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May 1, 2006 10:16 AM
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Paint By Numbers: Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential"

Max Minghella and Ethan Suplee in a scene from Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential." Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics.

There's a moment early in "Art School Confidential" that hurts with sonorous beauty. A gorgeous model (Sophia Myles) arrives in life-drawing class. A virginal freshman, Jerome (opaque Max Minghella), is suddenly all anticipation. She doffs her robe, turns, nude and perfect; Beethoven deluges the soundtrack. As much space as has (rightly) been expended on the caustic cynicism clenching Terry Zwigoff's filmography, note just how few contemporary American directors have the reverence for beauty to chance a scene like this, the willingness to slow a movie down for a beautiful woman (or a beautiful song--remember how Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" paralyzed "Ghost World"?). And then we run into the old saw about cynics being disappointed romantics...

It's not all quite so hushed and tasteful. The film opens, unpromisingly, with one of those protagonist-as-a-youngin' prologues familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Lorne Michaels production. Jerome, an awkward preadolescent, gets lumped on by schoolyard bullies, assuaging himself in the secret knowledge that he is "the greatest artist of the twentieth century." Years pass and, ambition unblunted, Jerome is matriculated, champing to leave the suburbs and myopic high school society for the big city and study at Strathmore Academy, step one to his dream of Picasso-style conquest of the world and women.

Anyone who saw the Illeana Doulgas-overseen art classes in "Ghost World" (which Zwigoff co-wrote with "Art School"'s screenwriter, "Eightball" artist Daniel Clowes, who took the title and little else in this latest collaboration from a 1989 comic) should have an idea of what comes with this change of scenery. Tuition-grubbing art education goes under heavy satirical fire (an easy target, but worthy), and classroom scenes sizzle with bile towards a system that values theoretical salesmanship over practical draftsmanship--encouraging bluff and big words from students before they can properly draw. Speaking of which: the movie triumphs over the most common flub of movies about making art. All of the paintings in the film are wonderfully character-appropriate, including Mark Mothersbaugh's canvases for a visiting Strathmore grad-turned-gallery-bad-boy (if ever a director understood Devolution, it must be Luddite Zwigoff), and Clowes's contributions of overpraised art brut by Jerome's main romantic competition.

Jerome cagily pursues his muse and jockeys for reputation with the other new students (the movie nails freshman year's out-of-the-gate jostle); his Cinema Studies roomie (the "Film Threat" tee-shirt!) dramatizes the reign of an at-large campus killer, the Strathmore Strangler; a wiseass classmate helps explain the breakdown of the student body by stereotype (you can, usually, judge a book by its cover); and always looming is another class critic, where our protagonist waits for praise that never comes, gradually turning his class against him with snotty incredulity. And though Jerome's constantly morally befuddled, compromising for acceptance at every opportunity, he qualifies as a Zwigoff "hero" by merit of the fact that he is "in" on the movie's joke--this difference, between those who we're laughing with rather than at, is the nearest articulation of the Insider Vs. Outsider dynamic here.

Strathmore is a squirming hive of "living cliche" grotesques scattered across a mixed bag of vignettes: gag inserts of bad art in-the-making, thwarted hack instructors. I always laugh at John Malkovich, and he's great here, prowling around the classroom like some big, soft, neutered housecat. And then you have scenes that crop out, oddly unintegrated, from the narrative, including the slovenly, Slivovitz-slurping Strathmore alumni of days gone by, Jimmy (Jim Broadbent, where curmudgeonly turns to crazy), now a misanthrope shut-in, planning the apocalypse from his rent-controlled hovel.

I'm betting more than a few critics will write "Art School Confidential" off with the facile pan that it's muddled or disorganized--true, sure, it's all over the place--but when there's plenty of tidy, totally D.O.A. flicks out there, it's stupid to undervalue such a sly, richly romantic, and rather unprecedented movie. The nearest point of comparison I can think of for "Art School Confidential" might be Hal Hartley's "Henry Fool," located as that film is in a cross-century limbo between blue-collar Queens and Baudelaire's Paris--I love the awed way these movies treat Great Art as incomprehensible, vampiric, something to live, die, and kill for.

Zwigoff's narrative filmmaking isn't particularly textured--he shoots scenes flat and rather blocky, which suited the Anysprawl, USA of "Ghost World" or "Bad Santa"'s shopping mall-and-subdivision milieu, but on the rotted campus of Strathmore, it often just seems clunky. The film's setting is ostensible contemporary--one of Jerome's classmates dismisses his submissions to the year's end show as "totally September 10th" --but Clowes, who attended Brooklyn's Pratt Institute in the bad old days of the early Eighties, seems to be evoking that Babylon Lost pre-Guiliani NYC whose "unyielding filth carried with it a mystical, almost biblical quality," to quote a story from Clowes's collection "Caricature." Production designer Howard Cummings, fresh from "Rent," lends a rancid garbagemen-on-strike qualities to the street scenes, but there's a necessary creeping terror sorely missing in this cityscape: Where are the toxic crazies, those eerily empty bodegas where smack is sold, the battery salesmen with pestilent faces?

Max Minghella, Sophia Myles and Matt Keeslar in a scene from Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential." Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics.

They would suit this film's damn dark heart--it's probably the most thoroughly cruel piece of work I've seen in recent memory. The soft melancholy and small pleasure in everyday eccentricity found in "Ghost World" are not here. Buscemi's innocuous crank is replaced by Broadbent's festering loon. There is no redemptive bus out of town. The only escape routes offered are intertwined: madness and a taste for beauty. That the tortured, truth-seeking artist is a stereotype in itself is, I imagine, an irony not lost on the filmmakers.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and also writes for Stop Smiling.]


Take 2
By Kristi Mitsuda

As a fangirl of both Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff--superlative chroniclers of society's outsiders whose merciless commitment to the depiction of an often cruel and unusual universe resulted in the luminous collaboration "Ghost World" --it was with resounding disappointment that I realized early on in "Art School Confidential" that a crucial element gets lost this time around: compassion for the fucked-up and "freakish" with whom the creators usually align.

Replaced by an unforgiving mean streak, they instead incessantly mock our protagonist's cliched art school compatriots. Granted, the subject invites send-up--the kids and teachers speak in pretentiously highfalutin jargon that reminds me of being at NYU's Tisch--but this one-note derision only sustains laughter for so long (albeit, a long, hard laugh when John Malkovich as Professor Sandiford declares of Jerome, trying to imitate Jonah's art: "He's trying to sing in his own voice using someone else's vocal chords") and harbors not enough insight to raise it above an uncharacteristically shallow level of caricature.

Though Jerome and love object Audrey initially appear to be safe from this contempt, even they fall prey to the schematic cynicism of the project: The latter, in particular--set up as a singularly authentic character in a sea of disingenuousness (signaled by her interest in Jerome's sincere brown eyes and eyebrows, and unfazed by her father's fame)--finds herself stranded by the narrative, simply a groupie mooning over whomever the newly-anointed art-star.

Interestingly, "Art School" more often than not plays as an extended tract on the bullshit affectations of the art world as put forth by an underappreciated Clowes. Bitterness at the respectability accorded conceptual art emanates from apparent stand-in Jerome: Just as Enid's detailed drawings are overlooked in the face of her competitor's tampon-in-a-teacup provocation in "Ghost World," so are Jonah's artless paintings of automobiles regarded as significantly more sophisticated than Jerome's beautiful portraitures. Elevated to high art where the representational--heavily associated with the comic book realm from which Clowes's comes--gets dismissed as simplistic and lowbrow, the movie's central contrivance revels in revealing Jonah's art as a sham. But why does "Art School Confidential" feel as similarly empty of meaning?

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]

Joel David Moore and Max Minghella in a scene from Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential." Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 3
By Leah Churner

Daniel Clowes's original "Art School Confidential" story was an expose on art school as a "million dollar racket," a kind of sleep-away camp/whorehouse where dysfunctional rich kids go to get ego massages and hear sweet nothings whispered in their ears. From class critiques, fraught with obnoxious, false familiarity, to the prostration ritual of the artist guest-talk, to the maddening subjectivity of studio classes, the movie adaptation of "Art School Confidential" manages to convey Clowes's opinion of art school as an essentially humiliating enterprise.

For the most part, unfortunately, "Art School" wallows in a heavy-footed and dispassionately formulaic romantic comedy, an atmosphere particularly inhospitable to the sick joys of Clowes's gallows wit. The protagonist, Jonah (Max Minghella), dreams of becoming the next Picasso. Perhaps this is the film's biggest misstep--Clowes probably invented this character as a facsimile of his nauseating alter-ego Dan Pussey, but the farce was likely too ugly (or unmarketable) to translate. Jonah is too cute, too harmless, to live in Clowes's world, while Audrey (Sophia Myles) is just bland; she's such a kind and careful negation of all the stereotypes about art-school chicks established at the beginning of the film that she has zero substance. Throw in Steve Buscemi and Anjelica Houston, playing themselves in completely superfluous roles, and you have the makings of another dull and forgettable indie ensemble comedy, more entertaining in trailer form.

When asked in an interview about his involvement in "Art School Confidential" beyond writing the screenplay, Clowes admits, "I just wound up sticking around [the set] and giving my often ignored advice on a daily basis." Evidently. Clowes is a master of the cringe, and one can only imagine the winces bore watching the final cut of this bastardized brainchild. All the mock-anthropological throwaway jokes about art fags, guys in Abercrombie button-downs, and the exclusivity of gallery parties in SoHo won't draw chortles from anyone under seventy--but at least we can rest assured the dismal irony won't be lost on Clowes, as he watches his treatise on the quietly bloated pretensions of the East Coast art school scene undergo Hollywood's colonic irrigation treatment. It's just the kind of movie that would make "Ghost World"'s Enid roll her eyes.

[Leah Churner is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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