Art School Confidential
2006Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich
n his relatively young career, director Terry Zwigoff has fashioned himself as the unabashed voice of the disillusioned deviant. From R. Crumb to Enid to Billy Bob Claus, he has proven himself no friend to the mainstream ideal of the protagonist. His style is usually very straightforward, but not without a distinct sense of atmospheric angst. This particular method was perfectly crystallized with 2001’s Ghost World (adapted by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes from Clowes’ graphic novel). What’s so unsettling about Art School Confidential (Zwigoff and Clowes' second teaming) is that it mostly plays out like a film Thora Birch’s Enid would have made had she not been exposed to that small-time journey we all took with her in Ghost World: satirical, snotty, and smugly above it all. What happened to the progress, I ask?
Eight Ball (which includes various works including Ghost World), Art School Confidential follows Jerome, a genuine-hearted outsider with dreams of becoming the "greatest artist of the 21st century." Clowes, who clearly has strong feelings on matters such as these, uses his screenplay to follow Jerome (Max Minghella) through his freshman year at the fictitious liberal art school, Strathmore. With no punches pulled, we watch as he begins his slow descent into predestined mediocrity. His work is frequently the most criticized in the class, while at home, he was always praised as a wonderful artist. He is told to be himself with his art, but at the same time, advised to experiment with different styles, with the results consistently lackluster. This serves as a sad testament to the futility of “creating” your own voice, but adds nothing particularly interesting to the fold of the film, other than setting up Jerome’s choreographed plunge into the annals of the art ghetto.
Obviously a caricature himself, Jerome is met by a host of other stereotypical and parody-driven characters one might expect to encounter at such an institution. Part of the fun of casting overused or archetypal character models in films is watching as the filmmakers lightly chip away at the facades they perpetuate. When applied properly, this strategy can make for an enlightening, enjoyable experience. With almost every student introduced, however, Zwigoff and Clowes persistently mount their piñatas, appear to tear them down, then ruthlessly raise them right back up. Like, the fashion major who insists that he isn’t homosexual, only to discover a little later that he is (though everyone else “already knows”); or the film major, with dreams of making a big budget slasher flick based on recent campus murders, who decides instead to use his film to convey artistry and symbolism. In the end, he makes a soulless blockbuster that exploits his peers. And, of course, there Jerome’s love interest (who later becomes his obsession): the beautiful nude model Audrey (Sophia Myles), who always seems to be attracted to the next big thing. It's not so much the stereotyping, but the inundating of the stereotypes that is so curious. It is an interesting approach, but remains remarkably cynical.
Clowes, rather predictably, makes art out of taking a shit on the art world itself. With enough vitriol to cover a body-paint canvas, he presents a wholly inhuman world full of pseudo-intellectuals, self-serving sycophants, and well-intentioned morons. His blatant misanthropy combined with Zwigoff's severe lack of bite serves to highlight the degree to which they critically misjudge the impact of their own satire. They’re shooting long-dead fish in a tiny barrel. Or maybe they just don’t care. The film’s nihilist moralist tendencies are palpable throughout, but none more effective in light of Zwigoff and Clowes’ personal disgust for the subject at hand. Even the pair of patriarchal figures provided for Jerome function as mere models for two basic extremes of how one’s venture into the art world might likely finalize itself. You have Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich) the art teacher, who still harbors dreams of being a renowned artist, though he has clearly missed his shot; and the reclusive, abrasive, and disgusting Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), who was chewed up and spit out by this world and now lives as a shut-in, on a steady diet of liquor and fury. They offer guidance to Jerome, in one form or another, but both are selfish and hold their own ulterior motives.
I am being quite hard on this film, but it’s only because I actually had high hopes for it. Hell, even the first half is fine entertainment. It simply lays it all on too thick, too fast. It’s an exhausting experience watching a movie spread itself so thin for so long. Not to mention the fact that it’s pretty hard to care about anything that’s going on—even as satire—when there is literally no point of entry for the viewer. Jerome is transformed into a tool fairly early on in the picture, and he was our only hope of possibly connecting with the film as anything other than a self-assured rant. (Much like this review.) Jerome’s final achievement of stardom, as well as the film’s subsequent treatment of it, is admittedly pointed but no less obvious. In Ghost World, Zwigoff and Clowes were able to keep us at eye-level with Enid as we learned the things she learned, developing alongside the protagonist. Clearly not a perfect character (like most of Zwigoff’s subjects), we saw her humanity, and were able to relate to it. In Art School Confidential, we are no longer down in the trenches. We are constantly hovering above this ridiculous universe pointing and laughing. There’s plenty to laugh at, sure—but you’ve got to look into the mirror every now and again. Don’t you?
Art School Confidential is playing in selected theaters across the country now.
By: Daniel Rivera
Published on: 2006-05-25