Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 09, 2006 10:13 am 
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Must an artist kill to get ahead?

This further collaboration between Terry Zwigoff (of the widely seen 1994 documentary, Crumb) and writer-comic book artist Daniel Clowes is less successful and feels very different from their first, the 2001 Ghost World. The latter, which was an art house hit and got an Oscar nomination, was a portrait of lonely young people drawn from Clowes' comics and it had an enchanting quality. It evoked magical twilight moods of teenage depression and adult failure and it slipped dreamlike from scene to scene. Art School Confidential is drawn in brighter, cruder colors, tries to do too much with too simple a plot, and is overwhelmed by its makers' anger. It apparently refers back to a squib against art school in one of Clowes' comics but also to his own actual unhappy art school memories revisited here in a satire of art world corruption and teenage lust that's so broad and lurid it's even morbid and gross at times. Think Animal House-meets-John Waters; but this isn't as funny as the former or as deliriously campy and well-plotted as the latter. Its hero is sweet, but too easily corrupted, too willing to cheat to get ahead. He seems to slip from being the filmmakers' stand-in to being their plaything. What goes on in art school may not be subtle but it's more subtle than this. The possibility that doing really good work might be a factor in artistic success at some point isn't ever considered.

These tendencies aren't hidden for a minute. We begin with flashbacks that show the hero, Jerome, getting beaten up by bullies and telling a class who he wants to be: Picasso he says was bald and practically a dwarf but got all the women he wanted because he was a great artist. Drawing isn't just an outlet for a wimp, but a way to impress girls. Despite the bullies when he was little, a cute girl in high school loved the portrait Jerome drew of her and said he'd be famous one day. It's made obvious he sees his drawing as a way of slipping by the bullies and getting the girls. Later the boy's choice of the Strathmore Academy (the name seemingly a plug for a company that makes drawing paper) is based on a picture of a pretty nude model. Once he's at the school, he's set on losing his virginity with her.

Hovering on the periphery of Strathmore is a serial killer who's strangled one of the students. Whether that's to liven things up or is a broad hint that art teachers or dealers or artists themselves are little better than serial killers is hard to say. A basic flaw of Art School Confidential is that the academic satire doesn't sit very well with the serial killer plot. Clowes' (and perhaps also Zwigoff's) anger about pseudos and cheats is the engine that powers the thing but the ideas behind that are too many and too bitter, and the flimsy plot collapses under them. The story wants to mix machismo with sensitivity and misogyny with displeasure over commercialism, egotism, and boorishness in the art scene.

We see in detail only one example of how the school is taught, Professor Sandiford's drawing class. Sandiford is played by John Malkovich, who's such an expert at delicious meanness he might not just have been the most devastating critic but even bit off a slice of his Tom Ripley turn and delivered us the serial killer. But unfortunately Malkovich's duties as producer of the film and Clowes' writing seem to have conspired to blunt his usual edge. He seems poised to try to seduce Jerome at one point but then that too is quickly stifled.

Jerome (Max Minghella) is a winsome lad with rosebud lips and dark eyes whose thinking he can become the greatest artist in the world makes him another kind of virgin besides the physical kind. His mind is a tabula rasa. He doesn't know what he wants to do and his drawings show natural ability, but of the kind you see displayed in 1950's How to Draw books -- it reads as a simplified cartoonist's idea of artistic skill which is beneath the level of talent, just enough to make you a street artist. An articulate but pretentious young man who's a conceptualist and just puts up words on the wall as his self-portrait is laughed at. An older student who knows nothing about art does naïve pictures of cars and appliances that are held up by all as brilliant. Jerome is jealous. He doesn't have a style and the search for one leads him quickly to plagiarism and outright theft -- first of the older student's work, then of paintings by an alcoholic, misogynous old graduate called Jimmy who Jerome's classmate Bardo (Joel David Moore) takes him to, played with dark relish by Jim Broadbent. Bardo is a returnee who's Clowes' mouthpiece and clues Jerome in on the follies of the place and its stock personalities, of which there are too many to list fully here. It's not quite clear why Jimmy's extreme negativism would appeal to Jerome, but he seems to be Clowes' image of the artist who doesn't sell out and so is ruined by the system. But Jimmy seems like an unlikely model for the dewy-eyed Jerome.

Most of the other characters are insensitive or boorish, and stereotypes of one kind or another. One roommate is a big fat would-be filmmaker who's already got a movie idea -- based on the serial killer -- and a family member to fund him. The other roommate is a fashion student who everybody but he knows is gay. Others are just colorless objects of desire like Audrey (Sophia Miles), who Jerome is in love with before he even sees her, or neutral devices like Bardo.

Art School Confidential falls into a common trap of movies, that it's about a kind of work -- making art, even if the efforts are youthful and uncertain -- but finds no way to present the process behind it. Jerome's How to Draw work appears readymade. The other examples are crude exaggerations -- though apparently done by actual art students of the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

The movie's central problem is that contemporary art and artists are too weird and absurd in themselves to need satire, while perhaps paradoxically the art world has never been more diverse or the distinctions among styles and artists more complex.

There is probably some truth in the idea enunciated by an obnoxious superstar artist graduate of Strathmore that art school is a waste of time. You can't learn to be a good artist; you either are or you aren't. Art school becomes only a place to hang out and kill time enjoyably; Sandiford points out on Day One that 95% of the students won't make money with their art. If you're serious, art school becomes a place to make connections and suck up to people. Having managed to become an artist myself while avoiding art school, I can only comment on the film's satire at second hand. This movie may contain truths, but it seems awfully uncool. I've long had the feeling a well-located art school -- on top of a hill, say, overlooking a pretty city, like one I actually know of -- so long as you could find sympathetic teachers, and avoid the more devastating critiques -- is one of the truly idyllic ways to spend the last days of your youth. It doesn't seem to have turned out like that for Clowes or Zwigoff. Their anger remains so fresh after all these years it crowds out their wit and sensitivity.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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