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Sunday
May072006

Art School Confidential

[National Review Online, May 5, 2006]

If they gave an Oscar for best film title, this one would surely swipe the statue. Fortunately, the movie that comes after the opening credits lives up to that promise. Screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff have collaborated before, on the 2001 cult favorite “Ghost World.” But this one, in spite of the hat-tip to classic “Confidential” films, is not so much noir as black, as in black comedy. It aims to do for capital-A Art what “Network” did for TV news.

The story begins with 6th-grade bully-bait Jerome Platz drawing a fantasy sketch of scatological revenge on the big kids who just beat him up. On career day he dresses in a beret and Frenchie striped shirt, and explains that he is impersonating Picasso, the greatest artist ever. “Six Years Later” we find high school senior Jerome (Max Minghella) looking over the college brochure for Strathmore, an arts institute. His main interest is still drawing, and he especially admires the photo of a blonde artist’s model.

As Jerome gazes at the idyllic photo of Strathmore’s main building, it dissolves to reality – the same building, but in a noisy, dirty corner of New York, with an abandoned sofa on the sidewalk next to a burned-out car. Students are crowding onto campus, past a “Welcome Freshmen!” sign, and as the opening titles roll a rousing Sousa-style march strikes up.

Since this is a movie about art, take a moment to think about the artistic choices in that opening sequence. It’s pretty inviting. It’s readily comprehensible. It’s blessedly free from self-conscious artiness, and doesn’t do that haughty-edgy thing. All this quickly contrasts with the art made by the characters in this film. Jerome’s roommate Vince is making a movie that is a cavalcade of angst-cliché (a girl twirling in the deep end of an empty swimming pool, a girl being doused with black paint). The hotshot in Jerome’s freshman class refuses to do assignments because he is “questioning the whole concept” (the professor says, “I’ll buy that”). He’s lauded for bringing in a scrap of cardboard adorned with a squirt of Silly String. Another student is praised for an image of a car that looks like a 13-year-old’s doodle (“It’s like he’s managed to unlearn everything they teach you in art school!” another student gushes).

Yet Jerome’s thoughtful, accurate portraits are regarded with contempt. His professor, Sandy (John Malkovich), is not much help. Sandy’s specialty is exceedingly simple paintings of triangles. (“How long have you been doing triangles?” Jerome asks politely. “A long time,” Sandy says with quiet pride. “I was one of the first.”)

What role models does he have, anyway? When the school’s most successful alumnus (Adam Scott) appears at an assembly, he’s unbearably smug and rude. A student asks, “Why are you such a [jerk]?,” and he grandly replies, “Because that is my true nature. I have found the freedom to express my true nature. And what is more beautiful than truth and freedom?” At this the audience erupts in cheers.

So one theme is a critique of the absurd state of Art, and Jerome’s attempts to discover whether he can make art that the powers-that-be approve. Of course, he meets and falls in love with the brochure’s blonde model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), then seems to lose her to another student. There’s a murder mystery afoot as well: the Strathmore Strangler is picking off victims on campus. However, police efforts to protect students are not merely thankless, but are greeted with angry protest. An artwork reads, “We are living in a police state!” When an arrest is made, a student snarls, “Have a nice death, pig.”

Angelica Huston appears in a small but appealing role as a professor; Steve Buscemi is unbilled, but takes on a noisier role as Broadway Bob, owner of a gallery-café and a self-appointed kingmaker. Jim Broadbent is powerful as another alumnus, a brooding artist in drunken decline, who presents Jerome with another way that an artist’s life can turn out. He “postpones suicide in the hopes that some pestilence will appear and the entire human species will be wiped out.” All these threads come together in a conclusion that gives a pointy jab to the self-regarding, self-validating Art establishment.

Which is, you might think, usually a conservative rather than a liberal theme. That would be true as well of the depiction of the students who call the police “pigs,” who don’t realize that being protected from a killer is not the same thing as living in a police state, as stupid and selfish. Yet these ideas are contained in a film that includes both male and female nudity, and an abundance of 4-letter words (almost to the self-mocking “Big Lebowski” extent). There was a similar odd mix of conservative ideas and very raw material in last year’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” (A friend told me, “If it wasn’t for the nudity and obscenity, it could have been made by Focus on the Family.”)

Not everything works great in “Art School Confidential.” Actress Sophia Myles is only 5 years older than Max Minghella, but here she seems 30 and he seems 17. The romance between them is less than palpable; she treats him fondly, like he’s her kid brother. The suspense that should gather around the Strathmore Strangler doesn’t. But as a wondering, skeptical, sharply observed portrait of Art School and Art Life, it’s terrific.

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