Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Outside the Box

By  · Published on August 17th, 2010

I know no cinephile whose taste in movies survives completely the decades of aging and growing as a filmgoer. I have little doubt that others like myself look back at films they loved ten or more years ago with different eyes, either with a more informed context, renewed appreciation, or even developing befuddled questions as to why they felt such affection for these films in the first place.

I recently found an interesting connection and disparate paths of meaning-making with regard to two films that originally inspired my love and appreciation for cinema, and it is in the respective ways in which these films use ambiguous objects.

The Briefcase and the Band-Aid

The briefcase of Pulp Fiction and the box in Barton Fink provide a rather appropriate avenue with which to explore open and closed readings of films. In my younger years, Pulp Fiction paved an important place in my path toward growth as a cinema-goer not only because of its electric entertainment value and irresistible dialogue, but because of the intended ambiguities that provided further speculation and discussion, namely regarding the contents of the mysterious glowing briefcase as well as the circulating idea that Marcellus Wallace (in direct relation to the briefcase, depending upon interpretation) was, in fact, the physical embodiment of Satan (a theory popularized, in part, by the band-aid placed prominently on the back of his neck during his introductory scene).

While these subjects originally provided a seemingly endless stream of engaging conversation during my younger years, now I find that – while such discussions can be engaging in a trivial sense – they hardly contain much value in gaining further appreciation of the film’s meanings. Any speculated-upon consensus on the status of the briefcase or the band-aid in Pulp Fiction indicates nothing but or beyond the speculation itself; it’s a closed reading of the film in that it is an attempt to attach meaning which resides only in the confines of and provided by the film itself, therefore ambiguities such as these are inherently limited because of these confines. If Marcellus Wallace is the Devil, how does that give further thematic meaning or significance to the narrative beyond trivia, especially if such an interpretation derives from deliberate ambiguity? (deliberate ambiguity, as in: there really is no answer to either enigma – nothing in the briefcase and no inherent significance to the band-aid)

How do we as viewers take away something more from the film if this were the case, and what more would Pulp Fiction have to say to us if these speculations were accepted as fact? In my humble opinion, there’s very little offered in such an assessment. Not to say that such interpretations are without worth or entertainment value, but often these interpretations are confused to be sources of meaning of any depth within the film itself, when they are instead simply intended ambiguities or, at most, vague appeals to the superficially cosmic that somehow (intended by the filmmaker(s) or not) permit a brand of trivial speculation confused as “depth” (this latter category makes up the problems inherent to most of Richard Kelly’s films, but I’ll save that discussion for another time). This approach to a film’s meaning is not only closed, but its relegation of significance in cinematic storytelling to ambiguous signifiers of cosmic depth in contrast suggests that any type of “humble” or “minimalist” filmmaking and its ability to comment on the everyday is somehow of less significance when compared to, say, lazy illusions of the Biblical.

When cinema does interact with ambiguity, I find more worth in those examples that provide open readings, or readings that allow extra-cinematic contexts (history, culture, literature, other films) and their respective inherent meanings to interact with the film’s meaning. Such readings allow for a meaning through ambiguity that actually contains depth with regards to an examination of ourselves – our history, our culture, etc. A close examination of the role of the box in Barton Fink shows both the limitations and the possibilities in an open reading of ambiguous objects in film.

The Box

Barton Fink is a film composed of boxes within boxes containing competing ambiguities and the elusive, deliberately limited hints of meaning interacting to form a beautifully composed – yet decisively incomplete – puzzle of form and narrative. The Coens’ signature referencing abounds, from nods to other works of cinema (from David Lynch to the ever-present Preston Sturges and anyone in between) and a prolonged, though inconclusive, discourse with literature and theater (Barton’s indictment of both the film’s Faulkner-esque character and Chekhov-style theater, an indictment that doesn’t seem to extend itself to the Coens themselves making such a comment).

The box at the center of the film – the one Mundt gives to Barton, the accepted though never decisive, Seven-foregrounding “head in a box” – serves as the location for these competing intersections of meaning. It takes the notional cinematic power of “not showing” (a notion that is most often credited as Hitchcockian but also predates even him) one step further into deliberate ambiguity; that is, into a physical location or representation that sums up the film’s wandering vagaries, intended ‘incompletion’ and aspirations of open meaning. The box in Barton Fink is a neo-MacGuffin in that it serves not only as an undefined device to propel the film’s plot, but also as a metaphor for its intended lack of complete meaning: it contains the film’s intersections, contradictions, and incoherence, rendering the mysterious function of the box more literal than symbolic. The box, in sober fact, contains nothing, though we are free to project upon it everything.

It is the box of Barton Fink that eventually collapses upon itself in the film’s Escher-esque thematic puzzle, eventually reflecting itself as an extension of Barton’s four-walled prison cell of a hotel room. Barton’s claustrophobic isolation makes his experience purely and increasingly subjective, a significantly contradictory setting for a playwright who repeatedly vocalizes his aspiration toward a socially relevant, populist ‘new theater’ while separated from the society he wishes to portray (that is, if such a society even exists beyond his aspirations toward artistic grandeur in the guise of populism). Fink’s beloved ‘common man’ is in fact his own self-deceptive brand of pretension. Rather than engage in social commentary all its own, Barton Fink suggests that any aspiration towards making a statement relevant to the average person is in fact more a bourgeois ideal than a tenable artistic goal; “social relevance” is purely an artistic device, and the “common man” a convenient illusion.

This all comes to a front in the film’s final-act introduction of tenable socio-historical reality: the invasion of Pearl Harbor and the catapulting of America into the Second World War. A popular reading of Barton Fink in this context is that Barton’s artistic and social isolationism a) prevents him from actually understanding the plight and needs of the common man to which he, under the cloak of condescension, claims to relate (after all, it was the desperation of Germany’s citizens that allowed Hitler’s success to power in the first place), b) makes him unable to see or predict the inevitable destruction wrought by the enemy right in front of him (here, pure evil personified by John Goodman’s Mundt), and c) shielded him from a periphery that otherwise would have permitted intervention until it was too late (the fact that Barton is one of the Coens’ few Jewish protagonists seems significant in this regard), thus bringing to the forefront the strict limitations of socially conscious art’s ability to actually inspire significant social change (the art made by the Nazis themselves was only affective because of the destruction of art that contradicted its intent). For an art film, Barton Fink ultimately contains little faith in art

Yet it is only in the WWII reading (not in closed readings of the “head in the box” theory or speculations of Mundt being the Devil or the Hotel Earle being hell (here lies a superficial Biblical connection between Barton Fink and Pulp Fiction)) that permits a reading of any open relevance, but it is one that requires a great deal of inference and context outside the confines of the film. More so than a comment on the relationship between isolationism and fascism, Barton Fink is instead a work of ambiguity through meaning, not meaning through ambiguity. Ambiguity is the film’s means to arrive at an ambiguous meaning – it bestows semblances of meaning and interactions between texts and symbols without committing itself to any one idea. But as an exploration of ambiguity itself, Barton Fink is fascinating in both structure and execution: the mysterious box on Barton’s desk contained within the equally enigmatic box of his hotel room; the mysterious sounds of adjoining rooms not leading to revelations that elicit further understanding of what Hotel Earle is, but seeping themselves into Barton’s room as he embodies those very sounds previously heard elsewhere (sex, crying, screaming).

What makes Barton Fink interesting is not the closed question of what is contained within the box (a question whose speculated answer reveals little significant information), but the open question of why nothing is in the box. How does this nothingness function in the rest of the narrative? (After all, meaninglessness has more overtly become a theme in the Coens’ most recent work.) There are always limitations to interpreting ambiguity in film, and inevitable brick walls encountered with enigmatic narratives, but in Barton Fink and other films that utilize deliberately ambiguous objects, it is the conversation of what’s outside the box rather than what’s inside that makes for compelling cinema.

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