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May 13, 2006

Art School Confidential

Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' Art School Confidential (IMDB) attempts to satirize the shallow trendiness of the art world by viewing it through the ultra-sincere eyes of the virginal wanna-be artistic genius, Jerome (Max Minghella). Bullied as a kid in his suburban neighborhood--in fact the film opens with him being punched repeatedly by a classmate--Jerome develops the dream of becoming a world's famous artist like Pablo Picasso. Upon graduating high school, he heads for Strathmore, an ostensibly prestigious art school that turns out to be far shabbier than Jerome's treasured school brochure suggests, although Jerome's interest in the school seems almost entirely based on his infatuation with the live-drawing model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who poses inside the brochure. Jerome is joined by what might be regarded as the usual art school stereotypes (the wanna-be Tarantino filmmaker, the closeted fashion student, the professor living vicariously through his students, the jaded older student who knows all of the stereotypes, including his own). To some extent, the satire succeeds, especially when the film focuses on the seemingly shallow criteria by which art is judged, but for the most part, the humor was relatively obvious, and I never felt as if the film was trying to think about the art world in a new or even interesting way.

When Jerome arrives at the run-down Strathmore campus, which is set in a dangerous New York City neighborhood, the campus is abuzz with fear, but also a certain amount of excitement, about the presence of the Strathmore Strangler, a neighborhood serial killer who stalks the campus. While there seems to be concern about the danger the Strangler presents, many of the students seem equally concerned with how they can incorporate the crimes into their art. The serial killer plot ultimately provides the primary thread by which the romance plot and the critiques of art school are resolved, but in general, I found the plotline relatively artificial and ultimately distracting from the more interesting reflections on art school culture.

At the same time, Jerome encounters the often petty and invariably shallow competitiveness of the art school classroom. Despite the fact that Jerome seems most dedicated to his craft--he continues to draw during class breaks--and the most talented student when it comes to figure drawing (or because of it), he becomes the target of his classmates' harshest evaluations while an enigmatic fellow classmate, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who wears polo shirts and khakhis--prompting one student to regard his dress as "strange"--and paints poorly-porportioned sports cars and tanks against monochomatic backgrounds receives praise for his vision. Jonah also becomes the primary competitor for the affections of Jerome's crush, Audrey. But like Jerome, Audrey seems to have little personality, other than being the art schol equivalent of the prom queen.

The film disappoints in part because Jerome is a relatively uninteresting character, a generic suburban kid who naively stumbles into the weird world of art school. Perhaps I'm too close to the jaded older student, Bardo (Joel Moore), wanting to make wisecracks from the back of the classroom--and yes, I'm a teacher--than I am to the ultra-sincere Jerome. In this context, I think A.O. Scott's read on Jerome makes sense:

In their previous collaboration, the near-perfect "Ghost World," Mr. Clowes and Mr. Zwigoff used adolescent misanthropy as both a method of analysis and an object of satire. Enid, their heroine, was mean-spirited but also clear-sighted, and she served as a sympathetic foil for the audience and the filmmakers alike. Jerome is a murkier, mopier character, and the movie grinds its gears, much as he does, between defiant romanticism and nasty cynicism.
Like Scott, I never quite got the sense that Clowes and Zwigoff knew what kind of film they were trying to make. In places, the film played like the prototypical PG-13 teen comedy, while in others, the film's cynicism--especially its cynicism towards the art world--was abundantly clear.

Posted by chuck at May 13, 2006 12:53 PM

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I too agree that Jerome's misery made us the viewers miserable too .. the whole thing was just too cynical to be funny or terribly entertaining

Posted by: Keith Demko at May 15, 2006 5:43 PM

I'm pretty jaded, so I would have welcomed the cynicism of Ghost World or even Bad Santa, but Jerome's character was far too bland for me, even if he becomes cynical about art school fairly quickly. Audrey was also a relatively uninteresting character. Just a disppointing film all around.

Posted by: Chuck at May 15, 2006 5:58 PM

Keith, I think your comparison bewteen ASC and John Waters' Pecker makes sense here. To be honest, I found Malkovich's character relatively problematic, particularly when the film plays into gay predator stereotypes, but his performance was fine. Mild spoiler, if anyone cares: I found the whole serial killer plot to be so absurd that I had a hard time taking Jim Broadbent's performance terribly seriously, which is a shame because I like him so much as an actor.

Posted by: Chuck at May 15, 2006 6:07 PM

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