Terry Zwigoff started off with the masterly documentary Crumb (1995) and followed up with the stunning Ghost World (2001), both anthems to outsiders and outsider art, in praise of post-Beatnik eccentricity and freakiness. Was he the Great Weird Hope of American cinema?
READ THE COMIC BOOK: Zwigoff's movie is a sour disappointment
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 intertwine, when aspiring painter Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) sets off for freshman year at an East Coast art college. A nice premise, and Ghost World author/cartoonist Daniel Clowes based the screenplay on his own experience at New York’s Pratt Institute. He got little good out of it, and Art School Confidential, as written and drawn, was his revenge.
Friends, read the comic book. Zwigoff’s movie is a sour disappointment, a callow, nasty, and downright unfair indictment of art school. Faculty, administrators, students, and graduates — almost every one 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 one another’s mediocre works as “humanist” so they’ll be flattered in turn. Art class is a cocoon of sophistry and bottom kissing. The school’s most renowned grad is a sleek Jeff Koons–style materialist who returns to his alma mater to brag about how much money he’s made.
How does Jerome relate to all this? Barely communicating with his peers, he obsesses over his lonely art, drawing old-fashioned nude portraits, the kind of work neither trendy students nor testy faculty appreciates. In the most touching scene, Jerome finds that he’s received an “A,” recognition at last for his budding talents! But he turns around to find that every other student has also gotten an “A,” because the teachers are too cowardly and lazy to do any evaluating.
The best of the faculty? An art historian played by Anjelica Huston in only two brief scenes. 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’s satirized gently, reasonably, is John Malkovich’s well-meaning but distracted Professor Sandford, 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 Sandford. “I was one of the first,” he can’t help but brag. Did I mention Audrey (Sophia Myles), the cliché’d love interest, who could be in any silly teen comedy? Did I mention a misanthropic serial-killer tale that’s grafted on to the art-school tale and takes it over? Sure, academe is filled with phonies, but, no, not everyone! What an unenlightened, hateful movie!