It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 11 years since I was an idealistic freshman art major, a naïve rube fresh from a homogenous small town and suddenly adrift in a sea of hippies and goths, skateboarders and punk rockers. It was a tricky adjustment, but before too long I was fitting in just fine: listening to too much Morrissey, dying my hair a new color every couple of weeks, dropping acid in the sculpture garden, dating angsty drama majors, and painting Eric Fischl-inspired masturbating teens. My experiences as an art student at a big state university dominated by its engineering program and its football team were less cloistered and solipsistic than they would have been if I’d gone to a proper art school, but they were close enough that I found myself dangerously over-identifying with Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), the protagonist of Art School Confidential. Though far prettier than I have ever been (with his bottomless brown eyes and inner-tube lips, Minghella is the male Angelina Jolie), Jerome is a lot like I was at his age: talented but unfocused, easily distracted and led astray, and just begging to be disillusioned. And there’s no doubt that he will be; he’s in a movie written by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff, the gleeful cynics behind the laugh-out-loud bleakness of Ghost World. This is the first time that Zwigoff, who also directed Bad Santa and the documentary Crumb, has had a protagonist who started off as an innocent, and he approaches Jerome’s descent (or would Zwigoff consider it an ascent?) into cynicism with relish.
Clowes’ script is an expansion of a four-page comic-book story he wrote, but it bears as strong a resemblance to the scenes in Illeana Douglas’ summer-school art class in Ghost World. The fictional Strathmore Institute is populated by wannabes, poseurs, hangers-on, and has-beens, just like a real art school, but the satirical caricatures, though grounded in truth, strain credibility. The jokes hit their targets mercilessly, and they keep hitting them, pounding them into submission with the willful merriment of a pair of filmmakers who really need to get revenge on those who have underappreciated their talents, but the characters are a series of straw men, cliched stereotypes of pompous and pretentious art-world figures that we’ve all seen before. Even those who are marginally sympathetic (and none, save Jerome, are more than marginally sympathetic) are types, not individuals, and bear a tenuous relationship to reality: Witness Audrey (Sophia Myles), the beautiful figure-class model with whom virginal Jerome quickly becomes infatuated. In all my drawing classes, we had exactly one attractive nude model and, to give you a sense of what she was like, one day in class, in the middle of a standing pose, she reached down, scratched herself, and plucked a crab from her pubic hair. Audrey isn’t like that; she straddles the perennial virgin/whore line with such equipoise that it’s impossible to guess which side she falls on or, for that matter, to figure out much else about her. There’s even a lingering question of whether or not she’s bisexual: Her friend Candace (Katherine Moennig from “The L Word,” appropriately) introduces herself to Jerome by explaining “Audrey and I used to bump cunts. … Just kidding.” Audrey never ventures a response. After the complex, ambivalent Enid and Rebecca of Ghost World, it’s a letdown to see Clowes and Zwigoff deliver a female character who’s so unformed, but perhaps this abstractness is what allows Jerome to fall for her so quickly and thoroughly: He’s able to project onto her any idea he wants.
Imagining Audrey as the woman of his dreams may be the only way that Jerome can exert any control over his experiences; he’s otherwise hopelessly at the mercy of those around him — his fellow students who reject the sturdy, if somewhat bland, craftsmanship of his work in favor of the supposedly honest and raw scribblings of a no-talent whiner; his professors who either ignore him entirely or compare his work unfavorably to that of a student who draws high-school-notebook-style profile views of muscle cars and Sherman tanks, because he’s “unlearned all that art-school bullshit.” (As Professor Sandiford, John Malkovich has found the role he was born to play; for once all his strange effeteness and actorish pomposity feel just right. But the filmmakers’ desire to attack everybody needlessly undermines others in the cast: It just feels cheap and lazy when even the regal Anjelica Huston, playing a smart, sincere art history professor, has to be embarrassed by a vacation photo that somehow got mixed in with her lecture slides. There’s no satirical point to it and no follow-through; it’s just that every character is required to be humiliated.) Even when Jerome has a brief success it’s quickly undercut: Just as he’s ready to celebrate over the “A” he got on his semester portfolio, he sees that everyone in the class got an “A,” regardless of their ineptitude or laziness. Zwigoff and Clowes are incisive about the intellectual vacuity and general shoddiness of much contemporary art and about the mindless glomming onto trendy, meretricious crap over work with more traditional, accessible esthetic values, but one can’t help catching a whiff of sour grapes. Clowes is a gifted (though uneven) comic-book writer/illustrator who responds to the sneering superiority of the “high art” crowd by throwing their pretensions and intellectual laziness back in their faces. They’ve earned his scorn, certainly, but he does himself no favors by acting like a petulant adolescent pissed off that the cool kids don’t like him. To achieve its ends, satire needs to have a little bit of affection — or at least ambivalence — toward its target; satire as an act of revenge reduces the satirist along with his enemies.
Thus, it’s ironic that the movie Art School Confidential most reminded me of was one made by a genuine star of the contemporary art world. In 1997, the brilliant photographer Cindy Sherman co-wrote and directed the unbrilliant Office Killer, an uneven horror/comedy/satire about a mousy proofreader (Carol Kane) at a big consumer magazine who goes off her nut and becomes a serial killer, bumping off her obnoxious co-workers one by one. Art School Confidential has a serial killer too — and trust me, you’ll know who it is from the character’s very first scene — and in both cases we find ourselves rooting for the killer, even selecting the loathsome characters we’d like to see garroted next. The two films also have a similarly unwieldy blend of black comedy and attempted social commentary, but Zwigoff is a more experienced and proficient director than Sherman. He just about manages the balancing act, though the film’s shifts in tone can be disorienting. What pulls it all together, oddly, is a pure through-line of genuine cynicism; even when it seems that Zwigoff might be about to go soft on poor Jerome or get tangled up in the complications of the murder-mystery plot, he always manages to bring off a nasty zinger that whips the story back into line. It’s not a strategy I would necessarily recommend to other directors, or one that many would even be able to duplicate but, when what you’ve got to work with is a soul brimming with misanthropy, you might as well make the most of it.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Art School Confidential / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 19, 2006 | Comments ()