Art school isn’t really about learning technical skills; it’s about survival. You hang your heart on the wall, and your teachers and peers rip it to shreds. The theory is that if you can stand up after being beaten down for four years, you might be tough enough to make it outside.
The film Art School Confidential skewers the art world’s poseurs, blowhards, and sycophants. But the comedy is uneven, and the reviews have been scathing. My audience, at the art theater in Indianapolis, on opening night, who should have been sympathetic to the film, started out laughing, then tittered uncomfortably, then went silent. Often, they weren’t sure if they were even supposed to be laughing. But it succeeds on another level: as the best movie about young artists ever made.
One character says, "The main reason artists become artists is because it’s the only way they have to attract a mate." Jerome, played with believable naïveté by Anthony Minghella, is a freshman at fictional Strathmore College, an illustrator and a shy virgin. He chose Strathmore because he is obsessed by a photograph in the brochure of a beautiful nude model. He wants to become a famous artist, like his idol Picasso, so he can get laid whenever he wants.
"Is this art?" asks a teacher, showing a slide of a painting. How about a self-portrait of your genitals? Is that art? The question rings in students’ ears for four years. Another teacher, deftly played by John Malkovich, says, "I want to get something through your tiny little drug-addled brains: don’t have unrealistic expectations. Only one in one hundred of you will ever make a living as an artist." A degree from a private art school can cost over $100,000, qualifying you to become — a barista.
Jerome has two mentors. Sandy, the Malkovich character, teaches not by observing but by projecting. "What would someone your age want with a style?" he says. "You’re like me – you’re going to take 25 years to get where you’re going." Sandy’s style is so evolved he paints nothing but triangles.
Jerome is also influenced by Jimmy, a former Strathmore grad, now a soused misanthrope festering in a low-rent apartment. Strathmore kids visit Jimmy like a side show, hoping he’ll talk crazy — and he’s usually happy to oblige. Jim Broadbent plays him with bitterness that turns to scarily convincing hostility. Your laughter curdles in your throat, and you just want Jerome to run away before he starts to believe anything Jimmy is saying. This man is as deadly, and as contagious, as a disease.
Daniel Clowes, who wrote Art School Confidential , created the graphic novel Ghost World , also about young people finding their voice. His collaborator here, director Terry Zwigoff, directed a brilliant documentary about the artist R. Crumb, the darkly funny Bad Santa , and the screen adaptation of Clowes’ Ghost World . Clowes is an incisive observer; Zwigoff , less sure, still has courage, a love of troubled men, and a deep understanding of the pain of artists.
This is not a movie for everyone. The in-jokes may leave you cold. There is a subplot involving a serial killer that I liked, but many will not. But if you are an artist, or have one in your life, you will find here recognition – and this will be a movie to be treasured.
Art School Confidential is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.