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Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential Poster            Terry Zwigoff started off amazingly, with the masterly documentary, Crumb (1995), followed by the stunning feature Ghost World (2001), both anthems to outsiders and outsider art, in praise of postBeatnik eccentricity and freakiness. Was Zwigoff the Great Weird Hope of American cinema? I've heard backstage stories of artistic interference by the then-Miramax Weinstein Brothers on Zwigoff's next film, Bad Santa (2003). Still, most people audiences grooved on Billy Bob Thornton's hard-drinking, red-nosed, potty-mouthed Kris Kringle. Me? I hated the movie, finding it Hollywoodish crude, voguishly cynical, and--forced on Zwigoff?--disturbingly sentimental at its sappy-Santa payoff.

            Surely, the Zwigoff I admire would come around? Art School Confidential sounded like a prime project, an exploration of questions of Life and Art and how they interwine, when Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), a painter with aspirations, sets off for a freshman year at an East Coast art college.A nice premise, and the screenplay is by Ghost World author-cartoonist Daniel Clowes, based on his autobiographical graphic story. Clowes went to New York's Pratt Institute, got little good out of it, and Art School Confidential, as written and drawn, was his revenge.

            Friends, read the comic book. Art School Confidential, Zwigoff's movie, is a sour disappointment, an astonishingly callow, nasty, and downright unfair indictment of art school. Faculty, administrators, students, and graduates, almost every single person is a dishonest, untalented clod, who cares not at all about art but totally about Being Discovered and Career. The professors are solipsistic, self-loathing, and gutless, the walking depressed. Students make pop paintings based on other with-it paintings, and, in class critiques, praise each others' mediocre works as "humanist," so they will be flattered in turn. Art class is a cocoon of sophistry and bottom-kissing. The school's most renowned artist-grad is a sleek Jeff Koons-style materialist who returns to his alma mater to brag about how much money he's made.

            So how does the protagonist, Jerome, relate to all this? Barely communicating with his peers, he obsesses on his lonely art, drawing old-fashioned nude portraits, the kind of work neither trendy students nor testy faculty appreciates. In the film's most touching scene, Jerome finds that he's gotten an "A" for his art work, recognition at last for his budding talents! But he turns around to find that every student has gotten an "A," for the teachers are too cowardly and lazy to really evaluate anyone. The best of the faculty? An art historian, played by Anjelica Huston,   in only two brief scenes of the movie. The worst? Jim Broadbent's sneering, alcoholic, failed painter, who dismisses Picasso as someone who "went through his whole life without a single thought."

            The only character in Zwigoff's film who is satirized gently, reasonably, is John Malkovich's well-meaning but distracted Professor Sandiford who, when not worrying about his own faltering career, even seems to care a bit about the plight of his students. His art work is a minimalist nightmare of too -simple geometric shapes. "How long have you done triangles?" Jerome asks Sandiford. "I was one of the first," he can't help but brag.

            Did I mention Audrey (Sophia Myles), the cliched love interest, who could be in any silly teen comedy? Did I mention a misanthropic serial killer tale, which is stupidly grafted on to the art school tale, and ridiculously takes it over? Sure, academia is filled with phonies, but, no, not everyone! What an unelightened hateful movie!

(May, 2006)


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