In 1941 a $1,000 or $2,000 a week offer to write for Hollywood would be pretty tempting, even if you felt your poetic and insightful work for the New York stage had started to make a difference in the lives of common man. Then if you're a good Jewish boy, like Barton Fink in the Oscar-nominated film bearing his name, accepting such an offer might be tantamount to selling your soul to the devil. You might as well check yourself into Hell right now, and that's exactly what Fink did when he got a room at the Hotel Earle, a seedy Hollywood place where you can stay "A day or a lifetime."
The bellhop ascended from a trap door behind the counter, something like Satan appearing on stage during a play (possibly an allusion to Fink leaving his stage-writing career behind). Fink's sixth-floor destination is announced three times in the elevator, alluding of course to the mark of the beast. Most consequential of all, Fink meets his neighbor Charlie Meadows whose anger and frustration not only increases the hotel's temperature but ultimately produces fire (obviously a symbolic fire since it is no impediment to Fink departing the "burning" hotel). If Fink had noticed the pencil on the hotel stationary didn't have a lead, then perhaps he might have realized this might not be the best place to do his writing.
While theatre and film are two places illusion reigns supreme, it might be argued the stage is a little less illusory since we are at least viewing live actors. In film, we watch shadows of actors from a time somewhere in the past. With this in mind, it could be said Fink began a descent from reality to illusion the moment he agreed to write for film. This descent into illusion increased throughout the story, with Fink's world (or at least his view of it) becoming less and less likely, and ultimately ending in a conversation between Fink and the mysterious "girl on the beach" from a painting in his hotel room.
Plato's Allegory of the Cave, provides us with an almost prophetic description of the illusory effect of Hollywood movies. In it, prisoners watch shadows projected on a cave wall much like we view a movie projected onto a screen. In the allegory, the prisoners have never seen the real objects which make these shadows. The prisoners only hear sounds through echos off the same cave wall, again like our experience in the cinema. Because this has been their only experience since birth, the prisoners assume these shadows are the real thing and they cannot imagine any other reality. In movies we are asked to buy into the reality projected on a screen. The line between shadow or illusion, and reality, can become blurred, even if this effect is only temporary.
In Barton Fink, Fink loses his ability to distinguish between "shadows" and the real thing. Hotel Earle seems to be the epicenter and to some extent the impetus of Fink's departure from reality. Like some of Plato's allegorical prisoners venture from the cave Fink ventures from his hotel room, but his experiences in the "real world" are not as enlightening as those of the prisoners. He meets the writer W.P. Mayhew, whom Fink practially idolizes. Mayhew dresses in a white suit and has written a novel about Nebuchadnezzar, which could mean he is meant to be a "God" character in contrast to Charlie representing a fallen angel (if not Satan himself). Fink associates Mayhew's writing with the Holy Bible, seeing Mayhew's text written in biblical format, but when he imagines his own words printed on such a page, Fink's struggle with writer's block only increases. Fink learns Mayhew's texts were in fact written by a personal secretary, but when he tries to adopt her as his own muse she is murdered by Charlie, who has in his own way tried to be such a muse.
Unlike the prisoners in Plato's allegory, Fink's experiences outside the cave do not inform his understanding of the illusions in the film industry and his hotel room.
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