, and it was the introduction to his work that I really treasure about having taken that course. It opened my eyes up to some wonderful films, but also to a new way to engage critically with the medium. Discovering surrealist film theory and beginning to apply it to my own criticism was a freeing experience for me, and it helped to give a framework to some of the attitudes towards cinema and some of the theories that I had been developing over the course of my formal film education.

Surrealism provided a context for a cinema that was attacking and subversive. André Breton and others theorized of the cinema as the art form most suited to disrupt the status quo, and most readily equipped to depict the imagery of the psyche. The experience of watching a film has often been likened to having ones’ dreams projected for viewing, but it was the surrealists who took this idea and ran with it, creating films that tapped into the strange and sometimes sinister workings of the unconscious mind. Bunuel was a part of the original group of surrealists, and along with his collaborator Salvador Dali, he created in Un Chien Andalou perhaps the first truly surrealist film. With that film, and with its follow up L’Age D’Or, the pair sought to create a pair of anti-narrative films that would tap into the subconscious, and bring to the surface the repressed instincts and desires of their subjects and their audience. The pair would split during the production of L’Age D’Or over increasingly differing ideologies, with Dali beginning to embrace the rising dictator, Francisco Franco, in their native Spain, while Bunuel’s political leanings remained decidedly leftist and his explicit artistic goal was to create films that undermined the institutions of the bourgeoisie and the state. With L’Age D’Or he succeeded in creating a film that did just that, expanding on the style and content of his earlier work, while tying the dreamlike aesthetic to a specific political and ideological critique, scathingly critiquing the Catholic Church and religious faith. The film was subsequently banned from public viewings for nearly 40 years.

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After the scandal and success of L’Age D’Or, Bunuel officially broke from the French surrealists, beginning a film career that would span nearly 50 years in which he would direct over 30 features on two continents, establishing himself as a distinctive cinematic voice, and one of the great directors of all time. Bunuel spent the bulk of the next three decades bouncing between the United States, Mexico, France, and Spain, often taking work for hire in the studio system, particularly in Mexico. Though he was often working with material not of his own choosing, Bunuel’s distinctive vision often shown through as bits of surreal imagery would surface in even the most mundane of his films. By the 1960s, the burgeoning European art film scene and its critics began to take notice of the idiosyncratic style that was on display in Bunuel’s studio work, and elevated the director to a level of prestige. This sparked a late period career resurgence, as Bunuel returned both to making European films, and to making more overtly surrealist films, and it is during this period that he received his most consistent critical and commercial success.

Belle de Jour arrived in 1967, during the height of this cultural reevaluation of the filmmaker. Though it was a studio project, adapted from a pulp novel that Bunuel was often openly dismissive of, the film would go on to become his most commercially successful project and one of his most critically beloved, if vexing, films. Belle de Jour follows Severine (Deneuve), a frigid Parisian housewife, as she begins to seek satisfaction outside of her marriage to an uptight surgeon, Pierre (Sorel). Though she does love Pierre, it is revealed through Severine’s dreams and sexual fantasies, that she needs more than he can offer her, sexually, to be truly satisfied in their marriage. After she hears that a friend has been prostituting herself outside of her marriage, Severine seeks out a madam and begins her transformation into Belle de Jour, the beauty of the afternoon. She is able to be sexually fulfilled through her afternoon rendezvouses with her johns, while maintaining the façade of bourgeois normality in her marriage with Pierre. Ultimately, the two worlds collide in predictably tragic fashion towards the end of the film, as Severine lets a john get too close to her, and his presence threatens to upend the stability of her life with Pierre.

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I have to admit that Belle de Jour has never ranked among my favorite Bunuel films. When I first watched it for the aforementioned class, I enjoyed it and certainly could see why it was one of the more commercially successful of his films, but it didn’t push the envelope far enough for me. I was more in favor of late classics such as The Milky Way, which he would direct next, or The Phantom of Liberty, Bunuel’s final film. These films fully embraced Bunuelian surrealism and satire as I understood it at the time. I felt Belle de Jour’s surrealism was too restricted, either constrained to only certain corners of the film, or if it was present the entire time, it was present as a lens through which to view the film rather than the operating mode. Over time and with a few more viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Belle de Jour more, and I think I’ve come to understand it better as a film as I’ve matured.

I added Belle de Jour and Viridiana to my collection at the same time after going to a public screening of Un Chien Andalou and L’age D’or renewed my interest in Bunuel around 2013. I went back and watched what I could find available through streaming services, including a couple of films that I hadn’t seen before, and I took advantage of a 50% off sale at Barnes & Noble to add a couple of Bunuel discs to the collection. I had hoped that I would be able to find the Criterion releases of The Milky Way or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but neither were available at my local store, so I settled for Belle de Jour and Viridiana, which are similar in some interesting ways, but neither of which were films which had particularly caught my interest on my first viewings for class. Over the ensuing four years, I think I’ve watched Belle de Jour three times, including for this post, and while it has grown on me, the film still doesn’t capture my attention in the same way as some of the director’s other work.

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As I mentioned, my initial disappointment with the film was that it did not push the envelope far enough in terms of its overt surrealism. After watching it several times, however, I think that the film does have much akin with some of Bunuel’s most surrealist works. It may not feature the sorts of absurd situations or jarring imagery that he has become known for, but its subject matter and its treatment of sexuality are certainly the type of subversion that his outwardly surrealist films seek to achieve. The film also explores its protagonist’s subconscious, giving the audience full access to Severine’s dreams and sexual fantasies. Its focus on hidden or obscured objects as important symbolic devices is also a key trait of Bunuelian surrealism.

Released in 1967, Belle de Jour’s frank depiction of Severine’s sexuality and her position as a sexual being with desire and agency certainly ran counter to the prevailing depiction of women and their sexuality in the cinema. Even in the more “progressive” art cinema of the 1960s, women were still most frequently presented as objects of male desire, as muses, or as ingénues, all vessels for male fulfillment. Severine certainly does not fall into any of those types, as she is a complex and fully formed female character, who is certainly acutely aware of her own sexual desires, even if she may not always be able to express them. By the film’s end she is capable of both seeking out her own fulfillment, and separating her need for sexual fulfillment from the romantic love that she seems to feel for Pierre. Severine and Pierre’s relationship is also atypical in this way. On the surface their marriage is representative of the sorts of bourgeois values of monogamy, strict gender roles, and capitalist patriarchy that Bunuel is critical of, and it seems obvious that Severine must look outside of this relationship for sexual fulfillment. However, as Severine’s particular sexual fantasies are contingent upon masochism and shame, the strictures of her marriage must remain in place for her to gain that satisfaction. In fact, it seems that her capacity to feel romantic love towards Pierre increases as she continues to work in the brothel, as Severine seems genuine when she insists that she is warming to the idea of being able to be intimate with Pierre every day. Though she can only be satisfied sexually outside of her marriage, Severine recognizes and acknowledges that her love for Pierre is something separate, and also necessary to her overall satisfaction. Bunuel may be critiquing marriage as an institution, but he does not seem to be indicting romantic love, in general. This is a very surrealist line of thought that puts primacy towards the irrational or the fleetingly emotional, rather than staid institutions.

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It could be tempting to read Severine’s masochistic fantasies as the creation of a male filmmaker who wishes to explore his own fantasies of female subjugation, but the film never presents them as such. Though her fantasy is to “give up” control, Severine is the author of her own fantasies and the beneficiary of any pleasure that is derived from them. When she articulates these fantasies in the real world in the brothel as Belle de Jour, Severine is still able to maintain control. When she is at the brothel, Severine is playing the role of Belle de Jour, which gives her a distance from her encounters with the johns, and maintains something of a veil of fantasy. She also maintains control through the professional nature of the encounters, in which she is financially empowered through the transactional nature of the sex act, and in which she can (and does) remove herself from the situation if she is uncomfortable. I’ll stop short of calling Belle de Jour a feminist film, because I do think that Deneuve is fetishized during certain portions of the film, and I think that Bunuel is really less interested in creating a film about liberating female sexuality than one that explores the themes of desire and fantasy, in general, however its depiction of a female protagonist as a knowing and active participant in the accomplishment of her own sexual fulfillment is a totally subversive idea for the time.

So the film is thematically subversive and surrealist, but it also has many of the trace elements of Bunuel’s style that are not as readily apparent upon just a single viewing. From the famous opening shot of Un Chien Andalou which depicts a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor, Bunuel has had a fascination with eyes and vision, and Belle de Jour carries on this theme in an interesting way. The film is more interested in seeing and vision than in eyes, particularly. The most obvious example of this is in a scene in which Belle is instructed by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) to watch through a peephole as one of the other prostitutes humiliates a male submissive. After Belle is rejected by the submissive for not being assertive enough, Anais takes her into an adjacent room and instructs her to watch the more seasoned prostitute, Charlotte (Francoise Fabian) as she indulges The Professor’s (Marcel Charvey) fantasy. Belle watches as The Professor is kicked and berated, but turns away in disgust when Charlotte begins to walk on his face at his request, but she returns to the peephole, guiltily, to sneak another peek. When Madame Anais asks her if she learned anything from her voyeuristic session, Belle feigns disgust and wonders how anyone can stoop so low, but her furtive second glance through the peephole and Deneuve’s pensive line delivery belie her recognition of a similar desire to her own. If eyes are the window to the soul, then the peephole acts as a window for Severine into her own subconscious and her own sexual desire.

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This scene is immediately followed by another that shows off another Bunuelian cinematic staple, the obscured object. There are many instances in the cinema of Bunuel where objects are hidden, either literally in boxes, or figuratively where their meaning may be distorted or undercut by a mismatch with the soundtrack and image, or an unfamiliar juxtaposition. In the scene in Belle de Jour, after failing to please The Professor, Belle is presented with an Asian john who is carrying a mysterious buzzing box. Boxes and containers are important to Bunuel for their ability to conceal, but also as a symbol. The box itself is representative of the hidden depths of the subconscious, and of the potential for self-discovery for characters willing to open the box. Tellingly, Belle is willing to accept this client and his ominous box when the other prostitutes are fearful. At first she seems startled when she looks into the box, and hears the buzzing emanating from within, but she quickly finds her confidence. After their session, the john leaves, satisfied, with his strange box under his arm, while the brothel’s housekeeper, Pallas (Muni), enters the room to find it a mess, with a bloodied sheet on the floor. Belle is lying face-down on the bed, looking exhausted and unkempt, which causes Pallas to remark, “It must be hard.” To which Belle replies, lifting her head to reveal her smile of pleasure, “What would you know, Pallas?” This scene and the one immediately preceding it with the peephole depict Severine’s recognition and acceptance of her sexual desires in a decidedly Bunuelian fashion.

There were always things that I appreciated about Belle de Jour from the first time I saw it ten years ago. I think that it’s one of Bunuel’s most visually beautiful films, shot in rich Technicolor, the reds and oranges in the film pop off the screen. Catherine Deneuve’s performance has also always stood out to me. Though she was a professional actress with several high profile roles to her name already, Deneuve was only 22 when Belle de Jour was filmed, and she turns in a performance that belies her age. She deftly manages the subtle differences in personality while bouncing between her time as Severine and Belle de Jour. Although she later complained about the shoot, claiming that the final film showed more of her body than she was initially comfortable with, her unease doesn’t show in the final cut. The mixture of vulnerability and complicity that she exhibits is perfect.

With each subsequent viewing, I find more and more to enjoy about the film. Belle de Jour has many layers, and with each viewing I feel like I’m opening another layer of a nesting doll. As a more mature viewer, I can appreciate the sexual politics at play in the film, and as I’ve become more familiar with Bunuel’s cinema, I find more similarities in the film with the rest of his work. Despite this, I still don’t see Belle de Jour climbing into the ranks of my favorite Bunuel. It isn’t cutting enough for me, and it lacks some of the sinister undertones of my favorite of his films. However, it is never not an enjoyable watch, and I always come away with a new impression of the film, or a small detail that I hadn’t noticed previously, and really that should be enough to warrant continued viewings every few years.

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich


Being John Malkovich is quite a feat as a debut feature for its writer/director team of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. At the time of its release Kaufman was a relative unknown, toiling as a television writer, all of whose feature scripts had been rejected. Jonze was best known for his music video work, having directed iconic clips for artists as diverse as The Beastie Boys, Weezer, Björk, and Fatboy Slim. After the release of this film, however, both would become, if not household names, celebrities of the indie film world. Though its off-kilter premise and subtle sense of humor made the film’s release a slow build and prevented it from being a true commercial success, Being John Malkovich achieved near-universal critical acclaim, and more than made its budget back. Eventually the film would be rewarded with Academy Award nominations for both Kaufman and Jonze, as well as a nomination for Catherine Keener for Best Supporting Actress. As I alluded to in my post about Adaptation., Being John Malkovich announced its eccentric creative brain trust as major players in the film world going into the 21st century.

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I remember hearing about the movie when it was released, but I don’t think that I had any interest in seeing it. Being John Malkovich is a weird comedy for adults, and I was only 14 at the time. I didn’t know who John Malkovich was, and I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated or understood the film’s strange sense of humor if I had seen it when it was released. I know this because I didn’t appreciate it when I did see Being John Malkovich for the first time on cable a few years after it came out. I turned the movie on, near the beginning, on Comedy Central, and I can remember thinking to myself, “What the heck kind of weird movie is this?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch the whole thing, but if I did, it didn’t make an impact outside of its deep strangeness. At that time, probably 2001 or 2002, I had never been introduced to surrealism, and my tastes in comedy were certainly not geared towards something this strange and cerebral. Being John Malkovich was simply too much of a head trip for me and, to be fair, it probably was for many people on their first encounter.

The film follows Craig Schwartz (Cusack) a skillful but struggling puppeteer who is encouraged to go looking for a job by his wife, Lotte (Diaz), to bring in some income and take his mind off of his failures as an artist. He takes a job as a filing clerk for LesterCorp, which is located on the 7 ½ floor of a New York City skyscraper, home to an array of unusual characters, not least of which is Dr. Lester himself (Orson Beane). While working at LesterCorp, Craig develops a one-sided obsession with his coworker, Maxine (Keener). One day, Craig finds a small, hidden door in the filing office and opens it to reveal a dank, earthen tunnel. After crawling into the tunnel, Craig finds himself inside the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (playing himself), where he experiences the world through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes before being unceremoniously dropped onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Craig shares this discovery with Maxine, in hopes of winning her affections by sharing this surreal and one-of-a-kind experience with her, and the two go into business together, selling the opportunity to inhabit Malkovich to sad-sack losers for $200 a trip. While a love trapezoid forms between Craig, Lotte, Maxine, and Malkovich, Craig finds a way to put his skills as a puppeteer into the service of controlling Malkovich’s body so that he can remain inside him indefinitely. And that is all before the movie starts getting really weird.

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I came back to Malkovich after seeing and loving Adaptation. I was a little older, and I was coming into the experience this time with a better handle on Kaufman’s unique voice. So, the pieces all fell into place for me, and I was able to appreciate the film on its own deeply strange, darkly comic terms. While I fell in love with Adaptation.’s lofty narrative ambition, I appreciated Being John Malkovich for its straightforwardness. Even though its plot is completely bananas, with each passing scene only serving to up the ante for strangeness, the film is played straight. Its humor is often deadpan, to the point of absurdity. It lacks the temporal shifts and narrative overlapping of later Kaufman films, opting instead for a linear structure. Characters don’t spend great periods of the film fretting over the metaphysical or cosmic implications of the bizarre scenario in which they’ve found themselves, as does the fictional Charlie Kaufman of Adaptation., they simply react as if finding a portal into a celebrity’s brain behind a filing cabinet is the sort of thing that could happen to any average office drone. That a film like Being John Malkovich could be described as straightforward at all is a testament to the skill of Kaufman and Jonze at crafting a believable, lived-in world, peopled with characters who feel like they could be real. Just like the 7 ½ floor, it seems like Being John Malkovich exists in a parallel world to the real one, where objects and people from the real world are easily recognizable, but the perspective is slightly skewed. The setting is familiar, but the characters’ relationship to it is somehow off.

That skewed perspective is reinforced by the choice of Cusack and Diaz as the film’s leads, as both actors are asked to play against type for their roles. Though often cast in comedies, Cusack was coming off of a run of serious dramas including Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil and The Thin Red Line, and according to reports he discovered Malkovich after asking his agent to find him the “craziest, most un-produceable script” he could find. Craig is a typical Kaufman protagonist, an artist who can’t reconcile his own ambitions and talents with the needs of the day to day world, and Cusack perfectly embodies the depression and malaise that come along with that character. In the film, Craig’s hair is long and greasy, he’s unshaven, and he is shabbily dressed, a far cry from the typically suave, handsome on-screen persona that Cusack is typically associated with. Although he is sometimes associated with the sorts of mopey, lovelorn character that he plays in Being John Malkovich, none of Cusack’s other comedic roles (save for possibly Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead, but we’ll get to that one soon enough) skew this dark. Craig’s attempts to maintain control over his life, the people in it, and the façade that he’s built up using Malkovich as a puppet push him to extremes.

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If Cusack is playing against type, Diaz is asked to make a full on transformation for the role of Lotte. Diaz had burst into the mainstream the year prior playing the titular character in There’s Something About Mary. After that role, she was poised to break out as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and she did, but Being John Malkovich marks a definite detour into fertile territory for her. Rather than capitalize on his lead actress’s fame, Jonze opts instead to make Diaz nearly unrecognizable in the film. Her signature blonde tresses are traded in for a brown, frizzy wig, while her figure is obscured behind lumpy sweatsuits. Everything about Lotte suggests a life of quiet desperation and Diaz’s subtle performance early in the film pull that off well. Her interactions with the chimp, Elijah, who is a part of the menagerie that Lotte has acquired in place of human children, are both comfortingly maternal and heartbreaking at the same time. While she is adept at portraying a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, Diaz’s best work comes later in the film when she reveals her desire for Maxine, and her insistence of returning to Malkovich’s head to experience life as a man. After her experience, Lotte declares herself to be transgender, and she gains satisfaction and self-actualization that she could have never gotten from Craig through her relationship with Maxine. At this point, Diaz’s performance becomes more assertive, and she takes on the role of the detective in the story, trying to uncover the mystery of the portal, rather than just exploit it, as Craig and Maxine do. Though Craig is, ostensibly, the film’s main character, it’s Lotte who does the most changing throughout the film, and in whose character some of the film’s most interesting themes about identity, consciousness, and sexuality are embodied.

Watching the film in 2017, I was struck by how progressive its attitudes towards sex, relationships, and gender identity were for a film that was released in 1999. While it was far from the dark ages, with respect to representation in media, 1999 was still a much less enlightened time for the general public with respects to sexual diversity. I’m sure that watching this movie must have marked the first time I ever encountered the word “transsexual,” though it didn’t register at all then. The idea of a woman entering into a man’s body, experiencing his view of the world, but maintaining a feminine spark that can still be seen through the eyes, as Maxine asserts that Lotte’s can, suggests a gender fluidity rather than a binary relationship. While this is obviously not the way that a transgendered person in the real world exists, the experience does lead to a revelation in Lotte, and a turning point in her character, as she articulates her own chosen identity and decides to actively pursue a happier and more satisfying relationship. Maxine and Lotte’s relationship, which is eventually achieved without a physical male surrogate, is the healthiest one in the film, and their ultimate production of a child and happily-ever-after ending stands in stark contrast to the loveless marriage that Lotte and Craig were both searching for an escape from. Craig, who attempts to be domineering in his relationship with Lotte and manipulative in his relationship with Maxine, is ultimately rejected by both and ends up alone, forced to watch their happiness through the portal, as it connects to the consciousness of Maxine and Lotte’s love child (conceived through Malkovich), Emily.

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The other aspect of the film that interested me on this rewatch was its treatment of celebrity. In 1999, famous actors and other celebrities existed in a world that was out of reach to the common person, accessible only through tabloid newspapers and gossip shows. Now, in an age of pervasive social media, the film’s portal into John Malkovich’s brain has been actualized through celebrities’ Twitter feeds, and Instagram videos. Fans now have a window into their favorite celebrities’ private lives. Being able to actually see through the eyes of, and effectively inhabit, a famous person would still probably be a valued commodity for some, but with access to our idols’ innermost thoughts and feelings on a stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, it seems less attractive. Want to know what life is like for John Malkovich? Follow his Twitter feed and find out his pet’s favorite Starbucks order.

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Despite all of that, Being John Malkovich never really feels dated. The film is nearly 20 years old, but aside from the obvious advancements in technology, it is set in such a unique world that, rather than reflecting the time in which it was made, it seems to exist just outside of time. The film’s satire of Hollywood culture and the arts scene in general still ring true, and the film’s central theme of longing to break out of one identity and into another is a universal concept. Ultimately, underneath all of its cerebral meta- trappings, Being John Malkovich is a love story, and a story about the lengths to which these characters will go to make themselves feel lovable. If the film’s strange setting is a bit alienating, its emotional core, and the performances of its cast shine through and give the viewer something to cling to. I hadn’t watched this movie in many years, and while it still doesn’t rank among my very favorite Kaufman films, I could understand why it might for others. The building blocks of his future scripts are in place here, and many of the themes that he continues to explore in his films to this day are fleshed out quite well in Being John Malkovich. I’ll probably end up going back to this movie with more frequency than I have in the past.

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Written by: Franco Solinas

Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Saadi Yassef, Jean Martin


I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the spring of 2005 when it was assigned to me for a project during my freshman year of college. I was taking a World Film History course and the major assignment was to do a short research project on a classic international film. Films were chosen at random out of a hat, and I was lucky enough to draw a film that was not only readily available to screen, but was actually experiencing a cultural and critical re-evaluation at the time. Some students drew films that were more obscure, or even lost, having to rely on secondary and tertiary sources to build up their projects, but The Battle of Algiers had actually been released on DVD through the Criterion Collection in 2004, and there was a wealth of criticism about the film, both contemporary and from the film’s initial release in 1966. It was one of the first overtly political films that I had ever seen, and I watched it several times while I was working on the research project. Exposure to The Battle of Algiers at that early time in my study of film, and to the primarily Marxist essays and criticisms I was reading about the film, changed the way I thought about movies and how to approach them analytically.

The film depicts the events of a three year period from 1954 to 1957 during the Algerian War of Independence, focusing particularly on the formation of a guerilla branch of the FLN (National Liberation Front) in the Casbah and the subsequent attempts of the French military to quell the uprising. The film opens at the end of its narrative, with Ali La Pointe (Hadjadj) and several other FLN freedom fighters trapped in a building in the Casbah, surrounded by French paratroopers, and then flashes back to 1954 to show the events that have led to this point. Ali is a petty criminal who is recruited by the FLN, and rises through the ranks, providing the audience a glimpse into how the group is organized and the tactics that the rebels employ in their fight against the French colonialists. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war. Over the course of the film, we see the violence in the Casbah escalate from shootings to bombings. At the same time, we are shown the French army respond to this violence with equally savage methods including torture and summary executions. While the military wins the Battle of Algiers by assassinating or neutralizing the FLN’s leadership, the film’s epilogue flashes forward to 1960, showing that the spirit of revolution is still alive in the Casbah as pro-Algerian demonstrations have broken out again. On July 2, 1962, the Algerian nation was established, and French colonization of the country and its citizens was ended after nearly 150 years.

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An Italian and Algerian co-production, The Battle of Algiers is part procedural, part action film, and part docu-drama, and it could be considered a very late entry into the cycle of post-war Italian neo-realist films. It is based on the field memoirs of Saadi Yassef, a military commander for the FLN who was captured during the Battle of Algiers, who also plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film, El-hadi Jaffar. Pontecorvo was no doubt influenced by the films of his peers in the school of neo-realist filmmaking, as he consciously chose to give the film the feeling of a documentary, though it is fictionalized. The Battle of Algiers is shot like a newsreel, in black and white, employing handheld camerawork and quick zooms. Its style and relationship to actual, recent, historical events help the film blur the line between fiction and documentary. The film features almost exclusively non-professional actors, furthering its realism. Pontecorvo chose his cast based on their appearances, rather than their acting ability, and he often frames his characters in close-up, capturing expressive faces that resonate emotionally and contrast with the more detached, documentary presentation of the chaos and violence of the Casbah during the war. The film ultimately doesn’t make an explicit endorsement for either side in the conflict, mainly due to pressure from its Italian producers who insisted on a neutral presentation of the conflict, but I think that Pontecorvo’s stylistic choices in the film make it clear that his sympathies are with the Algerians. Though the film depicts the suffering of Algerians and French alike, we are intended to see Ali, Jaffar, and the other FLN freedom fighters as the heroes, and the French Colonel Mathieu (Martin, the film’s only professional actor) as the villain.


Though it is presented simply, as a realist document, The Battle of Algiers certainly doesn’t lack for style. The film’s camerawork is technically impressive, with cinematographer Marcello Gatti creating a claustrophobic, oppressive tone as his camera explores the maze of alleys that make up the Casbah through masterful handheld tracking shots and zooms. As mentioned earlier, these zooms often end in close-ups of people’s faces, drawing the audience’s attention to the palpable suffering of the Algerians. The film’s grainy, black and white is evocative of newsreel footage, but it is also beautiful, allowing for both softly-lit interiors and high-contrast exterior shots of the Casbah that establish a concrete sense of place. The film’s use of sound also helps to establish place and mood. The score, by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone, alternates between pieces built around frantic drumming and woodwinds, underscoring the tense mood of the conflict, and pieces that feature slow, elegiac strings that heighten the emotional impact of some of the film’s more violent scenes. The film also uses diegetic sound to establish the differences between the French colonialists, who are associated with the sounds of gunfire, trucks, and cars, and the Algerians who are associated with the explosions of bombs, native drumming, and with the wailing and chanting of the citizens of the Casbah as they take to the streets to protest their treatment at the hands of their colonizers. The French are aurally associated with elements of modernity while the Algerians are associated with a more primal, tribal sound palate. The effect of this contrast isn’t pejorative, however. When coupled with the numerous shots of the thousands of Algerian extras-all actual residents of the Casbah-gathered in sorrowful prayer, the soundscape imbues the Algerian cause with a sort of religious piety.

Despite its resistance to embracing an overt political position, The Battle of Algiers has become an important film in the history of political discourse. At the time of its release, the film was praised by many critics, and won several awards at major European film festivals, but the film also had detractors and was banned in France until the early 1970s for being too sympathetic to the Algerian point of view. It was released at a time of global decolonization and worldwide struggles by oppressed peoples to assert their right to self-determination, and The Battle of Algiers was seen by many as a primer for revolutionary action. The film was also used as an example of successful counter-insurgency tactics due to its realistic depictions of urban military operations and guerilla warfare tactics. The film was famously screened at the White House in 2003 due to the similarities of the film’s subject matter to the then-new Operation Iraqi Freedom. This similarity to geopolitical realities at the beginning of the 21st century led to a renewed interest in the film, ultimately resulting in a remastering and theatrical re-release of the film in 2004. It was in this context that I first encountered The Battle of Algiers.

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Coming of age during the George W. Bush administration helped shape my development as a politically progressive, leftist-leaning malcontent. I spent my teens reading Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Saul Alinsky, and developing more and more disdain for the American military-industrial complex, in general, and the seemingly endless military conflict in the Middle East, in particular. The more I learned about the history of America, the more I was able to connect the Iraq war to a long chain of injustices, played out on the global scale, committed in the name of American cultural hegemony and imperialism. Seeing The Battle of Algiers helped to connect that sense of history to a larger, global context, and to the anti-imperialist struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world. I already had a vague sense of the global history of revolution in the 20th century, but my work researching The Battle of Algiers and its context brought me into contact with writers such as Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernesto Freire who helped to illuminate the power relationships between the colonizer and the oppressed, and underlined the role of global capitalism in upholding these relationships. For someone of my political persuasions to discover The Battle of Algiers at that time was a revelation. It felt extremely relevant at the time, and helped to crystallize my beliefs.

If The Battle of Algiers felt prescient to me in 2005, it may be even more so after watching it again in 2017. The military conflict that I found so abhorrent then, in its infancy, has continued on for nearly 15 years, a slog that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Over the course of the conflict, debates over the morality of remote drone warfare and “enhanced interrogation techniques” filled the news, reminiscent of the scenes of torture in the film. American attempts at regime-building, proposed under the guise of “spreading democracy,” have continued to further destabilize the Middle East, ensuring indefinite continued military engagement in the region. The tactics of warfare have changed in the 21st century but the underpinning motive of promoting the cultural and political hegemony of the United States remains. Over the last decade, Islamophobia has become rampant in response to high profile instances of religious extremism, but I’m always conscious of the fact that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Terror inducing violence is unacceptable on every level, but I’m reminded by The Battle of Algiers that often acts of terrorism are direct responses by the oppressed to the injustices meted out on them by their oppressors. In many ways, Western hegemonic powers such as France and the United States laid the groundwork for the 21st century terror state through their history of colonial oppression. As Fanon pointed out, often violence is the only language that can be understood by those who would wield power violently over the disenfranchised.

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The scene that stuck with the most during this rewatch of The Battle of Algiers was the film’s epilogue. After Ali la Pointe, Jaffar, and the rest of the FLN’s leadership has been eliminated, the film shows us that the revolution lived on without them. After a two year period of relative piece in Algiers, the residents of the Casbah once again took to the streets in December, 1960, waving flags and asserting their desire to live free of the tyranny of colonialism. Pontecorvo somehow recreates this scene, filming hundreds of extras as they teem through the streets of the Casbah, chanting, ululating, and waving flags bearing the crescent and star. Again, the handheld camera puts the audience in the midst of a mob scene, moving through the crowd, picking up on determined faces, as a reporter gives context to the images through his voice-over description. Smoke and dust obscure the view as the crowd faces off against police and the military, who are badly outnumbered despite their martial superiority. Police beat the marchers with clubs and the army attempts to drive them away with tanks, but the crowd will not disperse. The demonstrations are shown to have gone on for nearly a month, before finally ending on December 21st, 1960, after having captured the hearts and minds of the French public and prompting many in the political class to consider “seeking a new relationship with Algeria,” as the film puts it.

In the film’s final scene, a French military officer approaches the gathered mob in the Casbah, who are obscured by smoke. “Return to your homes!” he shouts, “What do you want?” The camera slowly zooms past the officer, and from the smoke comes the response from the demonstrators, “Independence! Our pride! We want our freedom!” Slowly the smoke begins to clear, revealing the demonstrators, who are chanting defiantly in the face of authority. Two women who are dancing and waving flags stand out from the crowd immediately, and the camera again picks up on their faces. Though they are pushed back by the police, the women continue to advance, their visages alight with pride and dignity. The film’s final shot is a close up of one of the women twirling and waving her flag, a smile beaming across her face, as the voice over narration reminds the audience that though there were still two years of struggle to come, “on July 2nd, 1962, with its independence, the Algerian nation was born.”

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I was struck by the passion that that woman displayed. No doubt, she had experienced first-hand the oppressive nature of colonialism just a few years before being shot for The Battle of Algiers. The pride and the determination she showed was earned through her actual struggle to live in a free society. Watching those last scenes, I thought about the real-life scenes of riots and demonstrations that I had seen broadcast from Baltimore, from Ferguson, from countless other cities in America where African-American men were murdered at the hands of the police. I was reminded that the struggle for freedom isn’t limited to the past, nor is it confined to matters of national identity. If, in my country, a person cannot walk down the street without fearing for their life, then we have not moved past the injustices of a colonial system in which the ruling class seeks to exploit and dominate the underclass. The civil rights leaders of the 1960s looked to global anti-colonialist movements with an eye towards solidarity, and I think that it could be instructive for those who would fight for equal rights to make sure that they continue to explore that history. The combined forces of nationalism, capitalism, and ethnocentrism seek to divide and oppress the masses, profiting the wealthy while treading on the poor and the weak. There are historical examples of times when revolutionary action was necessary to overthrow tyrannical governments, right historical injustices, and restore power to the people. The lesson I’ve taken from watching The Battle of Algiers after seeing my country elect a quasi-fascist bigot to the highest office in the land is that revolution is a struggle, but, as I was reminded by the woman from the film’s ending, it should also be a joy.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner


The Coen brothers have made some of my very favorite films. Their filmography is notable in both its depth of quality and its stellar high-end pedigree. Even their lesser regarded films are typically enjoyable, and a cut above the standard Hollywood fare, while their best films are often regarded as classics. Barton Fink falls into this latter category, continuing a string of early offbeat classics that would set the tone for the brothers’ careers going into the 1990s. Though it may not be as widely seen as some of the Coens’ later films such as Fargo or The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink deserves consideration along with those films and others from throughout the brothers’ thirty year run of filmmaking as one of the best in their catalog. The film continued to establish the brothers as visionary talents with a knack for crafting intricate, genre-bending screenplays, as well as furthering their unique and distinctive visual storytelling style. Barton Fink is a neo-surrealist nightmare of a comedy and it often vies for the top spot in my ever-shifting list of favorite films by the Coen brothers.

Though it might get overshadowed by some of the obvious high points of the Coens’ catalog that surround it, Barton Fink is an offbeat masterpiece in its own right. The brothers wrote the screenplay while taking a break from working on their third feature, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, and the two films could not be more different in tone. A period piece, Barton Fink is set in 1941 and follows the titular Barton Fink (Turturro), a successful New York playwright who attempts to transition his career to writing scripts in Hollywood. Barton arrives in Hollywood and takes up a room at the dilapidated Hotel Earle, where he struggles to begin work on the wrestling picture which he has been assigned by Capitol Pictures. Barton is nebbish and anxious, a typical East coast intellectual, who worries that his relocation to sunny California and the shallow material he’s asked to work with for the studio will sever his connection to the common man and hinder his quest to bring a more perfect art form to the theater. One of the reasons for Barton’s inability to work is his loud and boisterous neighbor at the Earle, Charlie (Goodman), a salt of the earth insurance salesman who is a perfect foil for the high-minded Barton. Eventually the two strike up a friendship, with Barton fetishizing Charlie’s experience as an everyday working man. The film’s final third takes a dark turn with Barton becoming embroiled in a murder investigation, while Charlie is revealed to be an at-large serial killer with a penchant for removing his victims’ heads. In the end, Barton finishes his screenplay but is ultimately blackballed by his studio, and he is relieved of the pressure of the detectives who are investigating him by the nightmarish return of Charlie (or “Madman” Mundt, as he is referred to by the detectives) who becomes evil incarnate when he torches the Hotel Earle and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.

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Already known for creating films that are difficult to slot into any one particular genre or style of filmmaking, Barton Fink is probably the Coens’ most unclassifiable film to that point in their careers. While they had explored dark, anarchic comedy in Raising Arizona, that film lacks the elements of surrealism and outright horror that are present at times in Barton Fink. The film also features much more narrative ambiguity and opens itself up more to its viewers’ subjective interpretation than any of their previous films. Miller’s Crossing presents quite a tangled web of narrative interconnections and plot twists, but careful viewers can navigate the film’s twists and turns to arrive at a sense of narrative completion and truth. Barton Fink, however, doesn’t offer up a clear narrative solution, leaving its viewers instead with a series of unanswered questions and a plethora of potential clues that could explain some of the film’s stranger elements. What I love about Barton Fink is that it is so amorphous, and it’s a great film to watch again and again, refining your own personal theory to explain how it is that Barton experiences the things he does in the Hotel Earle. I’ve been doing so for the last 15 years, since first seeing the film.

My personal theory about Barton Fink is that Barton died at some point on his journey from New York to Los Angeles, and that the Hotel Earle is some sort of Purgatory, where the residents must be judged and tested to determine their ultimate fate in the afterlife. Barton’s cross country journey is elided, replaced by a brief shot of a wave crashing upon a rock that will become symbolically important later in the film, and from the outset his stay at the Hotel Earle supports the theory that there may be something more than meets the eye about the tumbledown, gloomy hotel. Upon check-in, Barton is greeted by Chet (Steve Buscemi), the hotel’s concierge, who ascends a set of stairs and emerges from a trap door to ask Barton whether he is a “trans or a res,” meaning a transient or resident guest. Barton replies that he will be staying “indefinitely.” The hotel’s lobby is dim, populated by many overstuffed arm chairs, illuminated by very few stray beams of sunlight. Barton’s room is bare, aside from a picture on the wall of a girl sunbathing on the beach, staring into the horizon as the tide comes in. The sunny image in the picture represents an oasis in the otherwise grim room. The hotel is decorated in drab greens and yellows that call to mind rot and sickness, and the wallpaper in Barton’s room peels, revealing oozing, sweaty walls. The shoes left at the door of each room for nightly shining seem to suggest a hotel full of guests, but Barton and Charlie are the only ones we actually see, giving the Earle the feeling of a haunted house. Barton’s interactions with the hotel’s staff, whether with Chet or with Pete (Harry Bugin), the hotel’s morose elevator operator, are exceedingly surreal, consisting of clipped dialogue and frequent non-sequiturs, as if Barton’s reality doesn’t quite match up with theirs.

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Barton’s physical appearance throughout the film also supports this theory that he may be dead. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Barton’s physical and mental state appear to steadily deteriorate until he is able to finish his screenplay. He is plagued by ever-worsening boils, which he explains away as mosquito bites. Though it is mentioned that there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles as they are most commonly found in swamps, there is clearly a mosquito in Barton’s room, again indicating that something is not right about the Hotel Earle. He is also plagued by not only writer’s block, but intense anxiety, bordering on paranoia, as he hears sounds through the walls at the hotel. He becomes prone to extended bouts of daydreaming as he stares at the picture on his wall, fantasizing about escaping from the gloomy confines of his room at the Earle. Even outside the hotel, Barton is often shown anxiously sitting through meetings with studio executives, his pocked face glistening with sweat, giving him the pallid look of a corpse.

After a lover is found inexplicably dead in his bed, Barton’s paranoia turns to full on mania as he asks his only friend, Charlie, to help him dispose of the body and remedy the situation. Charlie leaves town, assuring Barton that everything is taken care of with regards to the body, and asks him to safeguard a package for him which we must later presume contains the head of the woman who was killed in Barton’s bed. Barton is left weeping in his room with the package and his unfinished script. As he is battling his writer’s block, Barton opens his desk drawer and finds the ubiquitous hotel room Gideon’s Bible. Opening the Bible to a random page, Barton discovers this verse from Daniel describing the demands of a King: “…Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, ye shall be cut in pieces…” Turning then to the book of Genesis, Barton sees the opening lines of his own screenplay as the first two verses in the Bible. This juxtaposition of Barton’s own work with the verse in the Bible indicates that finishing his screenplay is to be the test he must pass to depart from the Hotel Earle. The King’s demand to “make known to me my dreams” echoes the demand of Capitol Pictures studio head, Jack Lipnick (Lerner), that Barton turn in a crowd-pleasing, studio friendly wrestling picture, rather than the sort of high art that Barton aspires to. This revelation, coupled with Barton’s encounter with the detectives, Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney), who are on the hunt for Charlie, give him the impetus needed to finish his screenplay, which he does in one bout of inspired writing.

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The final scenes of Barton Fink drive home the theory that Barton and Charlie are playing out a waiting game in Purgatory, while they attempt to finish out some aspect of their life’s work. After returning to the hotel from celebrating the completion of his screenplay, Barton finds the detectives in his room, rifling through his papers. They question Barton about his role in the murders, as another Capitol writer whom Barton had been acquainted with and admired has been found dead, and handcuff him to the bed, which is still soaked with blood. Before they can arrest Barton, however, the detectives leave the room to investigate smoke and heat pouring in from the hallway. They’re greeted by Charlie, who is wielding a double barrel shotgun, which he uses to quickly dispatch Mastrionotti. Charlie then charges down the hallway at Deutsch, bellowing “I will show you the life of the mind,” followed by a wall of fire. The hallway engulfed in flames around them, Charlie shoots Deutsch and then turns into Barton’s room for one last chat.

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Charlie settles into the chair at Barton’s desk with the world-weary air of a man who has spent one long day too many at the office. When Barton confronts Charlie about his true identity as Madman Mundt, Charlie launches into a monologue that begins, “Jesus, people can be cruel. If it’s not my build, it’s my personality,” and in which he lays out his justification for his killings. Charlie feels sorry for the people of the world, sees their day-to-day struggles, and thinks that he can best help them by giving them assistance in sloughing off their mortal coil. He laments that he has no one to have mercy on him and help him out in a similar fashion. “You think you know pain?” he says to Barton, “You think I made your life Hell? Take a look around this dump. You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here, Barton. Don’t you understand that?” Charlie has never been able to leave the Hotel Earle; the best he can do is transform it through his violence. While the hotel was once a Purgatory, Charlie has unleashed Hell on Earth, and he intends to stay there. He frees Barton from his handcuffs, and then tells him that he’ll be next door if Barton needs him. As Barton leaves his room with his finished script and Charlie’s package in tow, we see Charlie step through the inferno into his hotel room, symbolically passing into the afterlife.

Though his script is ultimately rejected, and Lipnick threatens to keep him in a professional purgatory by forcing him to work out his contract for Capitol Pictures while refusing to produce any of his scripts, Barton, too, passes into the afterlife at the film’s end. After the rejection, Barton is walking along the beach, still carrying Charlie’s package. There is a shot of a wave crashing over a rock that directly mirrors the shot that is used as a transition earlier in the film when Barton journeys from New York to Los Angeles. I believe these shots symbolically represent his character entering into a new state of being, both passing from life into death and his Purgatory state at the Hotel Earle, and then passing from Purgatory into some sort of Heaven on the beach. Barton finds a place to settle on the beach, and he is approached by a beautiful woman who sits down in front of him. “You’re very beautiful,” he asks, “Are you in pictures?” To which she replies, “Don’t be silly,” as she turns from him to stare out across the waves, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the Sun, and assuming the pose of the woman in the picture in Barton’s room. The film ends with the two of them sitting on the beach, Barton having finished his journey and finally ended up in the oasis depicted in his picture.

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Barton Fink is so rich with symbolism and literary and textual references that one could easily come up with several other plausible theories to explain the events that take place in this unusual film. In fact, my preferred analysis is actually largely unsupported by interviews with the Coen brothers that I’ve read, and their stated desire to make a sequel to the film set in the 1960s runs directly counter to my supposition that Barton is dead. However, the beauty of a film like Barton Fink is that it is so open to interpretation and so varied in its themes that it can be exactly the type of film that any given viewer might be looking for on any given viewing. There are multiple allusions to creeping fascism and the United States’ eminent entry into World War II throughout the film if one chooses to read it in that way. There is certainly evidence that everything did, in fact, happen as it was depicted and that the world of Barton Fink is just supremely strange. My own interpretations of the film have changed with time, and could likely change again, but that’s always been a part of the fun of it for me. The film is also entertaining, funny, and populated with incredibly strong performances from its cast so that if one doesn’t care to dive deep into its narrative looking for deeper meaning and continuity, it can still be an impactful and memorable viewing experience. As I mentioned earlier, Barton Fink is somewhat lesser seen than other Coen brothers films, but it is certainly not of any lesser merit, and if you haven’t seen it yet I would suggest remedying that as soon as possible.