Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Visual Effects and Subjective Reality in Barton Fink (1991)

This is a spoiler alert for the Coen Brothers film, Barton Fink (1991).

Visual effects are usually used in a very simple way conceptually, to show the audience something that would be hard to film, or expensive to film, or impossible to film, or just inconvenient to film. But generally the idea that is intended for the audience is that what you see is what you get, e.g. what you see is supposedly what happened.

If the story is simple, by definition the visual effects are almost certainly simple.  If the story has many levels or ambiguity or an "unreliable narrator", then there is an opportunity for visual effects to contribute to the film in a more interesting, at least conceptually, fashion.

Visual effects could, for example, show us what the character is feeling, or if the character is insane, what he is seeing.     It is not "photo realism", that hated and evil term of art, but maybe it is "subjective realism".

The best example I know of this, and one of my favorite uses of effects in any project, is the climax of the film Barton Fink (1991). This is a spoiler alert, read no further if you don't want to know.

It is a plot point of the film Barton Fink that whenever Charlie the insurance salesman (John Goodman) is around, it is very hot. The temperature is hot, so hot that the wallpaper peels off the hotel room walls. When Charlie is not around, the temperature returns to normal.   The heat and Charlie are in some way associated with each other.

Charlie, who is portrayed in the film as a prototypical "every man" is,  it turns out, a psychopath as well as an insurance salesman, whose trademark signature is to cut off the victim's head and leave the body.

The climax of the film occurs when two police detectives arrest Fink at his hotel because they believe that he is an accomplice and handcuff him to the metal frame bed in his hotel room. Charlie (aka Mad Man Mundt) has returned to "save the day" in a manner of speaking, and we know this because the temperature at the hotel starts rising.

Put down the policy case, Mundt, and put your mitts in the air.

The police detectives go out into the hallway to confront Mundt but when Mundt appears this time we can see what he sees: and what we see is that Charlie is in hell. And it is hot because wherever Charlie is there are flames burning all around him, in this case from the walls, even though the flames do not consume anything, e.g. the hotel does not burn down.

This is one of John Goodman's best performances.  This scene, and the one that follows, in which he explains his actions to Bart is spectacular.

One of the structural problems with visual effects in filmmaking is almost a tautology: visual effects are there to serve the story, but if the story is banal then the effects are banal as well, generally speaking. This is one of the best uses I know where visual effects are used to illustrate the subjective world of the character in a way that is spectacular and yet completely appropriate.

Its dramatic, its poetic, its intelligent,  and it is really well thought out.  How unusual.   

Now we return to the world of giant robots beating each other up and things exploding, the normal world of visual effects.

Barton Fink at IMDB

No comments:

Post a Comment