A curmudgeon with an active dose of social (and, perhaps, self-) disgust, Terry Zwigoff has somehow planted his distinctively dubious sensibility on the American film scene. He may have turned R. Crumb into a character in his hit 1994 doc, yet Zwigoff himself seems a personality Crumb might have invented—the filmmaker as marginalized, middle-aged malcontent.
Anti-careerist to the bone, the Zwigoff oeuvre includes two documentary portraits of the artist, Louie Bluie and Crumb; a successfully sweet and creepy teen film, Ghost World; the programmatically rank and creepy Bad Santa; and now the synthesizing (and creepy) manifesto Art School Confidential. Like Ghost World, Zwigoff’s latest was written by cartoonist Daniel Clowes, but like Bad Santa, it seems fated to wear the warning bell of the film maudit.
Art School Confidential, which spent some time on the shelf before its less than enthusiastic Sundance premiere, isn’t quite as gross as Bad Santa, but it’s no less ugly and equally confrontational, not to mention a good deal funnier. (There’s more than one joke.) Like the squiggly sweat beads in a Crumb cartoon, the movie radiates contempt. How could it not? The only artists Zwigoff respects, per his first movie and the aesthetic articulated by his Ghost World surrogate, the 78 collector Seymour, are obscure bluesmen and misappreciated outsiders, like Crumb’s older brother.
Consequently, Art School Confidential is set in an expensive playpen inhabited by a gaggle of geeky fools and faux lunatic poseurs. The nominal hero, Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), has more naïveté than integrity. He’s a shy and sensitive creature, so boring in his ambition that he aspires to be the next Picasso, so conventional in his talent that his labor-intensive naturalism is largely unappreciated by his trendy peers, and so “normal” in his desires that he develops a hopeless crush on the lovely Audrey (Sophia Myles), the prettiest of life models.
If the Strathmore Institute were a zoo, Jerome and Audrey would be the pandas. The resident hippo is Jerome’s roommate, an obnoxiously loud film major (Ethan Suplee) whose presence alone should have rated a Sundance audience award. Far worse than the students (and even the clueless art teacher in Ghost World) are the pretentious losers who staff the institution: John Malkovich plays a self-obsessed life-drawing teacher who just paints triangles (“I was one of the first”). Jack Ong has too few scenes as a more irascible instructor, who, asked by a student how he feels about attendance, scrawls “I Don’t Care” on the blackboard with such feeling that the chalk breaks. Anjelica Huston is the most dignified pedagogue, but Jim Broadbent’s embittered derelict painter (perhaps a former faculty member), ensconced in a nearby tenement slum, is the adult figure closest to Zwigoff’s heart. This really bad Santa’s scenes with Jerome provide a toxic analogue to the tender relationship between Ghost World‘s teenage protagonist and the forty-something 78 maven she adopts as a mentor.
Art School Confidential is replete with humorous detail—in that respect, the student art projects are particularly fine—but it’s the attitude that rules. Zwigoff can be as mean to his characters as Todd Solondz—the dramatized painting critiques (in which everyone gets an A) rival the idiocies of the creative-writing class in Solondz’s Storytelling. But where Solondz is fastidious in his filmmaking, Zwigoff is indifferent—Art School Confidential can be nearly avant-garde in its tone (deaf) shifts and spatial incoherence. And while Solondz’s revulsion is cerebral, Zwigoff’s is visceral. He may mock body art (along with conceptualism, minimalism, and every other ’70s tendency) but his own dyspepsia suggests a kindred gut-based sensibility— call it bilious, splenetic, jaundiced.
Still, Art School Confidential does advance several theories. One, implicit in Crumb, is that art is the revenge of the nerds, as well as a means to get laid. This is spelled out in the scene wherein a successful, famous student returns to insult the entire school, as well as that in which Jerome tenderly kisses his portrait of Audrey. She’ll eventually find it in the garbage and, narcissistic as she is, fall for him. By that time, however, Jerome’s desperate desire to win her love has driven him to copy, steal, and worse.
Theodor Adorno once proposed that every work of art was “an uncommitted crime.” Art School Confidential pushes that notion to the limit by introducing a subplot in which the Strathmore campus is terrorized by a serial killer. Albeit clumsy, this narrative device does enable some hilariously crass cop routines and one excellent twist. More to the point, it provides material for the avidly sensational movie being made by Jerome’s opportunistic roomie—and, needless to say, Zwigoff’s as well.
For Zwigoff and Clowes, art is less an uncommitted crime than a miserable racket that involves multiple real offenses, including fraud. Their screed doesn’t exactly add up, but then their notion of success (which turns Jerome’s roomie into Kevin Smith and Jerome himself into an objet d’art) is nearly as bleak as their notion of failure—and in keeping with Zwigoff’s career-long concerns, it’s far more authentic.