Nostalgia trip on hotel theme with the Coen brothers, Stephen King, and Procul Harum

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:53pm


Barton Fink

John Turturro, John Goodman
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

The Coen brothers have made a career out of crafting ever-so-clever, film-school-literate movies that liberally splice genres and invite myriad interpretations, and none more so than their fourth film, Barton Fink.

A film about writer's block that was written while the Coens were having trouble writing 1990's Miller's Crossing, it deftly toys with the notion that art imitates life, a postmodern paean to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a cautionary tale about the dangers of slipping too far into "the life of the mind".

It's also a symbolism-packed, ambiguous narrative that has been read as everything from an exploration of the act of writing, to an attack on the studio system and to a Holocaust metaphor.

John Turturro is perfectly cast as the intellectually egotistical Fink, a critically acclaimed New York theatre writer who is lured to Los Angeles to write for the movies in 1941. Charged with penning a wrestling-themed B-movie, Fink eschews the studio's offer of standard lodgings and checks into the decaying Hotel Earle, hoping that will bring him closer to "the common man".

He gets his wish almost immediately when he meets Charlie Meadows (a career-best John Goodman), a travelling insurance salesman who occupies the room next door. It's an encounter that coincides with the beginning of a severe case of writer's block and a downward spiral that takes the writer to the brink of oblivion.

More than a mere backdrop, the Hotel Earle is as much of a character in the movie as any of the people. Drawing from Polanski, Kubrick and classic film noir, it's a location that belongs in a fevered dream, a place that feels like both a living, breathing entity and a gateway to a private hell of Fink's own making. The walls literally ooze a viscous goo while its croaking pipes and labyrinthine corridors filled with the ready-to-polish shoes of unseen guests hint that there is more to the Earle than we or Barton ever see.

But while the hotel - and Meadows, with whom it is intrinsically entwined - are an integral part of Fink's descent into ruin, it is his own hubris and lack of self-awareness that proves his real undoing. While he pontificates that "the hopes and dreams of the common man are as noble as those of any king", Fink ignores Meadows when he tries to share his own hopes and dreams, instead philosophising self-indulgently on the nature of art and "the life of the mind", with disastrous consequences.

The film ends with a shell-shocked Fink sitting on a beach gazing at the silhouette of a woman who recalls a trite-looking painting from his room at the Earle. A much-debated denouement, it offers little in the way of resolution and - like much of the film - represents a multi-layered joke that is at the expense of Fink, the Coens, Hollywood, the viewer, the critics and, perhaps, no one at all.

Grand Hotel

Procul Harum

Procul Harum, who scored one of the biggest hits of the 1960s with A Whiter Shade of Pale, are still performing, although now reduced to two of the original members - that is if you count, as the band always has - non-performing lyricist Keith Reid.

The other remaining founder is his songwriting partner, Gary Brooker, whose soulful vocals and skilful blend of blues, R&B and classical influences have largely defined the band's sound. The two of them wrote A Whiter Shade Of Pale and the hit follow-up Homburg.

No subsequent singles performed as well, although a live version of Conquistador made No 16 in the US in 1972. However, their albums sold solidly for more than a decade, particularly in America, where

Grand Hotel became the highest-placed chart entry of their studio recordings, somewhat behind their biggest hit album overall, Procul Harum Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, from which the Conquistador single came.

Encouraged, perhaps, by that success, Brooker and Reid came up with some of their strongest songs for Grand Hotel, including the title track, and Bringing Home the Bacon, which was their set opener for many years. Key members of the early incarnations of the group had left by the time Grand Hotel was recorded, including organist Matthew Fisher and blues rock guitarist Robin Trower, but the Grand Hotelline-up turned out to be one of the band's best and most durable. It comprised guitarist Mick Grabham, multi-instrumentalist Chris Copping on organ, Alan Cartwright on bass, and on drums the redoubtable B.J. Wilson.

Wilson, who died in 1990, was a much in demand session player as well as a Procul Harum member. He missed the opportunity to perform on A Whiter Shade of Pale, but was the drummer on Joe Cocker's With a Little Help From My Friends, and turned down an invitation from Jimmy Page - who also played on that single - to join Led Zeppelin.

Lavish cover art and overarching concepts were very much in vogue in 1973 - Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and The Who's Quadrophenia were released the same year - but despite all the photography of the band members with long hair, top hats and tails, the Grand Hotel theme was not extended beyond the title track. Prog rock was at its zenith in 1973, but by the standards of Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer and a few others, Procul Harum were relatively down to earth - and worked much more effectively with orchestras, as they occasionally do to this day. The strings and horns were deployed sparingly on Grand Hotel, except on the title track, and the album consists mostly of strong rock songs with the signature Procul Harum piano and organ dominated arrangements. It has worn well.

People occasionally wonder about the origin of the band's name, which like many of Reid's lyrics sounds as though it should mean something portentous, but actually doesn't. It was the name of a friend's Burmese blue cat.


The Shining

by Stephen King

When Stephen King and wife Tabitha checked into the Stanley Hotel in October 1974, his debut novel, Carrie, had just come out and he was on the way to making a name for himself as a horror writer. Tabitha may have been hoping for a romantic mini-break in that historic Colorado hotel, but it fast became clear to King that the property was fuel for his next novel.

At check-in, they realised that all the other guests were checking out and that evening they were the only guests in the mountain resort. All the chairs were up on the tables, the wind was howling and the atmosphere was chilling - this is not fiction, this is King's account of the evening. After dinner, Tabitha went up to their room and left King to soak up the atmosphere. Take his wicked imagination combined with the creepy setting and it's no wonder that by the time King returned to Room 217, he'd worked out the plot for The Shining.

It tells the story of Jack Torrance, who takes a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado - a thinly disguised Stanley Hotel (both were completed in 1909). His wife, Wendy, and son, Danny, come with him, but his hopes of finishing his novel soon fall apart as he slides into alcoholism and seeming insanity. Five-year-old Danny has the ability to "shine" - he's psychic - and the child is the first to notice the sinister forces at work.

Three years after it was published, Stanley Kubrick turned it into a psychological horror flick starring Jack Nicholson as Torrance. King has made no secret of the fact that he doesn't care for the movie. There are plot differences between the two - and in the movie it's Room 237 not 217 - but both provide edge-of-your-seat thrills. The scene with the crazed Nicholson chopping down the bathroom door with an axe and leering through the hole as he shouts, "Here's Johnny", is one of the scariest in film history. King's issue with Nicholson's version is that he makes Jack seem crazy from the outset, while King had tried to show him struggling to do good before caving in and losing it.

This was a novel that stayed with King. In 1997, he adapted the book into a mini-series that was shot at the actual Stanley Hotel. The property is still running today and if you've got the nerve you can upgrade and stay in Room 217. But even that didn't get The Shining out of King's system and two years ago he published a sequel, Doctor Sleep, which tells the tale of what happened to the "shining" boy.