Hollywood has not only made a movie about the legendary medieval Fisher King, ruler of T.S. Eliot’s bleak, desolate Waste Land, it has brazenly entitled it The Fisher King, thus inviting comparison with one of the major literary works of the 20th century and by inference with some of the greatest achievements of the religious spirit. Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, the film’s stars, may not normally be thought of as much concerned with medieval legends of the Holy Grail, but Terry Gilliam, the film’s director, has said of the cinema, “The medium is so powerful that it should be used for enlightenment.” He adds with little reticence that his Fisher King is about “love, understanding, and redemption.” This message was received with apparent enthusiasm by the jury of the Venice Film Festival, which bestowed on the movie a major award. But since the title is only feebly accounted for in the film, and no one in the movie even comes near a fish, many film-goers will have only the haziest notion of who the Fisher King is.
In the film, the character played by Robin Williams, an insane but lovable street person and former professor of medieval history at New York’s Hunter College named Henry Sagan, has written a manuscript, The Fisher King, A Mythic Journey for Modern Man. We are not given details of this learned work, but later, in dialogue, Sagan recounts his version of the tale, according to which the Fisher King has a vision and is told he is to be keeper of the Holy Grail—the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper—“so that it shall heal the hearts of men.” The King falls on evil times, receives a deep wound, loses faith, even in himself, and begins to die. Whereupon a boy, a “fool,” gives him water to drink. The Fisher King’s wound is instantly healed and he sees the Holy Grail. When the King asks the boy how he was able to cure him when all his wise men could not, the boy explains, “I only knew that you were thirsty.” We have here, obviously, a thoroughly secularized version of the Grail legend. Its key is compassion. If the hearts of men were only compassionate again, all would be well.
In the varying but ubiquitous medieval legend of the quest for the Holy Grail, the Fisher King rules over a Waste Land which lies barren, because of some grievous wrong which can only be righted by an innocent and sometimes reluctant hero—Galahad in some versions, Percival in others. According to Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance—acknowledged by T.S. Eliot as source of the title, plan, and much of the symbolism of his The Waste Land—the deeply symbolic Fisher King, sometimes old, sometimes dead, sometimes merely wounded, is a creature “semi-divine, semi-human, standing between his people and land and the unseen forces which control their destiny.”
Jessie L. Weston, it should be noted, and with her T.S. Eliot, finds the origin of the Holy Grail cult not in Christianity but in ancient pre-Christian fertility rites. She dismisses those early writers, such as Chrétien de Troyes (12th century) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (13th century, from whose work Wagner drew his Percival or Parsifal), who thought the Fisher King owed his name to a fondness for fishing. Joining Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough, Weston identifies “the Fish” (she capitalizes) as a widespread symbol of life among ancient peoples. In Hinduism, the first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a fish. The Fish and Fisher are employed freely in Buddhism as throughout Chinese history. The Babylonians had a Fisher god or Fish god. Early Christians, some writers have maintained, derived their Fish imagery from the Hebrews, who in turn borrowed it from the Syrians and Sumerians. According to one Jewish “fish” tradition, at the end of the world the messiah will catch the great Fish Leviathan and divide its flesh as food among the faithful.
Fish and Fisher, in sum, are life symbols of great antiquity. In the bleak, twilight city of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the poet evokes, in contrast to the modern world’s spiritual desolation, a multitude of crumbling shards from the cultural and religious past, among them preeminently the ancient and powerful symbols of Fish and Fisher. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” All its other merits aside, The Waste Land displays an imposingly erudite familiarity with the history and meaning of those “fragments.”
It is an ancient tradition of Hollywood to avoid such erudition like the plague. It is also true that for years the Hollywood film-making community has been going “upmarket,” that it has grandiose ambitions and presumes to possess solutions to many of the ills that afflict humankind. But The Fisher King marks some kind of turning point. This is no longer the New Hollywood. It is post-New Hollywood, Hollywood gone intellectually ballistic.
Nor is The Fisher King alone this season. Another new movie, Barton Fink, awarded three top prizes at the other high-prestige film festival, at Cannes, also far transcends the line of intellectual pretension previously thought permissible in Hollywood. But first, The Fisher King.
Jack (Jeff Bridges) is an arrogant, irresponsible, wildly successful New York radio talk-show host. In the opening sequences of the movie Jack is clearly intended to represent everything that is selfish, insensitive, and “greedy” about modern America. Before signing off one morning, he displays his habitual heartlessness in his response to a repeat caller named Edwin. Edwin will never get the woman he’s seen at a “yuppie watering hole” and fallen in love with, Jack says. Yuppies inbreed, only mate with their own kind. This isn’t the America you and I believe in, Edwin, says Jack. And then, although it does not exactly follow or make much sense, Jack throws in a callous closing line: yuppies “must be stopped before it’s too late!” Edwin, the caller, in the depths of despair, goes to the yuppie watering hole in question and shoots to death seven people, then turns his shotgun on himself. On this epiphanic incident, caused by selfish, irresponsible, unfeeling Jack, the whole movie depends.
Here The Fisher King jumps ahead three years. Jack has dropped out of his glittery career with a thud. Still arrogant, now he is drunken, indolent, surly, living in a shabby New York neighborhood with loving, long-suffering Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), who runs a small video-rental store. Jack is presumably repentant, corroded by guilt, although his behavior is not noticeably more generous or concerned than when he was the king of New York’s radio call-in shows—until he encounters a strange and wonderful street person, Henry Sagan, now going under the name of Parry (Robin Williams). Parry, who sees the city “through the eyes of a medieval knight,” is the movie’s Fisher King, and Jack turns out to be its Galahad. Parry is Jack’s salvation.
Now this is original, because traditionally it is Galahad who is supposed to cure the Fisher King and not the other way around. What is the Fisher King—usually wounded, dead, or unhealthy—doing curing Galahad of his wound? And the plot thickens. It seems that Parry, although a “visionary street person,” is no happy hobo. He is insane. So, in this American version, Galahad and the Fisher King are both wounded—America, I gather, being a pretty sick place. And the plot thickens even more. Why is Parry insane? He is insane because, under the name of Henry Sagan, he saw his beautiful young wife murdered—by Edwin, the very same despairing caller driven to kill yuppies by callous radio call-in host Jack! So, in this modern American version, Galahad wounds the Fisher King before the Fisher King cures Galahad—and then Galahad cures the Fisher King. We wallow here in cures.
As he learns from Parry the meaning of life and true love, Jack becomes a good egg, or a much better egg. Parry teaches Jack how to take off all his clothes in Central Park at night and “cloud bust,” lying naked in the grass staring up at the heavens. Jack in turn begins an elaborate compensatory undertaking to bring Parry together with the girl of his dreams, Lydia (Amanda Plummer), something of a Woody Allen in drag yet even more of a klutz. (Miss Plummer, Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, and Mercedes Ruehl all turn in vivid, inventive performances.) All is more or less well until Parry, on the verge of great happiness with Lydia, has a flashback to that horrible moment when his wife was murdered and he falls into a catatonic state.
Jack, successful again, becomes arrogant and greedy as of yore, heartlessly abandoning Anne, who has lovingly stuck by him during his bad years—until a producer proposes to make a light-hearted weekly television comedy inspired by Jack’s adventures with the homeless. This, and a chance encounter with another street person we have met earlier in the story, a homosexual drag queen with friends dying of AIDS, makes Jack recoil in disgust from television’s venal, exploitative proposal. He realizes at last that his heart is with the street people and the homeless, the insulted and injured of our society. As proof of his moral renewal, this Galahad for Our Time rejects the sordid television offer and decides to stay with loving, earthy Anne.
At this point the movie again picks up the Grail story. It seems that Parry, convinced he was on the track of the Holy Grail, had shown Jack a magazine picture of a trophy in the possession of a very rich old man living in a castle on Fifth Avenue. Jack, assuming his Galahad persona, now scales the castle wall at night, enters the Chapel Perilous, and makes off with the object. The trophy is in fact in scribed: TO LONNIE CARMICHAEL, FOR HIS WORK IN THE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT, 1932, P.S. 247. But Parry does not know this and is now catatonic anyway. Yet Jack’s act of love and devotion magically brings Parry back to life: he leads his fellow happy lunatics in the psychiatric ward in a spirited chorus of “I love New York in June. How about you?” In the movie’s final scene, Jack and Parry lie peacefully naked at night in Central Park, “cloud busting.”
In the last act of Wagner’s Parsifal, the keeper of the Grail baptizes the beautiful, wicked, but repentant Kundry, exhorting her to trust in God. He sings of the country’s beauty: “How fair the field and meadows.” It is Good Friday and the bells call the Knights of the Grail to prayer. In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Galahad dies after a vision in which he receives the holy sacrament. But in our thoroughly modern movie there is none of this religious claptrap. What we have, instead, is a welfare-state version of the quest for the Holy Grail. Can the modern Fisher King, lying wounded in this barren, infertile land, be cured by welfare reform? Are Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, director Terry Gilliam, and Tri-Star Pictures, producers of The Fisher King, destined to begin the process of spiritual renewal? Who can say?
Barton Fink is not the story of a Jewish Galahad. Created by Joel and Ethan Coen, scripted by the two brothers working as a team, directed by Joel, produced by Ethan, Barton Fink is the first movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival to win three top awards (best film, best director, best leading actor, John Turturro). With The Fisher King sharing the Silver Lion at Venice, it makes an impressive one-two for the new highbrow Hollywood.
Barton Fink was conceived while the Coen brothers were stricken with writer’s block during the creation of Miller’s Crossing, an ambitious and critically well-received evocation of the Chicago gangland of the 1920’s. Like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is visually striking, unusually well cast, and oddly stylized. The Chicago mobsters of Miller’s Crossing are mythic characters whose behavior at several points makes no sense at all, and the Hollywood denizens of Barton Fink are equally mythic, derived in several cases from historical characters who were rather larger than life to begin with.
Yet the Coen brothers deny that they set out to make a film about Hollywood, new or old. “We started,” the brothers say, “with the idea of a big seedy hotel with John Turturro [much praised for his roles in films by Spike Lee] and John Goodman [best known for playing Roseanne Barr’s husband on television’s Roseanne]. We’d been reading a little bit about that period in Hollywood and it seemed like an amusing idea to have John Turturro as a playwright in Hollywood at that time .” In early conversations, the name of Clifford Odets kept coming up, so Turturro read books about Odets and the Group Theater, and also Michael Gold’s 1930 novel about the Lower East Side, Jews Without Money, and off they went.
For a movie in which the Coen brothers say Hollywood is a “secondary issue,” “almost the cheapest part,” and “not really what we were interested in,” Barton Fink overflows with Hollywood icons and folklore. We have baroque versions of not only Clifford Odets, but MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Michael Lerner), a quintessential period film producer (Tony Shalhoub), the novelist William Faulkner during one of his filmland stints (John Mahoney), and a lady presented as Faulkner’s mistress (Australia’s Judy Davis from Impromptu). We see the old Ambassador Hotel, the old MGM lot, Culver City, eyeglasses inspired by Louis B. Mayer’s, a hairdo inspired by George S. Kaufman’s, a colonel’s uniform made by the actual tailor who made one at the outbreak of World War II for Jack Warner. Larger than life, Barton Fink is also cruder than life. But if Terry Gilliam, director of The Fisher King, says he finds Hollywood “cynical,” “awful,” and “intimidating,” the Coen brothers do not seem intimidated at all.
Barton Fink opens with the Broadway triumph of Barton Fink’s Bare Ruined Choirs, a play about Fulton Street fishmongers (and a parody of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing!). “Cast iron wind . . . I’m awake for the first time in years! . . . My eyes are open now! . . . Let them sing their hearts out! . . . We’ll hear from that kid, and I don’t mean a postcard.” The Coen brothers consider their film a comedy, and their Barton Fink tells us lugubriously that he is the playwright of the “common man,” writing from “deep inner pain to ease the suffering of my fellow man,” the “average working stiff,” “the masses.” Anguished, Barton Fink asks why the hopes and dreams of this common man should move us less than those of kings.
Signed up by one of the major film studios, Fink checks into a dilapidated, ghostly Los Angeles hotel that seems to have been inspired by the Eagles’ eerie rock hit, Hotel California (“Welcome to the Hotel California. . . . You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave”). Actual screenwriters of the Barton Fink period, including Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Nathanael West, slaved away in little studio cubicles, but Barton Fink, assigned to a Wallace Beery wrestling movie, is allowed to stay home in his rundown hotel, and there (like the Coen brothers) he gets a grand case of writer’s block. He starts out: “Scene: A tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Faint traffic noise is audible.” He comes to a terrible halt. The next day he adds: “ . . . as are the cries of fishmongers.”
Down the hall is a friendly, hearty traveling insurance salesman, a common man if ever there was one, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), just dying to tell stories. Meadows says again and again, “I could tell you stories. . . .” These are tales which our blocked screenwriter desperately needs, but Fink always interrupts Meadows to rhapsodize on the theme of the writer’s mission to serve the common man. Self-absorbed, Fink cannot listen.
His encounters with the studio brass are bizarre but quite funny; the film’s most remarkable performance is by Michael Lerner as a combination of Louis B. Mayer and Columbia’s Harry Cohn:
Is that Barton Fink? Let me put my arms around this guy! The writer is king at Capital Pictures! We need more heart in the movies! The poetry of the streets! We want that Barton Fink feeling! The hopes and dreams of this wrestler! A romantic interest? Is Wally too old for a romantic interest? Is he an orphan maybe? Which is it, Bart? Orphan? Dame? I’m bigger, meaner, and louder than any other kike in this town! End of the week, Bart. We’re all expecting great things.
Fink’s encounters with the William Faulkner character are rather less entertaining. Timid, plain, no hand with the ladies, Barton Fink somehow manages to go to bed with Faulkner’s mistress, and during their night together the camera does strange things. It dollies over to the hotel room’s washbowl and goes down the drain—down, down, down—through the plumbing. After which Barton Fink becomes a different movie.
Is this Barton Fink Through the Washbowl Plumbing intended to be the Hollywood nether world? Is it a dream? The movie, from the time Fink arrives in Hollywood, has never been realistic. The vast and ghostly Hotel Earle has only two specter-like employees, and Fink and Charlie Meadows are its only guests. But when our blocked screenwriter wakes up in the morning post-plumbing, there is a sharp break. In a panic, Fink sees a flood of blood oozing from the lady he went to bed with, who is quite dead. Charlie Meadows disposes of the body for him. Fink has a story conference with the Louis B. Mayer-like studio mogul and finds him grotesque—although since the mogul was already rather grotesque the change here is less obvious than waking to find one’s bedmate dead. Back at the Hotel Earle, two hard-bitten (and anti-Semitic) detectives tell Fink that Charlie Meadows, now missing, is no likable traveling salesman after all but a serial killer, “Mad Man Mundt.”
In a burst, Fink finally writes a screenplay about a wrestling fishmonger, ending with the charged words, “We’ll hear from that wrestler again, and I don’t mean a postcard!” Our studio mogul rages at Fink for writing “a fruity movie about suffering” and announces he is going to keep him under contract but never produce any of his scripts (purgatory). And then Charlie Meadows, a/k/a Mad Man Mundt, returns. In the corridors of the Hotel Earle, ablaze with metaphoric hellfire, he guns down the police detectives, screaming, “I’ll give you the life of the mind!” We never, in fact, emerge from the washbowl plumbing.
What does it all mean? Since, according to the Coen brothers, Hollywood was not what they were really interested in, the true subject of the movie, still according to the Coen brothers, can only be the relationship between the common man’s playwright, Barton Fink, and a genuine common man, Charlie Meadows. Here the sanctimonious show-business leftism of the 1930’s and 1940’s is clearly being satirized. Written as it was by two blocked writers, Barton Fink seems, also, to be about the creative process. But why the blood? Why turn a gregarious, good-humored insurance salesman into a serial killer? Are these arbitrary plot devices supposed to deepen the audience’s perception of “reality”?
The Coen brothers are far more guarded about their movie’s meaning than was T.S. Eliot about The Waste Land, and no film critics I have read seem even to have noticed the through-the-washbowl-plumbing shot or the sharp change in register the shot marks. Some reviewers have merely labeled the film’s ending “obscure.” But it really does appear that everything after the plumbing—the bedmate dead, Charlie Meadows a serial killer, the hotel ablaze, the studio mogul threatening—is indeed a Barton Fink nightmare. It is admittedly an extensive and elaborate nightmare, taking as it does 45 minutes in a two-hour movie. But it hardly makes a satisfactory end for such a film, and it is not very funny. Which is unfortunate, because the early parts of Barton Fink show real talent.
When Lewis Carroll sent his Alice through the looking glass she found a droll, ironic world, still entertaining to us today. When the Coen brothers send Barton Fink through the plumbing of his seedy Los Angeles hotel, he finds flames, lurid violence. Does Barton Fink’s nightmare tells us anything interesting about the creative process, Hollywood, or even Barton Fink? In The Fisher King, director Terry Gilliam, responsible for the amusing and imaginative animation sequences in British television’s Monty Python series and for a number of increasingly ambitious movies (Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), similarly goes overboard when he pursues deep meaning.
But nowadays—witness the awards for both the Coen brothers and Gilliam—film-festival juries are really wowed by deep meaning.