Art School Confidential

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 05/25/06 09:47:27

"Nick Swardson is in it. See it anyway."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Dan Clowes and Terry Zwigoff wouldn't come to your party, but you'd want to invite them anyway, so that they could stand in a corner and gripe about everyone in the room. Clowes would make unflattering sketches, and Zwigoff would film people barfing in the dumpster out back.

Their second collaboration, Art School Confidential (after the much-beloved Ghost World), crashes the party of "academia" or at least as close to it as art school comes. Actually, anyone who's majored or even taken courses in any creative subject can relate to the bullshit on display here; God knows I heard enough tortured doublespeak in writing courses, wherein, just as in Art School Confidential, students are encouraged to critique each other's work haltingly and idiotically. (Either they don't want to hurt their classmate's feelings or they're all too eager to rip the kid's latest attempt.)

Max Minghella is the lead, Jerome, a sincere freshman who idolizes Picasso and wants to be "the 21st century's greatest artist." Jerome has talent, though he's often derided because his work is too ... representational i.e., it looks like what it's supposed to look like. He's surrounded by the usual pompous wannabe Pollacks who piss a polyhedron in the snow and call it a poignant statement on masculinity.

Jerome doesn't find much guidance from his professors, many of whom don't care if the students even show up they're too busy on the phone wangling their next showing or bitching out their agents. John Malkovich, as a life-drawing professor who has devoted his art to triangles, is the sort of bullshit-slinging artiste Jerome might become if he's not careful; Jim Broadbent as Jimmy, a washed-up alcoholic and painter sunk in despair and loathing, is another.

Clowes originally handled this material as a four-page story in his comic Eightball; some of the story's gags, like the tampon in a teacup, were used before in Ghost World. Though Clowes' screenplay expands the material into an actual story, little of the comic's bitter sarcasm has been lost in translation. Some may take issue with how Clowes chooses to open things up by cobbling up a murder mystery involving a strangler who's been haunting the neighborhood. Still, this allows for the sort of art-is-crime, crime-is-art satire that John Waters would certainly recognize.

More depressive and sneering than laugh-out-loud funny, Art School Confidential already seems poised to become a favorite among art students, cult-film buffs, and few others. The darkness touched on here what if your life's dream is part of a corrupt system in which 99 out of 100 people don't make it? may block many people from responding to it. It offers little of the redemption as seen in Ghost World; it's the work of two misanthropes in an even worse mood than usual.

Still, I appreciated its integrity and its willingness to pop some fairly delicate balloons. When there's always money for war and never enough funding for the arts, why kick art school when it's down? Well, because it's part of the problem it educates bullshit artists, not actual artists. At its best the movie is a middle finger raised at the consumerism that threatens to turn everything into commodities and produces rubbish art sold at high prices to hang over some rich asshole's couch. The ironic ending seals the deal: It's not the art, it's the pricetag.

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