Five years ago, director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes mocked the pretensions and politics of art school in Ghost World, a modest independent hit that helped launch the grown-up, art-house phase of Scarlett Johansson's career. Now, Zwigoff and Clowes return to the subject with a vengeance in Art School Confidential, a strange hybrid of a movie that is part coming-of-age black comedy and part noir-ish murder mystery. The resulting pastiche is a little like the odd sketches, paintings, and other items that the students tack up on the classroom wall for their teacher and classmates to evaluate—and one hesitates to review the film, lest one end up sounding as clueless as the characters it mocks.
Nevertheless, review it we shall. The story concerns Jerome Platz, a suburban kid who has a way with a pencil and a paintbrush, and who is first seen being beaten up by a bully on an elementary-school playground. Jerome dreams of escaping this world, primarily through art; the only revenge he can take against the bullies is to draw pictures of them covered in excrement. But Jerome believes there are more positive, less reactionary benefits to being an artist, too; for a special show-and-tell in which students come to class dressed up as their personal heroes, Jerome says he looks up to Picasso, because Picasso was a famous artist—and, oh yeah, Picasso also got to have sex with lots and lots of women.
Hormones, rather than any noble ideas about art, are also the reason why Jerome goes to the fictitious Strathmore Institute several years later. Jerome (now played by Max Minghella, son of English Patient director Anthony) sees a picture of a beautiful blonde model posing for one of their classes in a brochure, and it isn't until after he has enrolled in the school and moved into his dorm room—which he shares with a boorish would-be filmmaker and a seemingly-gay fashion student who talks a little too conspicuously about his "girlfriend"—that he learns what a grim and shallow place the school really is.
Jerome is disappointed to discover that the nude model in his first class is actually a man, not a woman, but he makes a new friend in the student sitting next to him, Bardo (Joel Moore), who happily points out how nearly all the other students fit into one art-school stereotype or another: the Angry Lesbian, the Vegan Holy Man, the Mom, and so on. One reductionistic classmate, Eno (Jeremy Guskin), says all art is motivated by a "Darwinian imperative," and he deliberately turns in sub-par work because he's "questioning aesthetic experience"—to which the professor (John Malkovich) can only reply, non-judgmentally, "I'll buy that." And when an arrogant but successful alumnus named Marvin (Adam Scott) comes back and visits the school for a question-and-answer session and treats everyone, faculty and students alike, like dirt, all but a few people accept this because, well, Marvin is a successful artist.
And then, one day, Jerome's dream comes true. A female model, Audrey (Tristan & Isolde's Sophia Myles), comes to the class—and she is the very woman he saw in the brochure. Jerome's attraction to her is unabashedly romantic; his portrait of her focuses mainly on her face, prompting Bardo to complain that he's missing the "good parts," and the music that plays on the soundtrack as Jerome paints is classical, orchestral and free of irony. What's more, Audrey seems to take a shine to Jerome. But before they can actually become a "couple" in any meaningful way, a rival steps in—a neat, handsome, and anything-but-artsy new student named Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whom Bardo quickly dismisses as a "weirdo."
Zwigoff's cynicism is all over this movie, perhaps nowhere more so than in the scenes where Jerome meets Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a Strathmore alumnus who comes across like an even more hopeless version of the title character in Zwigoff's previous film, Bad Santa—and that's saying something. Jimmy stays home all the time, drinks all day, admits to spending his time masturbating in front of the TV (we hear The Facts of Life's theme song in the background at one point), and, when a guest vomits on his carpet, he apathetically throws a newspaper over the offending mess. He's an exaggerated cautionary tale.
Meanwhile, there's a serial killer on the loose, though this plot element receives very little attention until a point somewhere in the film's second half, when we witness a woman being stalked and strangled from the killer's point of view. (Classical music plays over the soundtrack once more, and as the woman slumps to her death, we see a "missing kitten" sign on the message board behind her.) The police investigating this crime are so eager to nab the guy that they have taken to arresting art-student poseurs who make anti-police statements in their paintings, and both sides look pretty stupid in the end.
Zwigoff is on firm, if shallow, ground when he mocks the art world and the caricatures who inhabit it. He seems less certain what to do with the serial-killer part of the story once it finally raises its head and becomes an integral part of the drama. The few characters we might have cared for become increasingly shallow themselves and prone to making stupid decisions (a suicide attempt here, a narcissistic pretense of love there), and it all lapses into clichés about the relationship between art and infamy, between personal integrity and selling your soul, and so on—though the final shot is a potent image of mutually selfish sentiment as a substitute for other-centered soulfulness. It is as though Zwigoff simply threw this movie together just to "question aesthetic experience." And if so, I don't buy that.Discussion starters
- Why do people make art? Do any of these characters make art as a reason for anything other than self-gratification? Do you think the filmmakers are aware of any other possible reason for making art? Why do you think they made this film?
- Does anyone in this movie do anything selfless for anyone else? What do you make of the relationship between Jerome and Audrey at the end of this film? To what extent do you think he is really relating to her, or only to a figment of his imagination?
- What about Jonah? Are his actions essentially selfless, or selfish? Does the art school affect him in some way? Is his relationship with Audrey justified in any way?
- Marvin says he's proud to be an "a--hole" because that is his "true nature" and art is all about "truth and freedom"-and this, he says, is "beautiful." Are truth and freedom always beautiful? Is Marvin really being true or free by indulging his arrogance like this?
- What does the film say about the relationship between art and society? Is there any danger in the anti-police statements made by the students? In Jimmy's rants against society? In the way some students hope to capitalize on the serial killer's exploits? Should art be dangerous? Should it be safe?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Art School Confidential is rated R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence seen from the strangler's point of view. Four-letter words and crude, graphic references to sexual activity are plentiful, and there are about half-a-dozen irreverent uses of "Jesus." The nudity includes full male nudity and partial female nudity, all of which is limited to the art class, though the male model does come on to one of the students.
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compiled by Josh Hurst
from Film Forum, 05/18/06
An indie filmmaker lampooning the pretensions of the art world—oh, how droll! Terry Zwigoff first made his mark with the critically acclaimed Ghost World, and now he's back to dark, dry, and ironic humor—mostly at the expense of art school enrollees—in Art School Confidential. Part black comedy and part murder mystery, the film is in fact so confidential that most Christian critics opted not to see it—though, as this limited-release indie film opens in more and more cities, that may very well change.
Mainstream critics mostly think Confidential should stay under wraps.
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