The movies of the Coen Brothers are always defined by what can be described as a gentle, almost sweet, level of surrealism. But “Barton Fink” is out-and-out dark, yet still playfully bizarre and absurd. Supposedly conceived during a month-long hiatus from “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” stars John Turturro as the titular New York playwright who is brought to Hollywood and wooed by commercial success, coming to a creative crossroads while writing a cheap-o wrestling movie. Fink lives in a dumpy rundown hotel that also houses John Goodman’s enigmatic insurance salesman, with the pair soon forming a sort of odd couple. “Barton Fink” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (in a historic sweep, it also won both Best Actor and Best Director) and is probably the most philosophically discussed Coen Brothers movie (its Wikipedia page has an epic entry for its various themes, some of which seem wholly imagined). While there’s definitely something “off” about it from the beginning, in a way that all Coen Brothers movies are, it becomes really strange towards the end, where the plot starts to include a missing novelist, a mysterious package, and a hotel fire. Thankfully, “Barton Fink,” while not as immediately entertaining as something like “The Big Lebowski” or “Miller’s Crossing,” is still undeniably watchable and compelling, not least because of the excellent lead turn from an increasingly unhinged Turturro.. What’s more, it never sags under the weight of its ideas and themes, remaining lively and funny. Its existential, metaphysical quandaries never, thankfully, get in the way of a good joke.
It should have come as no surprise that the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of similarly perplexing (in a good way) features “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” would make a kind of grand-scale puzzle-box comedy/drama, one that folds in on itself until you’re not sure what’s real or imagined. Ostensibly a comedy (although this was significantly toned down in the screenplay’s transition to the screen) and incredibly difficult to describe succinctly, “Synecdoche, New York” stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as theater director Caden Cotard, whose bizarre project leads to him constructing an entire city inside a warehouse in New York, populating it with actors who double as people from his real life. The movie, of course, emphasizes the way that Caden is disconnected from people in his own life (there’s an amazing sequence where he thinks he sees his estranged daughter in a strip club) and Kaufman’s impressive script is only occasionally undone by the intermittently clumsy direction and Hoffman’s dour performance (again, it had a much more upbeat tone in the script). The fact that “Synecdoche, New York” works at all is pretty miraculous, but for it to work as well as it does is unthinkable. While critics seemed to appreciate it at the time, only a few stood up and loudly proclaimed it a new classic (its biggest supporter has been Roger Ebert, who in the highly-touted Sight & Sound poll ranked it as the eleventh greatest film of all time). And it will last the test of time, as a discussion piece at the very least.
Call it another fulfilling cycle that Carruth would appreciate. In our recent interview with the “Upstream Color” director discussing influences he said, “Well, [Steven] Soderbergh's ‘Solaris’ is something that I've seen more times than probably anything else.” Lyrical and elliptical in its own right, Soderbergh’s picture, while still abstract, is a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s even more opaque “Solaris” from 1972. The original is three hours in length (which is sort of short by Tarkovsky standards), hypnotic and surreal, the Russian film director’s movie -- based on the same Stanisław Lem sci-novel that Soderbergh also adapted -- is ironically, similar to Carruth’s picture, using sci-fi-ish genre trappings to examine themes of love, its loss and our humanity (and so the trickledown effect of influence is passed down). A haunting meditation on grief, “Solaris” centers on a widowed Russian cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donata Banionis, with George Clooney in the update) sent on a mission to investigate the mysterious suicide of a doctor and friend in a space station orbiting a planet made of water called Solaris. But while trying to find out what went wrong, it becomes apparent that something about the planet is connecting into his dark subconscious, producing a life-like version of his dead wife that makes him fall in love all over again, but question reality. Soderbergh’s version is the more romantic of the two, filled with an expression of deep longing and heartbreak that is profound and aching, while Tarkovsky’s original is the bigger head-trip and perception-focused, something like the Russian version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (one of the great sci-fi mindbenders as well). Both make excellent complementary pieces to one another and are must-see pictures that question and contemplate some fascinating ideas about the psychology and meanings of love within our collective state of mind.
The physical act of ingesting an illicit substance is wholly different from the passive act of sitting down and watching a movie. If there’s one director determined to blur that line, though, it’s Gaspar Noe. After his trippy, backwards revenge-epic “Irreversible,” Noe turned his sights to something even more ambitious – capturing what is essentially an out-of-body experience/drug trip that lasts for the entirety of the running time of "Enter The Void." It’s one of the most disorienting and outrageous experiences ever, and just as unforgettable. “Enter the Void” is a kind of experimental cinematic acid test; after a young American drug dealer in Tokyo (Nathaniel Brown) gets shot down by local police, his spirit goes soaring through the streets, and the camera appropriates his floaty point-of-view. He checks in on his troubled sister (Paz de la Huerta), sees what his friends are up to, and ultimately just kind of glides. Noe and his cinematographer, Benoit Debie (who would create a similarly neon-lined visual aesthetic for “Spring Breakers”) were clearly inspired by psychedelic drug experiences and eastern mysticism; and it shows, as the movie trips forward it also travels through time, becoming unmoored from reality or linear narrative filmmaking. By the time the movie is over, we more or less stumbled out of the screening room. It shakes your blood.