It is perhaps unwise to cite Wikipedia’s definition of surrealism but, nevertheless, it is worth considering in relation to the Coen Brothers’ intensely strange Barton Fink (1991) and David Lynch’s hallucinogenic masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001) – two surrealist satires of the Hollywood machine.
According to Wikipedia, works of surrealism feature “the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur”, all of which appear in both films. But, the strongest element of surrealism is the tension between dreams and reality. The films cover arguably well-worn subjects: Barton Fink concerns a playwright struggling to maintain his integrity when he is hired as a screenwriter for a Hollywood film studio; Mulholland Drive, relatively speaking, focuses on an aspiring actress attempting to break into movies. However, their narratives are corrupted and warped, littered with symbolism. They are wilfully ambiguous, bizarre, and scathing accounts of the sinister machinations of the Hollywood movie industry.
Is—as both films allude to—surrealism the only way to satirise the shallowness and excess of Hollywood? Something like Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a Hollywood satire played like a blackly comic film noir, a more straightforward offering than Lynch’s work and the Coens. Yet, in the worlds that the Coens and Lynch create, the only meaningful way in which to satirise the Hollywood film industry is through surrealism; to make it seem alien and perverse, ungrounded in reality, underlining the inscrutable actions and motivations of studio bosses and executives. Certainly, nothing is more flashy or self-congratulatory than Hollywood and the Oscars; the fantastically sycophantic TV hosts on the red carpet submitting to glitzy falseness. It is a nauseating self-mythologizing culture, ridden with tacky artifice. Surrealism seems the most appropriate way of understanding such an ugly phenomenon, since both are so far removed from the real.
With his towering haircut, not unlike Henry Spencer’s in Lynch’s own Eraserhead (1977), Barton Fink—portrayed by John Turturro—is assigned the job of writing a “wrestling picture”. His position in the ranks of Hollywood screenwriters troubles him – he claims he’ll become distanced from “the common man” and a sense of realness. The loneliness and anonymity of being an underappreciated Hollywood screenwriter is darkly detailed by Fink’s lodgings: the dilapidated Hotel Earle, replete with aging bellboys and peeling wallpaper. The décor is opulent, though grimy and depressing; it is entirely empty. Fink’s only respite is the incongruous painting of a woman by the beach, neatly referenced again at the film’s end.
Life at Hotel Earle is hell – quite literally. At one point, it becomes engulfed in flames, as fellow resident Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) runs amok with a shotgun. Barton Fink’s 1940s Hollywood is callous and opportunistic. “Right now, the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures,” says an assistant to Fink. The Coens’ surrealism is subdued and painterly, revealing itself slowly, its commentary on the grotesque side of Hollywood multifaceted and studious.
Surrealism’s preoccupation with the subconscious, and the gulf between dreams and reality, is writ large in Barton Fink’s implied insomnia. At no point do we see him drifting off into a deep slumber. His sleep pattern is irregular, often interrupted (frequently by a buzzing mosquito).
As an effect everything becomes marred in uncertainty, especially towards the film’s end when events become increasingly odd. In a moment of farcical surrealism, the studio boss of Capitol Pictures, provoked by the Pearl Harbour attacks, claims to be waiting for an Army reserve commission, outfitted in a colonel’s uniform – belonging to the studio.
Lynch’s surrealism, on the other hand, is woozy and curdled, imbued with a narcotic melancholy. Everything is a mystery. Contrary to Barton Fink’s linear (if somewhat nonsensical) plotline, Mulholland Drive’s series of untethered vignettes illustrate its formlessness, eventually tied up by way of a superb conceit; what some critics call its narrative Möbius strip. It offers multiple interpretations, a great deal of which rest on the idea that its protagonist Betty (a career-best Naomi Watts) is experiencing a tangled mess of dreams, hallucinations and deluded fantasies. This may explain her “alter-ego” Diane, a tragic figure in the film’s perceived parallel universe. It is entirely apt given the surrealists’ interest in Freudian psychoanalytic theory.
The intimidating techniques employed by a shady organisation to get director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) to replace his film’s leading actress with their preferred choice are unusual to say the least. In a boardroom meeting with the Castigliani brothers, Kesher refuses to change his leading lady, to which one of the brothers lets out an enraged shout and asserts, “It’s no longer your film.” His words illustrate the intervention by committee that typifies Hollywood filmmaking. The scene’s trademark Lynchian weirdness—one of the brothers shows his disgust with an espresso by simply regurgitating it into a napkin—compounds the sense of heady surrealism.
Perhaps the greatest condemnation of the Hollywood entertainment industry comes when Betty and “Rita” (Laura Harring) attend the Club Silencio, wherein a man on stage proclaims, “It is an illusion”. He is talking about the tape recordings that masquerade as music in the theatre, but he could easily be talking about Hollywood, a superficial, glossy institution less concerned with cinema than spectacle.
In the Hollywoods of Mulholland Drive and Barton Fink, starlets and screenwriters are vulnerable and expendable; unlike traditional Hollywood storytelling neither Barton nor Betty live happily ever after. Barton and Betty, like the audience, are trying to make sense of the unfathomable industry of Hollywood and, as such, their understanding and their own sense of reality suffers. It dissolves into a dreamlike state, marooned between dreams and reality.
Jacob Bernard-Banton is a journalist. He writes regularly for Dazed.