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Film

When the Coen brothers were criticised for the mistreatment of mosquitoes

@TomTaylorFO

Mosquitoes… do we need ’em? They are the peskiest little devils in the whole animal kingdom, and according to reputable research by Timothy Winegard, of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived, mosquito-borne disease has killed 52 billion of them. This all left many people asking: What on Earth gives the Coen brothers’ the right to defile them on screen?

For the film Barton Fink, symbolism scored a sizeable subtext. In fact, renowned movie critic Roger Ebert once famously declared that Barton Fink was an allegorical tale mirroring the rise of fascism. Whilst its message may not be quite as recondite as that there is no doubting that it — like all their filmography — is rich in depth of meaning, an attribute that a lot of other movies lack.

One such symbol was the blighting force of Mosquitoes. Seeing as the film is set in Los Angeles, this comes as a surprise, as the producer in the film, Jack Lipnick (masterfully portrayed by Michael Lerner), declares that there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles because “they breed in swamps; this is a desert.” Nevertheless, they recur throughout the film, eventually proving fateful as Fink swats one to catastrophic effect, and their buzz even underpins the score.

As the composer, Carter Burwell, who is responsible for just about every single Coen brothers score, once explained: “I’ll do a high violin note that will echo the mosquito we had in the previous scene.” This orchestrated buzz of mosquito is used in the soundtrack at various moments before being drowned out by something more sonically seismic to match the fact that onscreen, the trivial issue of the mosquito has been trumped by a bigger problem for Fink. 

Naturally, all of this was scripted well in advance by the meticulous screenplay crafters that the Coen brothers prove to be, but somehow a copy wormed its way to the “ASPCA or some animal thing,” Joel Coen told Jim Emerson. Adding: “They’d gotten hold of a copy of the script and wanted to know how we were going to treat the mosquitoes. I’m not kidding. It’s true.”

While the mistreatment of any animal is obviously condemnable, and by no means has such behaviour been a rarity in the history of cinema, it is slightly worrying that the forces in charge of protecting animals would believe that the Coen brothers would go so far to source a live insect and train it to bite of John Turturro. Although the film certainly doesn’t do anything for their public image, going to the difficulty of maiming a live one is probably beyond the skill of the Coen brothers, let alone the morality of it.